This post originally appeared in USA Today.
American rapper and actor T.I. bragging on a podcast about subjecting his daughter to annual OB-GYN visits to determine whether her hymen is “still intact” has sparked widespread and deserved backlash. But as physicians, we know that T.I.’s outrageous actions are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the unscientific, archaic and degrading practice of so-called hymen checks or virginity tests.
Let’s dispel a tragically common myth right away — there is zero medical or scientific evidence that “hymen checks” can accurately or reliably determine whether a girl or woman has had sex. They are flagrant violations of the right to bodily autonomy.
Our team at Physicians for Human Rights recently pored over published research about the hymen from around the world. The reality is that many factors confound health professionals’ ability to accurately assess changes to the hymen, such as genetic, developmental, hormonal and external influences. Hymens come in many shapes and sizes — occasionally some women are born without one — and whether it is “intact” or not does not reflect one’s sexual experiences.
A painful, sexist, useless test
Sadly, T.I. is not alone in his misguided belief that he can somehow verify his daughter’s “purity” through these invasive tests. In the United States and around the world, people continue to embrace pseudoscience and subject too many girls and women to these demeaning exams.
And while some refer to this practice merely as a “check,” it can be very painful and uncomfortable, commonly involving a clinician inserting two fingers into the patient’s vagina. If done without consent, it can constitute sexual assault.
The prevalence and acceptance of “virginity testing” reinforce gender inequality and further entrench patriarchal views of female sexuality, anatomy and autonomy. Reliance on this flawed and harmful practice is detrimental to women’s and girls’ health, safety and standing in society. The World Health Organization has rightly condemned this practice as “a violation of the human rights of girls and women.”
As physicians, we are sometimes asked by patients and their family members or partners to perform these exams. Although exact numbers are hard to come by, one 2017 study of nearly 300 U.S.-based OB-GYNs found that about 10% reported having been asked to perform a “virginity test” in the past year, and 34% of those who were asked actually agreed to perform it.
We don’t know what has compelled these or other physicians to perform this exam, but we know there are many physicians who themselves are not educated about the anatomy of the hymen and the outsize role it plays in unequal gender norms.
Physicians must debunk health myths
Clinicians must develop an awareness of not only the scientific facts, but also of the complex interplay of the cultural forces and social norms shaping the life of the patient in front of them. They must consider the moral, professional, ethical and practical consequences of performing, or not performing, the requested evaluation.
This is where the nation’s leading medical associations can play a role. However, as we document in an upcoming article, as of October, there are no publicly accessible policies to guide members of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American College of Physicians or American Academy of Family Physicians, among other top medical organizations, about so-called virginity tests.
Health professionals lack clear guidance from the organizations that are supposed to support them in upholding their Hippocratic oath to “do no harm” and are left to navigate this ethical minefield on their own. These groups have a duty to patients and providers alike to offer science-based guidance and debunk the pervasive and destructive myths surrounding the hymen and its role in “virginity testing.”
T.I.’s comments are abhorrent, and his behavior exposes deeply rooted misconceptions about women and girls, their sexuality, anatomy, autonomy, privacy and role in society. We empathize with T.I.’s daughter, who had to endure the indignity of these tests in the first place and who now has been dragged into the center of a global news and social media controversy. She does not deserve this.
For her — and for the many others who are at risk of these harmful exams, from Atlanta to Afghanistan — let’s ensure we move beyond outrage. We must help to educate T.I. and the many others who still believe such myths — including doctors themselves.
Dr. Ranit Mishori is a professor of family medicine at the Georgetown University School of Medicine and senior medical adviser at Physicians for Human Rights. Follow her on Twitter: @ranitmd. Dr. Sondra Crosby is a professor of medicine at Boston University and an expert medical consultant for Physicians for Human Rights. Follow her on Twitter: @sondracrosby16.