Hi friends! You may have heard of something called virginity testing, but today we are going to bust the myth. Virginity testing is an assessment done by some medical professionals to assess whether a female has ever had sexual intercourse or been sexually abused by looking at an anatomical structure called the hymen. However, research shows that virginity testing is not an accurate test. According to the World Health Organization, virginity tests are a form of sexual violence. They are not only harmful to individuals but as societies can promote discrimination as well as lead to violence against women (Moussaoui, 2022).
First, what is the hymen? The hymen is a membranous tissue that surrounds the opening to the vagina—it comes in many shapes and sizes Moussaoui, 2022). The hymen has no known biological function (Mishori, 2019). The hymen often ruptures in the first few days of life, but it may remain as a rim of a membrane around the vaginal opening or it may remain as a membrane with one or more small openings that partially cover the vagina (Mishori, 2019).
The hymen rarely covers the vaginal opening completely. When it does, this is termed an imperforate hymen and is often only discovered during puberty when an individual has either amenorrhea (absence of a period) or hematocolpos (menstrual flow trapped inside the vaginal canal) (Mishori, 2019). There are some documented cases of females born without a hymen altogether (Mishori, 2019).
The hymen is affected by hormonal changes in the body and may become thin, dry, and smooth-edged in girls before puberty. As girls enter puberty, the hormonal changes can cause thickening of the hymen and make it more elastic to allow for penetration without leaving any trace of injury (Moussaoui, 2022; Mishouri, 2019).
Virginity testing aims to look at the appearance and size of the hymen to determine if the female has had sexual intercourse; however, examination of the hymen is not an accurate or reliable test of sexual activity (Mishori, 2019). Studies show that most children and adolescents who have had consensual intercourse or sexual abuse have no identifiable changes to the hymenal tissue when compared to those who have not had sexual intercourse (Moussaoui, 2022; Mishouri, 2019). If a hymenal injury was caused by intercourse, this could be difficult to detect afterwards because most hymenal injuries heal completely within a few days without any scarring (Moussaoui, 2022; Mishouri, 2019).
Another factor that makes virginity testing unreliable is some medical providers have difficulty finding the hymen. In fact, one study showed that out of a group of pediatricians only 64% were able to correctly identify the hymen in pictures (Moussaoui, 2022). This may be because the hymen serves no biological purpose and does not require medical treatment.
In addition to virginity testing females can be subject to unnecessary surgeries of the hymen. A surgical procedure called a hymenoplasty is sometimes performed in attempt to reduce the size of its opening to produce bleeding on the wedding night to show the bride has never had sexual intercourse (Moussaoui, 2022).
One of the challenges of this is that only half all women bleed with their first vaginal intercourse. Alternative “tricks” have been documented to mimic blood loss at first intercourse such as pricking a finger to produce blood that can be spread on the sheets, inserting a capsule of red dye into the vagina, and manipulating oral contraceptives or scheduling a wedding around menstruation to produce bleeding.
False ideas about the hymen and virginity continue to persist among societies because of lack of education (Moussaoui, 2022). While some avoid educating children on sex education in fear of encouraging sexual behavior, evidence suggests that sexual education and communication between parents and children are associated with a delay in sexual activity (Moussaoui, 2022).
It's important to educate children not only about sexual intercourse but to also educated them on the anatomy of their bodies. Evidence supports that children comfortable with the correct terminology of their genitalia are less vulnerable to sexual abuse and more likely to disclose any potential event (Moussaoui, 2022).
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Written by Emily Reul, PT, DPT
Mishori et al. The little tissue that couldn’t—dispelling myths about the hymen’s role in determining sexual history and assault. Reprod Health. 2019;16:74.
Moussaoui D, Abdulcadir J, Yaron M. Hymen and virginity: what every paediatrician should know. J Paediatr Child Health. 2022;58:382-387.