Journalism

A Test With No Answer: Why Are American Doctors Performing Virginity Tests?

This article was originally published in Marie Claire on October 30th, 2019, by Fuller Project Correspondent Sophia Jones.

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Twenty-two-year-old anatomist Andreas Vesalius stood over the limp body of an 18-year-old Belgian noblewoman. A tight corset constricted her torso; she died from an ailment of the lungs, it seemed. But Vesalius, fresh out of medical school in Paris, wasn’t interested in what killed her. He wanted to study something far more controversial: her hymen.

It was the year 1536, and the hymen—a membranous tissue found near the entrance of the vagina—had never been detailed in medical texts. Instead, it was steeped in legend. The notion of purity and chastity determined whether or not women were eligible for marriage and if they even deserved to live.

Not all virgins have hymens, Vesalius later wrote in a groundbreaking book about human anatomy (which included one of the first relatively correct anatomical descriptions of the hymen). But Vesalius would get something crucial wrong: A so-called “intact” hymen, he wrote, was “proof of praiseworthy virginity.”

Nearly 500 years later, this myth remains pervasive around the world. The obsession with women’s virginity isn’t found only in places like Iraq, Indonesia, South Africa, and Afghanistan (a country where premarital sex is a criminal offense). Across the United States, too, emergency-room physicians, gynecologists, sexual-assault nurses, and family doctors report being asked to perform, or performing, “virginity tests”—sham exams in which two fingers or a speculum are inserted into the vagina in search of the hymen or to measure the elasticity of the vaginal walls, neither of which can demonstrate whether or not someone has had intercourse.

“So-called virginity testing is nothing more than an assault on young women with no scientific or medical basis,” says Jonah Bruno, director of communications at the New York State Department of Health. And yet, girls and women are suffering from the fears and consequences of “failing” a virginity test and grappling with the aftermath of being forced to undergo such an invasive exam.

It’s “rape by instrument,” says B, a now-31-year-old woman who asked to be identified by her first initial only because of the blowback she might get from her family. Twenty years after what she calls an “extraordinarily traumatic” forced hymen exam, B is still working with a therapist to cope with the ordeal that drastically changed how she saw herself, her body, and her sexuality.

Read the full article here.

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