Michelle Northcote doesn’t remember her paediatrician’s face, but she does remember the ceiling in his office. It was covered with large tiles probably made of foam or cork-board. Each tile was large and rectangular, an off-white color flecked with grey.
From the age of six to 13, Northcote spent a long time staring at it. Once a year, for the longest two minutes in history, she would force herself to concentrate on those tiles right after her doctor repeated the familiar phrase:
“And now, I have to check your hymen.”
Northcote (a pseudonym), is now 37, but “hymen checks” as proof of virginity are still happening across the US. It’s not clear exactly how common they are, since they are normally requested confidentially between a parent and a doctor. Quantifying their prevalence is therefore difficult, but a small 2017 study found that of 288 US obstetrician and gynaecologists who were asked, 45 (16%) had been asked at least once to perform virginity testing or virginity “restoration”. Thirteen of those doctors complied.
Northcote, a New Yorker, recalls the check being “like an awkward fingering”. She never really knew why it happened – her doctor never told her. She never even realized it wasn’t normal until a discussion with university friends years later. The look on their faces said everything when she shared her story – she immediately knew it shouldn’t have happened.
At first she assumed her doctor must have been a pervert. And then, after rapper TI disclosed last month that he forces his daughter to have her hymen checked every year to prove that she is a virgin, Northcote had to reconsider those visits and what they meant.
“I realized that my mother must have been asking for them, to see if I was a virgin,” says Northcote. She doesn’t know for sure – the relationship between the two is incredibly strained. But as a strictly conservative catholic who was obsessed with virginity, it seems about right.
Her mother’s obsession with her virginity started when she was six, and continued until she was a teenager. One night, she dragged Northcote out of bed in the middle of the night to ask if she was having sex. She was so obsessed with her daughter having sex with men that she didn’t even realize that her daughter was in fact a lesbian.
Despite years of research dispelling the long-held myth surrounding the hymen – that it breaks after a woman’s first vaginal penetration – its power pertains.
Its power remains even after a study from 1906 showed that a sex-worker’s hymen was still intact – which should have been enough to dispel the myth. So too, should have been a 2004 study, which studied 36 pregnant women, 34 of which still had an intact hymen. Still, the myth is so compelling that people would rather believe in virgin pregnancies than facts.
The hymen, a fold of membrane at the vaginal opening, varies dramatically from woman to woman. In some women the hymen looks like a ring, in others it is crescent shaped. Some women have several holes, notches or clefts in their hymens, others have no hymen at all.
In a TED talk called the virginity fraud, doctors Nina Dølvik Brochmann and Ellen Støkken Dahl describe how the hymen is more like a scrunchie than a hole: “It’s very elastic – for a lot of women, elastic enough to handle vaginal intercourse without sustaining any damage.” For many women, it doesn’t break during sex. Its perforation is no sign of sexual activity, and the accompanying assumption that comes alongside it – that a virginal woman will bleed the first time she has sex – is little more than folklore.
And yet, every year, women undergo surgery to “restore” their hymens. Tens of thousands of women also order fake hymen kits every year – thousands of which are in the US. The fake hymen is placed in the vagina before intercourse and spurts blood during the act. One company, HymenShop, told the Guardian it sells the most kits in California and North Carolina.
Another Germany-based company, VirginiaCare, told the Guardian it sells thousands of kits across the US every year. Many of their customers, they say, call saying they need the fake hymen to protect themselves. Sometimes the women are virgins but want to make sure they bleed on their wedding night, fearing repercussions. Often, their partners know they plan to use the fake blood, but hitch a plan to deceive parents, who check their bedsheets after their wedding nights.
“A lot of girls tell us ‘My husband knows I’m going to use it – but we just need to be sure that there will be blood on the sheets after the wedding night’,” said Daniela Lindeman, a VirginiaCare spokesperson.
The company knows that neither blood nor a hymen are indicative of a woman’s virginity, but feel no moral obligation not to produce the product. Lindeman says that it’s not the hymen kit that perpetuates the myth – it’s that fact that people want to believe it.
“You will never get this out of their heads. That’s why the myth has been around for 2,000 years, that you need to be a virgin, and that you have to confirm it in this way,” she said.
Asked whether they feel a responsibility not to perpetuate lies, Lindeman says that they are providing a service: “We are just trying to help in any way and care about these girls or women. In the end, we are also saving their lives,” she said.
Dr Jennifer Gunter, a gynecologist and author of The Vagina Bible, says that “the patriarchy is invested in women holding women to biological standards that are impossible.”
That very system, she argues, ensures that women who are raped are not heard (hymen checks were, and still are, performed to determine sexual assault and rape); to mark a woman out as a man’s property, and to keep women in fear of enjoying sex.
“A woman who has blood stained sheets on her wedding night has sexual trauma. But this culture implies that, as long as a woman is traumatized during her first sexual experience, then that satisfies some sort of ritual,” says Gunter, adding:“It is so offensive. On a human level, and on a biological level.”
A systematic review on hymen checks summed up the incredibly harmful impacts of the practice. In one case, an examinee had her arms broken after she “failed” a test. In another case, the test resulted in suicide. Women scream, cry and faint during the tests, and reported self-hatred and loss of self-esteem following them.
The fear of it alone can have disastrous consequences.
Ashley Lee, 20, from Missouri, was threatened with a hymen check by her parents almost every year before she left home. It was a particular source of terror for her because she had been sexually abused by her brother’s friend when she was young.
“I worried I was going to get in trouble for something that wasn’t my fault. I felt like there’d be no one there to help me, like I’d be shamed what happened to me,” she said during a phone interview. “It made me feel like it was my fault.”
In an incredible cruel twist to the story, her parents knew about the abuse, and yet continued to hang the test over her head to make sure she never felt comfortable enough to have sex under their roof.
“They told me that a doctor would check my vagina and push on parts of my uterus to figure out whether I had sex or not. It terrified me,” says Lee.
It was enough to make her leave home aged 16, but the threat had long-lasting impacts. Perhaps contrary to what her parents intended, it made her value her body less, not more: “It made me feel like what’s between my legs is what makes me who I am, that it was my worth,” says Lee.
Medicine is a profession as vulnerable to dogma as any – particularly because of the lasting impact that outdated medical texts and a body of research that has historically focused on older white men continues to have. As Gunter puts it: “Some dude writes something in a textbook in the 1920s and its like, goddamnit – it sticks! You have a really hard time undoing it.”
For the medical culture to change, something else needs to go first: sexism. “You have to remember doctors are part of society – they are all subject to prejudices and religious beliefs just like normal people are subject to,” Gunter says. To put it bluntly: a medical degree is no guarantee against one doctor’s ignorance.
When Gunter was in medical school, the hymen – let alone the social constructs around virginity that surrounded it – was barely spoken about. When it was, it was from a male perspective. Female doctors, surrounded by men and the same “purity principles”, felt uncomfortable setting the record straight: “They’d teach that it hurts the first time women have sex, that you bleed. I’d be thinking – that’s not how I felt – but you couldn’t say that. Until recently, talking about the vagina and sex, it was just not done,” she says.
At present, it is not considered medical malpractice to perform a hymen examination – in fact, it’s completely legal. But one New York assemblywoman is hoping to make a tangible difference by changing the law.
Michaelle Solages’s bill hopes to take the question completely out of a doctor’s hands. If passed, it will ensure that virginity testing is banned; that any medical professional undertaking such a practice will face losing their license; and that if the examination is performed in the US, whether inside or outside the medical office, it should be constituted as sexual assault.
“This is an aggressive piece of legislation because as a modern society, we can’t stand for this abuse. And that’s what it is, abuse,” says Solages in a phone interview. She argues that the power that a doctor has over their patients, plus the fact that the examination is not fit for purpose, is proof that the procedure is abusive. The bill can’t be heard until at least January, when the house is back in legislative session, but Solages says interest in the bill has been huge.
Both Gunter and Solages hope that having more women around the table will mean real change. But in the meantime, there is a glaring double standard: there are no virginity tests for men. While Northcote and Lee were both brought up by parents invested in chastity, their brothers were never held to the same virginity standard.
Moreover, rather than encouraging women to be fierce protectors of their own bodies, “virginity testing” put them in harm’s way when it came to later sexual violence.
“I just always had this example, that people will take advantage of you if they can. Even if they are people who are meant to protect you, they don’t,” said Northcote.
For Lee, it took years for her to even begin to consider herself as a valuable human being. “It encourages this mindset that it’s OK for someone to control you, you can’t make your own choices because it’s all already decided for you,” she said.
Asked what she would tell parents who consider asking for the test today, she says: “I would say please, just do your research. You really don’t know that you might be ruining this child’s life instead of protecting them.”