Patriarchy v/s Science: The Flawed Concept of Virginity

Graphic by Tejal Kawachi

Having grown up in a small town, raised by a family with very collectivistic and orthodox mindsets, I was always groomed to not do anything that would “spoil” the name of the highest patriarch in my extended family line, however, my male cousins were not. It began at an early age with getting lesser allowances than my male cousins, not being allowed to play outside late, and then eventually moved onto more eyebrow-raising commands like “don’t wear shorts or tight-fitting clothes”, to “you can’t have your male friends over, what will everyone say”. All these norms had seemed vague to me and every time I had asked for a rationale, I was given the justification of “humare yaha yeh sab nahi maante hai” (the society we live in doesn’t accept all of this).

And then when I grew older and was off to attend college across the country, I was very subtly told by my mother to not do “anything with anyone” that would spoil the family name. And then I realized that for generations and across communities of the world, women have been subjected to this very crucial task — the task of being a virgin. Because a virgin woman is a “pure woman” and will not bring shame to her family or community. What about men, you ask? There has never been any such protocol for men because they have always been assigned the task of taking away the bodily autonomy of women, thereby taking away their power. Then follows the task of making sure that the women under them haven’t “slipped” by attributing honor and purity to their state of virginity or at the lack thereof, inflicting shame upon them. The problem can be traced back to the patriarchal societies of the world which devised a careful method of never letting women realize their potential social and bodily power. And so, passed down from generations, still exists the practice of virginity testing.

Virginity testing is essentially the process of determining whether a woman has engaged in sexual intercourse by judging the state of her hymen. Keeping aside the humiliating and traumatizing aspect of the same, let’s talk about how it is an inherently unreliable and un-scientific practice, to begin with.

The two most common types of virginity tests around the world are the Two-Finger Test (TFT) and the Proof by Blood tests. In a TFT, a medical practitioner or an older woman will insert two fingers into the woman’s vagina to check the laxity of her vaginal muscles to determine whether she is habituated to penetration. On the other hand, the Proof by Blood test is based on whether a new bride has bled during consummation. If she has, her hymen must have been intact until that time, thereby certifying her a virgin.

However, these tests are intrusive, exploitative, and humiliating first, and have been proved by thorough medical discourse and research over the years, to be subjective and unreliable. While the former test is based on the subjective understanding of the examiner, the latter focuses on the existence of the hymen and the misconception that it can only be torn as a result of sexual intercourse. In reality, penetration doesn’t always lead to the breaking of the hymen even if the woman is a virgin, and sometimes it can even break as a result of external physical exertions. In very rare cases, it has also been found that women have been born with no hymen.

The problems with these concepts also go beyond to a much greater level. To begin with, it establishes that sex is only meant to be penetrative, thereby perpetuating that only heterosexual intercourse is natural in societies that shun away homosexuality, to begin with. It also brainwashes women into thinking that penetration is the only way they can achieve sexual pleasure. This then leads to illiteracy regarding the existence and functionality of the clitoris. Secondly, these tests attribute the power of “taking away” a woman’s virginity to a man’s penis which only establishes the male gender as the more powerful one in a society that is inherently patriarchal. However, there exists no homemade or medical procedure to determine the virginity of a man which only reiterates to me that the concept of virginity is a social construct and its determination is just a tool devised to control womankind.

However, across the globe, certain communities still indulge in these procedures — often against the will of the women or on underage girls — with vague justifications such as “to control teen pregnancies” or “to stop the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases”. Some communities believe that women and girls are easier to control on these aspects than their male counterparts implying that sexual urges in men are natural and healthy but in a woman, they are whorish and wrong. This then leads to the formation of a very sex-negative mindset which ultimately doesn’t let women enjoy sexual activities, married or otherwise. In other communities, women are used for monetary gains with the justification that since the bride is “impure” because she hasn’t passed the virginity tests, her family is in debt to her in-laws for still accepting her. This ends up commodifying women and lays the foundation for them to be accepted when they are objectified in other situations.

Needless to say, all of these practices and perceptions around a woman’s virginity essentially boil down to one problem — the concept of virginity complex which is an obsession with owning and regulating a woman’s sexuality and by extension of this, controlling the authority she has over her own self and of the world around her.

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