The rapper has given an interview in which he talked about taking his teenage daughter to a gynaecologist to “check her hymen”, leading her to unfollow him on Instagram. But TI’s remarks are also a reminder of just how shockingly prevalent virginity tests still are all around the world. This is not OK.
The day after Deyjah Harris’ 16th birthday, she found a post-it note affixed to her bedroom door: ‘Gyno. Tomorrow. 9:30.’
The note was written by her father, the rapper and actor TI – you might know him from Marvel’s Ant-Man movies, or from his collaborations with Destiny’s Child and Pharrell – a controversial figure in the music world who has twice served prison time. The note was a solemn reminder of what was awaiting her: a trip to the gynaecologist, accompanied by her father, to ensure that her hymen was still intact and, therefore, she remained a virgin.
TI opened up about this so-called ‘parenting practice’ on a podcast this week. To give him the benefit of the doubt, maybe he was joking. Certainly, the hosts of the podcast laughed when he suggested it. But then the rapper went into more detail, telling them how he has escorted his daughter to the doctor on multiple occasions for pelvic exams, and that he has circumvented any privacy that her daughter has about her own body and medical information in order to receive the results of her ‘virginity check’ himself.
Since TI made the remarks, Harris has unfollowed him on social media, as well as liking tweets that referred to his behaviour as “disgusting, possessive and controlling”. TI has responded in kind, also unfollowing his daughter on Instagram and Twitter.
Here’s a reminder of what TI said on that podcast: “We’ll go and sit down and the doctor will come and talk about the doctor’s maintaining a high level of professionalism. He’s like, ‘You know sir, I have to, in order to share information’ – I’m like, ‘Deyjah they want you to sign this so we can share information. Is there anything you would not want me to know? See doc? No problem.’”
“And so then they come and say, ‘Well I just want you to know that there are other ways besides sex that the hymen can be broken like bike riding, athletics, horseback riding and just other forms of athletic physical activity.’ So I say, ‘Look doc, she don’t ride no horses, she don’t ride no bike, she don’t play no sports. Just check the hymen please and give me back my results expeditiously.’”
Check the hymen please. Give me back my results. (TI added that, as of Deyjah’s 18th birthday, “her hymen is still intact”, which makes him happy because “Who wants a virgin? Like really? All that work”.)
The rapper’s comments, joking or otherwise, are appalling. But they also hint at the long, sorry and despicable history of men forcing women to undergo virginity tests in order to ascertain their value as humans. And they are a reminder that, in the year 2019 – two thousand and fucking 19! – the hymen is still a feminist issue.
How long have virginity tests been going on?
Virginity tests have been around as long as men have valued virgins, which is to say, forever. Historically, virginity was prized because it indicated that a woman was pure and, therefore, unsullied. In the court of Queen Elizabeth I, courtiers gossiped about nothing other than “whether [she] was a maid or no”.
As recently as 1980, a woman’s virginity was so imperative that it became a matter of national importance. We’re talking, of course, about the choice of Lady Diana Spencer as a bride for Prince Charles expressly because she was a virgin. “Purity seems to be a premium when it comes to discussing a possible bride for Prince Charles at the moment,” her uncle Lord Fermoy told The Daily Star in 1980. “Diana, I can assure you, has never had a lover.”
Historically, virginity tests have been conducted with spurious methodology. In Ancient Greece, virgins were believes to be women with “small, pink, upward-pointing nipples”, according to historian Hanne Blank. Later, virginity was ascertained by measuring head circumferences or, in the US, by holding a bit of earwax up to a woman’s vulva. “If this exposure to a man’s earwax hurts her and she cries out, she is a virgin,” Blank noted in her book Virgin: The Untouched History.
Today, the most prevalent and widely-conducted virginity test involves checking for an unbroken hymen, either with fingers – known as the ‘two-finger test’ – or instruments. And when we say prevalent, we mean it. The practice is so widespread that in 2018 the WHO called for governments to ban virginity tests, especially those carried out by police.
“Virginity testing is a violation of the human rights of girls and women,” the WHO wrote in a statement, noting that they had evidence that virginity testing was a commonplace practice in at least 20 countries around the world. “[It] has no scientific or clinical basis.”
Until 2018, women who “failed” a virginity test could face up to three months in prison. In 2011, during the Arab Spring protests in Egypt, women in prison were forced to undergo virginity tests as a form of torture and humiliation. In South Africa, some employers had a policy that forced women to undergo virginity tests – if they failed, they would not be hired. If you want to be a member of the police force in Indonesia, you have to pass a virginity test.
What virginity tests get wrong about the hymen
Dr Jen Gunter, author of the bestseller The Vagina Bible, has called TI’s comments “horrible on so many levels”. She shared a thread on Twitter where she attempted to correct some of the myths and misinformation about the hymen including, crucially, that it is an indicator of virginity in the first place
“The hymen is a left over collection of cells that typically partially occludes the vaginal opening,” Gunter wrote. Several mammals, including humans, dogs, cats and camels. “If this were for marriage/a social construct of virginity, then other mammals would not have them.”
She continued: “The hymen is like baby teeth. It served a biological purpose for a narrow developmental window and then when no longer needed is discarded… The hymen is no virginity indicator, 50% of sexually active teens do not have a disrupted hymen. The hymen is often very flexible.”
She added: “The hymen means nothing physically and hymen exams are medically not a thing and are unnecessary. And support a disgusting patriarchal trope.”
So if the hymen doesn’t ‘break’ and that having a hymen is no sign of virginity then we can only reach the conclusion that, as Gunter noted, virginity is a social construct. It is a meaningless concept, dreamt up by patriarchal societies that value ‘purity’ in women above all else, that equate sex with reproduction and not pleasure, and enforce these beliefs through practices like virginity tests. And in doing so, virginity is a way of controlling and discriminating against young women and girls.
The dark subtext behind TI’s comments
This is what makes TI’s comments so deeply, upsettingly problematic. They are a reminder that many people around the world – including successful, super-famous rap stars – believe that a woman’s value can be found in the sum total of her parts. They are a shocking wake-up call that the hymen is still a feminist issue.
As The Black Layers wrote on Twitter: “What TI has done to his daughter is rape culture. It’s the beginning of teaching black girls that they do not have agency over their own bodies. It’s also teaching sexual shame and repressing desire. Now all her sexual engagements must be secretive.”
She added: “A lot of men think they can make up for the patriarchal terror they inflicted on women by hyper-‘protecting’ their daughters. They don’t see how they’re only socially conditioning them for that same patriarchal order/terror… Sometimes that father daughter bond is just one long orientation into patriarchal order. They think they’re keeping you safe but so much of what they [do] only makes you ripe for exploitation.”
Though some governments have banned virginity testing, there is no codified set of global laws forbidding the practice. The WHO has evidence that at least 20 countries around the world have a documented and longstanding history of virginity testing, carried out by doctors, police officers and community leaders at the behest of employers, prospective partners – and parents.
Parents just like TI who, by the way, has two more daughters, one of whom is just three years old. When will she get the post-it note on the door telling her it’s time to follow her father to the gynaecologist’s office?