The Cult of Virginity Just Won’t Let Go

The battles over “virginity testing” and “virginity-restoration surgery” reveal the persistence of dangerous pseudoscience.

About the author: Helen Lewis is a London-based staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights.

Illustration of a flower with a lock.
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

In the Middle Ages, a royal bride would be inspected before her wedding night to make sure she was a virgo intacta—a virgin with an intact hymen covering the entrance to her vagina. “The Hymen is a membrane not altogether without blood,” wrote the 17th-century court obstetrician Louise Bourgeois. “In the middle it hath a little hole, through which the menses are voided. This at the first time of copulation is broken, which causes some pain, and gushing forth of some quantity of blood; which is an evident sign of virginity.”

In reality, some girls are born without a hymen, while others tear the membrane long before they have sex, most commonly by exercising or, today, by using tampons. Yet the demand for virginity testing—typically, a gynecological exam in which a doctor looks for the presence of a hymen—has proved surprisingly durable. In 1979, the British government performed one on a 35-year-old Indian woman who had traveled to London to get married, in order “to see whether she was, in fact, a bona fide virgin.” (The Guardian later revealed that immigration officials subjected more than 80 women to such tests from 1976 to 1979.) The Egyptian authorities used the pretext of virginity inspections to assault female protesters during the Arab Spring in 2011, and until July of this year the Indonesian military regularly performed such assessments not only on female recruits, but also on the fiancées of its male soldiers.

Today, the practice persists among some Muslims in Europe, Asia, and Africa; the Roma in Europe; and some Orthodox Jewish and Christian-fundamentalist communities in the United States. Two years ago, the American rapper T.I. claimed that he took his daughter for “yearly trips to the gynecologist to check her hymen. Yes, I go with her … I will say, as of her 18th birthday, her hymen is still intact.” He later said that the story had been sensationalized, that he had never been in the room when the examination happened, and that “there was never any objection” from her. His daughter Deyjah Harris, however, said that she felt she “couldn’t say no.”

This fall, Britain is poised to ban virginity tests—and will consider banning hymen-repair surgery too. That would be an impressive victory, because in an era that prioritizes novel and sensational issues, feminists find it hard to sustain interest in slow, incremental campaigns against harmful traditions. (Many people assume a practice that sounds this medieval must have been abolished by now.) A further complication is that virginity testing and hymen-repair surgery are practiced largely by members of religious and ethnic minorities, which makes many liberals nervous about criticizing those who demand the procedures. Women’s-rights advocates have also had to counter an insidious kind of political spin. Practitioners of virginity testing and hymen-repair surgery have tried to rebrand them in a neutral or even positive way: Many doctors’ websites present these procedures not as outdated patriarchal methods of enforcing purity, but as empowering—rejuvenating forms of self-care, like plumping your lips or getting a face-lift.

Virginity tests are not just degrading—they are also useless. The World Health Organization is clear: “There is no scientific merit to, or clinical indication for ‘virginity testing’ or to a ‘virginity examination.’” In addition to hymen inspections, the other main method is the “two-finger test” to check the tightness of the vagina. These tests are much more invasive, but equally pointless.

That’s why the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government recently committed to making virginity tests illegal. Richard Holden, a young Conservative member of Parliament, has proposed an amendment criminalizing the practice in a bill likely to pass sometime this autumn. Holden heard about the issue on a youth-oriented radio show, and took it on because he was so surprised that such testing was still legal. (“When I spoke to colleagues, it hadn’t hit people’s radars,” he told me.) He found 21 clinics offering the procedure in the United Kingdom, charging up to £300 ($410) for a virginity certificate. In the United States, meanwhile, a 2016 survey of 300 gynecologists found that 10.1 percent had had at least one patient request a virginity test in the previous 12 months, and 3.5 percent had performed such a test.

The participation of doctors gives the procedure a veneer of legitimacy. Families would once demand to see blood-stained sheets the morning after a wedding, or send a girl to a midwife for a two-finger test, Diana Nammi, the founder of the London-based Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organization (IKWRO), told me, but now “they modernize it, sending a woman before the wedding night to a clinic.” (Over Zoom, she dropped heavy air quotes around the word modernize.) Aneeta Prem, the founder of the women’s-rights group Freedom Charity, told me that virginity testing has become part of a “package” demanded by families in arranged marriages: “It isn’t just the photograph, it isn’t just the education [or that] she can cook this or that dish. But also she’s a virgin and here’s the proof.”

Though the British government appears poised to prohibit virginity testing, its response to Holden’s proposal to ban so-called virginity-repair surgery as well has been more lukewarm. Like virginity testing, hymenoplasty is pure pseudoscience: A 2012 study by Dutch researchers found that 17 out of 19 women who’d had the surgery still did not bleed on their wedding night. Sometimes, there are no remnants of a hymen left to reconstruct, so surgeons instead create an artificial one using skin from the vaginal wall. Hymenoplasty, Holden told me, is a form of female genital mutilation. “This is a fraudulent medical practice,” he said. “We wouldn’t let people say there are elves living in their hair. If there’s no medical validity for it, why the hell are we allowing it?”

And yet cosmetic surgeries are difficult to ban if demand exists for them. Hymenoplasty is a widely advertised procedure in North America and Europe, usually performed as outpatient surgery under local or general anesthesia at a cost of about $4,000. It is carried out by more than a dozen clinics on London’s Harley Street, the traditional home of British medicine, as well as by surgeons across the United States and Canada.

Doctors who advertise the procedure—or defend carrying it out—use the faux-feminist language of choice and empowerment. “By providing this service,” one doctor in Britain told Sky News this summer, “we open the door to women who want to seek this treatment and give them options. It is not up to me or the government, the option is there.” Two years ago, a New York doctor who performs hymenoplasties—including on girls under 18 with parental consent—told an interviewer that his office was a “safe space” for girls and women.

Yet many of the women asking for hymenoplasty do so because they fear for their life. In 2002, 16-year-old Heshu Jones, from the Kurdish community of West London, was murdered by her father after allegedly failing a virginity test. Her father slit her throat and then jumped off a balcony in an attempt to kill himself. He then claimed that al-Qaeda members had broken into their flat before finally admitting the crime. The murder was the first to be recognized as an “honor killing” in Britain.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Aneeta Prem has seen a 40 percent increase in calls to the Freedom Charity hotline, as school and business shutdowns have made other sources of emotional support inaccessible. Some of those women call to ask for help raising the money for surgery. “One girl asked us to pay for hymenoplasty for her,” she said. “It was £3,000.” When Prem refused, the girl told her that she would have to become a prostitute to raise the money, because her fiance’s family would kill her if they discovered that she was not a virgin. “I know girls that have said on their wedding night they will take fake blood, or take a razor into bed with them, just to bleed somewhere.” (After an outcry in India over “artificial-hymen pills” for sale on Amazon, the company withdrew them from sale in some countries. However, third-party sellers still list “hymen kits” containing fake-blood capsules on the U.S. site.) Though she was sympathetic to the girl’s situation, Prem believes that only a ban can curb the obsession with virginity that drives honor-based violence.

Opponents of virginity testing and virginity repair in the U.K. face two obstacles. The first is the fear that any ban will drive the practice underground—or, more likely, abroad. That’s why women’s-rights advocates want the legislation to be written to criminalize taking a girl overseas for surgery. Rather than tolerate the procedure on British soil, Diana Nammi from IKWRO is adamant that the only answer is to destroy the cult of virginity. “We have to delete it, to make it history,” she told me. Her organization sees virginity testing as part of a wider cultural fixation on “honor.”

The campaigns manager at IKWRO is 33-year-old Payzee Mahmod, whose sister Banaz was killed in London on the orders of her family because she left her abusive, forced marriage. (Mahmod’s father and uncle were convicted of the murder in 2007, along with three other men.) Growing up in Iran, Mahmod told me, she was warned not to play roughly, or ride a bicycle, or even sit the wrong way in case she accidentally tore her hymen, “this thing that was to be really, really protected.” She now campaigns against child marriage and forced marriage, as well as honor killings and virginity testing.

The second obstacle is the liberal fear of giving ammunition to racists and xenophobes who opportunistically comment on forced marriage, female genital mutilation, and other practices to bolster a narrative of white, Western supremacy. Grassroots campaigners have little time for such squeamishness. “This is violence against women,” Nammi said. “It shouldn’t be respected or tolerated. It is a crime.” She notes that the practice is not confined to Muslim communities, but is also carried out by some Jews and Christians. Richard Holden knows that some people will question a white conservative man championing the rights of women in minority communities, but he is unfazed. “There are fears of cultural sensitivities, and 25 years ago, things were different,” he said. “What it took was a generation of young female activists from those communities … to be a different voice.”

Virginity testing has no place in the modern world. It is a form of violence that normalizes further violence against women by upholding the idea that sexual behavior is a matter of family reputation or public debate. Virginity-repair surgery is a form of violence too. Surgeons should not be able to buy speedboats and fancy cars on the profits of a quack procedure with no medical benefits. There is nothing prejudiced about opposing both practices. The time to ban them is long overdue.