Virginity testing is a hugely sensitive subject since it is not only related to sexual behavior of a person but is intrinsically associated with far more complex questions of gender, sexual politics, history, religion and culture. While folklore has several, and many of them bizarre, theories about how a girl should behave if she is still a virgin, modern proofs of virginity for girls centers around an intact hymen and gynecological examination. Nevertheless there's no way to know for sure if a girl is a virgin.
Historical perspective of Virginity testing
A person – whether a girl of boy – is said to be a virgin when he or she has not had sexual intercourse. Because of the patriarchal basis of most societies, the concept of virginity in girls came to be laden with notions of purity, honor and worth. According to patriarchal constructs of female identity, a woman is a man’s - her father’s or husband’s - possession who has the right to decide whom she can have sex with. Thus, the huge importance of virginity for women was one of the ways of gaining control of the sexual behavior of women. In traditional societies around the world like in Asia, Africa and Middle East, girls are still expected to remain virgins until marriage which is most often arranged by the elders of a family according to prevailing caste, religious and community principles. Even though women’s empowerment in the industrialized societies has reduced the importance of virginity among women, some pockets of these societies have witnesses a new wave of sexual abstinence among teenagers as evidenced by the popularity of chastity rings and purity bands.
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What exactly is a virginity test?
Today, virginity tests for girls depend on the presence of an intact hymen in her body. The hymen is a thin membrane that covers the opening of a girl’s vagina and usually tears upon the first sexual intercourse. Thus if a girl bleeds after an intercourse it is assumed that she was a virgin and likewise the absence of bleeding is construed as a sign that she has prior sexual experience. Virginity tests based on gynecological examination of a woman’s body also depends on the presence of an intact hymen for determining whether or not a girl has had prior sexual intercourse.
The problem with virginity tests centering on an intact hymen is that the membrane may break due to other causes too. Masturbation, intensive exercise or physical activities like horse-riding can cause the hymen to rupture. Thus a girl who has a broken hymen may be labeled sexually experienced when in fact she may never have had been touched by a man before.
Yet another problem associated with this kind of virginity test lies at the very heart of the concept of sex. What exactly constitutes sexual intercourse? Is a girl who has not had a vaginal intercourse but engaged in other forms of sexual behavior like oral intercourse or heavy sexual fondling still a virgin? There is great debate among educationists, the medical, legal and religious community on what exactly determines a sexual act since it varies from one culture and historical period to another
Since most virginity tests require a virgin to have an intact hymen, the reverse of the same logic can be used to declare sexually experienced women virgins by taking advantage of hymen reconstruction surgery. Known as hymenorrhaphy or hymenoplasty, this is a kind of cosmetic procedure which surgically restores the hymen in a woman’s body. The new hymen can be a membrane without blood supply like a gelatin capsule or a vaginal flap with blood supply and hence capable of bleeding after the next episode of vaginal sexual intercourse. This kind of surgery makes it even more difficult to determine virginity on the basis of an intact hymen.
Other kinds of virginity tests
Traditional methods of determining female virginity often depended on proof of unusual powers of a sexually pure woman. In the past, virgins were credited with performing miraculous tasks like taming wild animals, calming stinging swarms or holding water in a sieve. In Pliny the Elder’s History of the World there are recipes for preparing diuretic potions which were administered to girls as part of virginity tests. If the drinker could hold her urine after consuming or inhaling such preparations, she was declared a virgin. However over time the evidence of a bleeding hymen came to be considered the most acceptable form of virginity test and became quite common as part of marriage rites in almost all parts of the world.
Today in most advanced societies virginity tests are considered demeaning to a woman’s honor and thus a violation of human rights. The Amnesty International in fact lists virginity testing as a kind of violation against women since it equates a woman’s worth with an aspect of her body and because of the historical use of the notion of virginity as form of sexual control. However in many cultures the practice continues covertly or overtly as a way of increasing the worth of a girl before marriage. In several African countries the specter of AIDS has compelled community leaders to use virginity testing, rightly or wrongly, as a way of preventing teens from engaging in sexual behavior.
Recent trends of sexual abstinence vows among teenagers in developed societies recall the traditional construct of female virginity. While this contemporary concept ostensibly applies the idea of virginity to both sexes and thus escapes from the patriarchal notion of sexual control, it is still not without its problems. Adolescence health experts point out that when teenagers are taught that abstinence is the only way to sexual well-being, they are being denied useful knowledge of sexually transmitted diseases and planned pregnancy. Furthermore the notion of chastity varies from one movement to another. More conservative ones like the Silver Ring Thing forbid any kind of sexual contact between girls and boys but many teenagers secretly believe that vaginal intercourse is the only thing they are not allowed to engage in. Also such movements are very often couched in religious terms and this raises questions about their validity in an avowedly secular society.
The bottom-line seems to be that no single kind of virginity test is foolproof. So instead of looking for a partner who is technically a virgin, one might do better to accept a woman for who she is and for all the ways she can bring joy in another person’s life.