Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

The 'Virginity' Myth


Time to read

3 Minutes

Since 2020, Karma Nirvana, the Middle Eastern Women and Society Organisation (MEWSo) and the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO) each developed and led their own campaigns to ban virginity testing and hymenoplasty which have been carried out in British clinics upon girls and women against their will. Together, these national charities have urged the government to recognise both practices as forms of violence against women and girls.

Virginity is a patriarchal curation of intangible female self-worth attached to the hymen that can—apparently—be intact, given or taken away but never all at once. The hymen should be defined distinctly from virginity because they are not the same one thing. However, they both cohabit under a shared impression of one meaning about the value of a girl or woman: one that captures her honour, respectability, purity, and marriageability. Supposedly, virginity is the ideology while the presence of a clearly intact hymen affirms the so-called physical proof of the ideology. The responsibility for the maintenance of virginity is imposed upon girls and women only. It is a life-threatening situation for a girl or woman when her virginity status is called into doubt. If a girl or woman is found to have lost her virginity or suspected of engaging in sexual relations, she is at worst at risk to being murdered by her own family for unjustly being deemed to have sullied her familial honour. And so, many girls and women are burdened with the expectation to undergo invasive procedures that they are told will prove and repair their virginity.

A virginity test involves a healthcare professional either visually inspecting the existence of a patient’s hymen or a healthcare professional inserting two of their own fingers into the patient’s vagina to check for the presence of the patient’s hymen. It is an uncomfortably intimate examination, and the experience has been described as degrading and painful and leaves the patient feeling traumatised. Following a negative result from a virginity test, some women and girls face some pressure to correct a fault that was not ever their own. They might then elect—or rather they are coerced into electing—to undergo a hymenoplasty. A hymenoplasty is a form of female genital cosmetic surgery that is performed to achieve the reconstruction of the hymen. This can be done by stitching what is left of the patient’s hymen together or by creating a new hymen from the patient’s vaginal tissue. If a bride does not bleed from her newly repaired hymen at the point of intercourse, she will then be discovered to be a liar – a fake, and she might be seriously harmed or ostracised by those in her community.

But there is a huge misconception about hymens in general. We might often think of a hymen as a full coverage lid that is sensitive at breach. But in actuality:

  • Not all women are born with a hymen.
  • Hymens are thin and flexible membranes, which means that hymens can change structure and shape across a woman’s lifetime. It also means that hymens can break or rupture during non-sexual activities, like inserting a tampon or riding a horse.
  • Hymens are bloodless, which means that not all women are going to bleed at ‘the very first’ coitus. Vaginal bleeding might occur for several different reasons, but the breaking of the hymen is not a cause of it.  

What then proves virginity? Nothing. Can virginity be repaired? No. In other words, ‘there is no scientific method to definitively prove [or repair] a woman's [and a girl’s] virginity’ because virginity does not exist. When girls and women undergo a virginity test or a hymenoplasty, are healthcare professional’s properly informing them about the medical illegitimacy underpinning these interventions? Probably not. That means that healthcare professionals who perform virginity tests and/or hymenoplasties are doing so with little respect for the patient and without the patient’s informed consent. Furthermore, the Montgomery v Lanarkshire Health Board [2015] decision tells us that healthcare professionals must disclose all reasonable alternatives to the medical intervention being offered to the patient. But as mentioned earlier, there are no reasonable and safe alternatives to repairing or proving virginity. Thus, virginity tests and hymenoplasties are not only harmful, but also unscientific—a sham.

The efforts of the charities’ campaigning to make virginity testing and hymenoplasty illegal had been so significant that together they brought a woman’s issue—one that has been for so long hidden and forced victims to remain silent – before Parliament quickly. Virginity testing and hymenoplasty have very recently both been banned under the Health and Care Act 2022. We must remember that virginity is nothing more than a myth that attempts to shame and control girl’s and women’s sexuality and bodies.

To learn more about the legal and ethical implications of virginity testing and hymenoplasty see my chapter ‘Chapter 6: The British Campaign to Ban Virginity Testing and Hymenoplasty’ in The Routledge International Handbook of Harmful Cultural Practices (2023) (edited by R. Jesmin, T. L. von Gleichen, M. Jaschok and C. Momoh).