I have some exciting news for US rapper TI’s daughter: there is no way to tell if a vagina has ever had a penis inside it by medically examining it. Despite this medical truth, TI recently told the podcast Ladies Like Us of how he talks to his daughter about sex: “Not only have we had the conversation, we have yearly trips to the gynaecologist to check her hymen. Yes, I go with her … I will say, as of her 18th birthday, her hymen is still intact.”
For many centuries, a woman’s virginity was seen as her most valuable commodity, and preserving it her most important mission. Because a woman’s virginity was so valuable to men, people felt they needed a way of proving it. So, long ago, some bright spark decided that a random bit of tissue that sits just inside the entrance to a woman’s vagina would act as proof that his daughter was definitely a virgin. This idea spread far and wide – so much so that many cultures have an ancient tradition of holding up the bedsheet of a newly married couple to show the wife’s blood, to “prove” she was a virgin. In medieval times there was even advice about how to fake this blood if you weren’t a virgin. It involved leeches, obviously.
What most people don’t know is that the hymen has a hole in it – how else would substances like period blood come out? Another little-known fact is that this hole is stretchy enough to fit a whole penis through. And if you do break your hymen, it heals, just like every other flap of tissue in your body. Many women, of course, do bleed during their first time, and think this is because they’ve broken their hymen. But in reality, this bleeding is usually caused by friction burns – for a number of reasons, many women aren’t wet enough for comfortable penetration on their first time, so they bleed from friction.
This isn’t new information: scientists have been refuting the use of the hymen as proof of virginity for a long time. For these reasons, any doctor who actually agrees to carry out one of these tests is putting someone else through an uncomfortable, completely inconclusive and highly unnecessary medical procedure. The World Health Organization agrees, stating last year that not only are these tests pointless and prove nothing, but are also a “painful, humiliating and traumatic practice”.
Fathers like TI might argue that they are only doing it because they love their daughters, because they don’t think their daughters are ready for sex before the age of 18, and that they are trying to protect them. But if TI does want to make sure his daughter has a happy sex life, he’s doing a few things wrong. What girls and all young people need to hear is that virginity is a heteronormative, patriarchal and unscientific social construct, not a physical thing between your legs. If there is such a thing as virginity, then you arguably have many “virginities”: your first kiss, your first wank, your first hand job – all of these virginities can be as important or exciting as the first time you are vaginially penetrated by a penis, if that is something you ever choose to do.
Sex can and should be amazingly fun, not something to fear. Of course parents should warn young people that sex can end in pregnancy, unwanted infections, heartbreak and emotional pain. But they shouldn’t tell them to expect physical pain from sex, that vaginas are sacred things with a limited amount of entry tickets. The act of sex can result in the highest pleasure, and respect, consent and communication should be prioritised over abstinence, or the arbitrary number of people you do it with.
We can’t protect our children from everything, but we can empower them to know their own wants and needs, so they can figure out when they are ready to have sex. I hope future generations don’t see “losing their virginity” as a precious commodity, but rather just another one of life’s great pleasures.
• Flo Perry is the author of How to Have Feminist Sex, published by Particular Books