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Image / Editorial

Are ‘virginity checks’ even possible? An Irish medical expert weighs in on rapper T.I’s disturbing claim

by Erin Lindsay
07th Nov 2019

Dr Shirley McQuade, medical director of the Well Woman Centre, says virginity tests are scientifically dubious.

The revelation that rapper T.I accompanies his daughter to annual doctor’s visits to have her hymen examined has prompted widespread disgust on social media.

Speaking on the US podcast Ladies Like Us, T.I was asked about his approach to sex education for his children. He replied: “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.”

The comments have since been edited out of the podcast.

The rapper’s remarks were met with outrage from listeners and health organisations alike. The U.S-based sexual health non-profit Planned Parenthood tweeted: “Idk who needs to hear this but virginity is a made-up social construct, and it has absolutely nothing to do with your hymen … Some people think you can tell if someone’s had sex before if their hymen is stretched open. But that’s not the case.”

The culture in Ireland

Unfortunately, there is still a culture of confusion and shame around virginity among many young women and girls, including here in Ireland. Some women believe that hymens are ‘broken’ the first time they have penetrative sex, and that the presence of a hymen is a definite indicator that a woman is still a virgin.

We spoke to the medical director of the Well Woman Centre, Dr. Shirley McQuade, to ask about so-called ‘virginity checks’, and whether T.I’s methods of sexual education are credible.

Hymens and sex

Dr McQuade, who trained in hospitals in Dublin, Belfast, Scotland and England before qualifying as a GP, said she has never been asked to check if someone has had sex or not based on the appearance of the hymen. “I don’t think it’s possible,” she added.

“Every woman’s hymen looks different,” she explained. “The hymen doesn’t cover the whole entrance to the vagina. It’s a fringe of tissue and there is a gap there – there has to be. There are so many variations on the structure that you couldn’t – I certainly couldn’t – say that somebody had or hadn’t had sex.”

Women rarely have a completely intact hymen, she added.

“An intact hymen would mean that no menstrual blood could be released and that is a rare congenital abnormality that is normally diagnosed soon after cycles start in teenagers.

“Some girls are born without a hymen. And even if they had a fairly intact hymen, it does break a little bit in childhood during normal activities like running around, playing and cycling.

“Taking all that into consideration, I would definitely not be able to say with any certainty that somebody had or hadn’t had intercourse before,” she concluded.

Restoring a hymen

Some women and girls look into ‘hymen restoration surgery’ before getting married, in order to appear as a virgin for their husband. “There are particular religious groups where having been a virgin when you get married is an important thing and I have had someone ask me about hymenoplasty — repairing the hymen before getting married,” Dr McQuade explained.

Overzealous parenting

She added that she has never encountered a father as involved in his daughter’s sexual health as T.I and says his behaviour is highly unusual. “Teenagers should have their privacy respected. It’s a difficult topic because parents, of course, want to look after their children, but [T.I’s daughter] is 18 and she should be allowed to have her own private life.

“Oftentimes, I’ll see a 16-year-old with their mum and the mum might come into the room initially for moral support as much as anything else. But she has no objections to me talking to her teenager by herself. She’ll say, ‘I’ll now leave you to have a chat to my daughter about this – and that’s a very normal approach. But it has never been about whether the hymen is intact or not.”

In 2018, the World Health Organisation, UN Human Rights and UN Women all condemned ‘hymen checks’ such as these, calling them “medically unnecessary, and oftentimes painful, humiliating and traumatic.”

Read more: ‘New legislation still doesn’t recognise me as the mother of my children’

Read more: The concept of consent is a ‘complex issue’

Read more: Katie Hill case highlights how revenge porn continues to punish and control women