Four women arrested in the early months of 2014 for participating in anti-military protests in Egypt have come forward saying they were subjected to “virginity tests.” This practice was outlawed two years after Amnesty International made a report about 17 female protesters. They were arrested by the Egyptian government, handcuffed and beaten, strip-searched and photographed by male soldiers, and then restrained by female soldiers while a male doctor checked to see if they were still virgins.
According to CNN, in 2011 a senior general of the Egyptian military confirmed that these tests did in fact happen. The reasoning behind these “virginity tests” is to prevent the protesters from claiming that soldiers had raped them. Using these tests as an intimidation factor is not new,but the resumption of this practice has sparked fears of police brutality.
This is not the only example of a regression to policies that threaten the rights of women and their sexuality. Virginity is being used as a tool of degradation, sexual objectivity and control all over the world, including in the U.S. Even today, women are not given the same rights and protection as their male counterparts, especially when it comes to their own bodies.
In Africa and the Middle-East, a procedure known as female genital mutilation is generally used to both ensure a girl’s virginity before marriage and control her sexual experience. The procedure is surgical and can involve partial or total removal of female genitalia, specifically for non-medical reasons. They are subjected to extreme health risks.
Biologically, there is no actual definition of virginity. What is generally associated with virginity is an in-tact hymen (the thin membrane that partially or fully covers the vaginal canal) and most women are aware that this is not a fair indicator of sexual experience. Ultimately, there is no concrete way to examine a woman’s reproductive organs and determine if she has had sex.
“(These practices) are intended to perpetuate this myth of the desirability of virginity, which we call the ‘virgin myth’ in Women and Gender Studies,” said political science professor Dr. Aubrey Westfall. “In the specific case of virginity testing in Egypt, the intention was humiliating women. These practices are clearly different ways of sexualizing women by stating that value is in the woman’s virginity, they somehow lose their human rights.”
The myth of “purity” is not only dangerous in international cultures, but our own. The idea that being pure or a virgin makes a woman better than one that is sexually experienced exists in every corner of our culture, but especially in high school and college-age women.
“Female genital mutilation, virginity testing, honor killings; they’re all about women and sex,” said Westfall. “It’s using sexuality to control women and keep them in a subordinate position.”
“In American culture, as in other cultures, virginity is upheld as an aspiration mostly for girls,” said Professor of Women and Gender Studies Dr. Taryn Myers. “In America this idea has become commercialized with the existence of purity balls, where girls in white dresses dance with their fathers and pledge to remain virgins until marriage, sometimes at very young ages.”
Anti-abortion legislation has also been on the rise in the U.S. Such legislation makes it extremely difficult for women to have abortions performed legally.
“I think this is also an example of a patriarchal society trying to control women’s bodies,” said Westfall.
Whether it is being criticized for wearing clothing that shows a little leg or being bullied for having sex with several partners, women are constantly shamed for existing as sexual beings. “Slut-shaming,” another facet of the virginity myth, is a cultural practice that insinuates that when women are sexual they should feel guilty or inferior. This is not about being called a slut or whore, but shaming women when they aren’t conforming to patriarchal society’s standards for them.
“There is definite pressure for woman to remain pure and protect their virginity until marriage,” said Myers.”