Last Tuesday rapper T.I. disclosed that he annually accompanies his 19-year-old daughter, Deyjah Harris, to her gynecologist for hymen checks on the podcast Ladies Like Us, which has since been deleted. The internet quickly clapped back condemning the archaic and invasive practice. Deyjah liked comments on Twitter describing the practice as “controlling” “disgusting” and “possessive” and subsequently unfollowed her father and other family members on Instagram. Among the responses was a reminder from Planned Parenthood that the hymen can be broken in numerous ways such as during vigorous exercise, riding a bike, using tampons, and etc. In fact, not all women are born with a hymen. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists indicates that, “the presence or absence of a hymen does not indicate ‘virginity’”.
T.I.’s virginal obsession plays into a long history of the cult of virginity. First coined by Jessica Valenti in 2009, the cult of virginity describes the conflation of women’s sexuality with morality. Historically, the myth of virginity as an indicator of purity has been rooted in male ownership of female-identified bodies. Spanning from the idolization of the Virgin Mary to the vilification of Queen Elizabeth I of England, patriarchs upheld the cult of virginity by tying it to property, hereditary bloodlines, and monetary value. To ensure paternity husbands valued virgin wives as a means to secure their bloodline and placed high dowries on their bodies as an investment of their union. The hymen test was created as a procedure to ascertain the virginity of potential brides.
The parameters that define and regulate virginity are socially constructed ways to control and limit the agency of women’s bodies. The cult of virginity succeeds by institutionalizing a dichotomy that categorizes women as either pure virgins or impure harlots. Women’s bodies become a site of conquest – either your virginity is taken or lost. T.I.’s argument for hymen checks falls into this paradigm where a woman’s body is merely an extension of her male guardian. The commodification and surveillance of women’s bodies is unfortunately nothing new. Up until 2013, India allowed a two-finger test to determine the validity of rape survivor’s disclosures. In regions of the country of Georgia the tradition of Yenge is still practiced, where a bloodstained sheet on the wedding night is used as proof of virginity.
Throughout history and extending to today, the myth of virginity has been entrenched in a violent patriarchy that asserts dominance over women’s bodies. In American culture there is a dissonance between overtly using women’s sexuality in advertising to benefit a capitalist system while simultaneously upholding Christian purity values that punish female sexual freedoms. Virginity is treated as a state of being rather than a personal experience and our collective obsession with it speaks to the hypervisibility of women’s bodies in a world filtered through the male gaze. T.I.’s perverse preoccupation with his daughter’s virginity and the need to prove it is not only medically unethical, as confirmed by the World Health Organization, but also the audacity to share her private medical and sexual information nationally highlights a fundamental lack of consent.
Movements for sexual liberation, dating back to the 1960s, continue to educate us on consent, privacy, and a woman’s right to choose, decentering antiquated ideologies that uplift patriarchy and heteronormativity. It becomes our collective responsibility to dispel harmful practices, such as hymen tests, and rewrite the narratives about virginity, consent, and autonomy.