By MARINA VILLENEUVE
New York could ban intrusive tests aimed at determining virginity in response to the controversial remarks made recently by the rapper T.I. that he has a gynecologist check his daughter’s hymen annually.
Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages said Tuesday the bill she submitted last month would prohibit medical professionals from performing or supervising such examinations, though it’s unclear how common they are in the U.S. New York would also consider it sexual assault when such tests are performed outside of a medical setting.
“It’s medically unnecessary,” the Democrat said. “It’s often painful, humiliating, traumatic. All in all, it’s a form of violence against women.”
Her bill has attracted support from three Democratic lawmakers, and Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration officials called the practice “disturbing.” Solages said no other states have such bans.
The World Health Organization, U.N. Women and the U.N. Human Rights office called for the end of the tests worldwide last year. They said the testing often involves inspecting the hymen or inserting fingers into the vagina.
T.I., also known as Clifford Joseph Harris, Jr., drew criticism when he said in a November episode of the podcast “Ladies like Us” that he asked a gynecologist to check his teenage daughter’s hymen shortly after her birthday each year. She is now 18.
“I put a sticky note on the door: ‘Gyno. Tomorrow. 9:30,’” Harris said.
After his comments prompted backlash on social media, he told Jada Pinkett Smith on the Facebook interview show Red Table Talk he’d been exaggerating and that “he was never in any exam room.”
Phone and email messages were left with Harris’ publicist Tuesday.
Experts say such testing is painful and that there’s no evidence such testing shows whether a woman or girl has had vaginal intercourse.
“There is no test that can tell you whether someone had intercourse, whether consensually or non-consensually,” Ranit Mishori, professor of family medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine and senior medical adviser for Physicians for Human Rights.
Mishori said there’s a mistaken belief that you can tell whether someone’s had vaginal intercourse from a tear in a hymen, which can also tear from tampons or physical activity. Some women lack a hymen, a membrane that partly covers vaginas and can also change as a girl matures due to hormonal change.
“It’s of course not only impossible to tell for sure, but also a violation of woman’s rights,” said retired obstetrician-gynecologist Jaana Rehnstorm, who is the founder and president of gender equality non-profit The Kota Alliance.
Such testing stems from cultural concerns about a woman’s “purity” or “marriageability,” Mishori said.
“If a women is not a ‘virgin,’ her prospects of being married, her prospects of securing a family, her prospects of being thought of as an upstanding citizen can go down the drain,” she said. ”But these are very sexist ideas about women and sexuality.”
But criminalizing the practice is “misguided,” Mishori said.
“I think the solution is we have to think about education, we have to think about changing social norms,” she said. “We have to think about breaking down stigma and educating not only the patients in front of us but the family members and community members.”
“I think unfortunately, if you ban it or if you criminalize it, it will drive it underground,” she said.
Such examinations have been documented in at least 20 countries. The extent of whether they are performed in the U.S. is unclear, though Mishori said that physicians have shared anecdotes of patients and parents requesting such testing.
“This happens in different communities — not just migrant or immigrant communities, but also maybe very, very religious communities,” she said.
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists President Ted Anderson has said the organization does not have guidance on so-called virginity testing. “As a medical organization, ACOG releases guidance on medically indicated and valid procedures,” he said in a statement.
Solages called the practice “barbaric” and based on the idea that women are men’s property. She said just one instance, such as T.I.’s, of such an examination happening is enough for a ban.
“Whether he was being serious or he was being sarcastic, he brought to the limelight that this is happening in the U.S.,” she said.