By Corrin Bond
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definition of what it means to be pure is to be “unmixed with any other matter” or to be “clean and not harmful in any way”–– while there is slight variation between definitions, the root of the word remains the same. If the Latin root of the word “pure” means clean, it is assumed that anything which isn’t pure is inherently dirty–– a term that is essentially interpreted in the human mind as not good. This kind of terminology, when applied to sexuality, immediately paints sexual activity in a deviant light. If you’re not a virgin, or “pure”, then you’re “dirty” and according to society, dirty is bad. There’s a type of cross-cultural phenomenon where we covet the concept of physical purity and degrade females by placing a greater value on their bodies than on who they are as individuals. So much so, in fact, that certain countries are turning to performing forced virginity tests on women who apply to hold positions within the government or who are about to be married.
Although the concept of violating someone’s right to their own body is layers of disturbing, it’s a situation that a surprising number of women can relate to, as every day across the globe scores of women are subjected to forced virginity tests. These involuntary examinations are intrusive, painful, and often traumatic experiences for the women on which they are performed. The forced tests take place in a number of different places around the world, with an especially high prevalence in Egypt, Turkey, and Indonesia.
CNN reports that women who were engaging in anti-military protests in Egypt were not only detained by authorities, but they were then subjected to involuntary virginity checks. After first denying that the checks even occurred, the Egyptian government’s military general claimed that they administered the tests so that detainees could not later claim they were raped or sexually assaulted by a military officer. However, the true meaning of these tests, CNN’s Sharia Amin says, is to humiliate and terrorize female protestors.
Women in Indonesia are facing a similar problem, as female recruits looking to join the country’s police force are subjected to mandatory physical examinations which include two-finger “virginity tests.” According to The Guardian, the women who “fail” the examinations are not banned from being admitted to the force, but they still report that the experience alone is intrusive and traumatic. This is a tremendous problem––not only because such acts are blatant violations of basic human rights, but also because the notion of virginity is a subjective societal construct.
In her book, The Purity Myth, Jessica Valenti argues that placing such a high value on chastity and the concept of being physically “pure” is detrimental to young women. She also warns against the dangers of placing so much worth on one’s sexuality, especially because sexuality is subjective and the idea of purity or chastity is flawed, as there is no socially inclusive definition of what it means to be sexually “pure.”
Although many believe that purity is associated with virginity, there is really no succinct scientific definition of virginity. It is something which is medically impossible to test for in men, and almost impossible to test for in women. While the majority of people operate under the belief that an intact hymen is the mark of a virgin, contemporary science tells us that this isn’t true. According to Nolan Feeney of The Atlantic, the hymen isn’t a membrane that is always broken or that bleeds during intercourse. Rather, it’s a collection of mostly elastic mucous tissues that sometimes partially or wholly cover the vaginal opening. They don’t always tear when stretched, and some women are even born without a hymen completely.
Not only is virginity medically impossible to prove or disprove, but the definition of virginity is also too narrow to apply to every human being. Many consider the loss of virginity to be the first time engaging in penetrative sex, however, there are a number of people who engage in other sexual acts that don’t include penetration. There are also many people who engage in penetrative sex for the first time with inanimate objects. The definition also fails to address a vital question: penetration of where? The concept of virginity as having not experienced direct vaginal penetration by a penis is completely heteronormative, in that it does not take into account any other type of sexuality. As Melissa A. Fabello of Everyday Feminism argues, thinking of virginity as never having had sex is slipper because everyone defines sex in their own way. Since sex is such a personal and subjective experience, there is no succinct definition or mold under which the term “sexual intercourse” can truly fit.
There are definitely benefits to abstinence, in the same way that there are benefits to engaging in sexual activities. The key is that what someone does with their own body should not reflect their worth as a human being. As a society, we should begin to move away from perpetuating this socially constructed notion of virginity, and gravitate towards creating an environment in which it is normal to openly discuss the facts, benefits, and potential harms of any sexual activity.