The Indonesian army conducts "two-finger" virginity tests on its female recruits, Human Rights Watch reported this week. That is bullshit. Virginity tests have always been bullshit, but they are unfortunately common throughout history:
HISTORICAL TESTS PEOPLE HAVE USED FOR VIRGINITY
- In classical Greek times, girls who were virgins were supposed to have small, pink, upward-pointing nipples, historian Hanne Blank notes in her book, Virgin: The Untouched History. Sexual experience, on the other hand, was supposed to give girls dark, large, downward-pointing nipples.
- One medieval text, called De secretis mulierum, or Women's Secrets, described how to tell a virgin from her demeanor, and her, um, pee:
The signs of chastity are as follows: shame, modesty, fear, a faultless gait and speech, casting eyes down before men and the acts of men. Some women are so clever, however, that they know how to resist detection by these signs, and in this case a man should turn to their urine. The urine of virgins is clear and lucid, sometimes white, sometimes sparkling.... Corrupted women have a muddy urine.
- Medieval doctors sometimes determined virginity by comparing the circumference of girls' foreheads with the circumference of their necks.
- Here's another puzzling test from Virgin: The Untouched History:
In rural black communities of the American South, a folkloric tradition holds that a man can test the virginity of a woman by collecting some earwax on his fingertip, then pressing the fingertip to the woman's vulva. If this exposure to a man's earwax hurts her and she cries out, she is a virgin, her virginity capable of being 'burned' by any secretion from the body of a man.
- There's always the good ol' stained bedsheets check, of course. The belief that all virgin women bleed upon having penetrative sex has led to an entire sketchy industry catering to worried newlyweds.
It bears repeating that there is no more reliable test for virginity in women than there is in men. People's bodies, regardless of gender, do not magically change when they first have sex. Penetrative sex can alter people's hymens, but so can other activities. Even just doing nothing can change the hymen. Hymens sometimes change over time naturally.
HISTORICAL REASONS PEOPLE HAVE WANTED VIRGINS
What do people even want virgins for? Sometimes they want to marry them, but in recent times, people have sought to test virgins for other reasons too. Such is the case with the Indonesian government.
- For national security: In 1979, officials at London's Heathrow Airport conducted a virginity test on a 35-year-old Indian woman who was coming to England to marry her Indian-British fiancé. Officials suspected she was lying about her reasons for travel—and sought to prove whether she was "a bona fide virgin or fiancée." This was just one example of "fiancée tests" the British Foreign Office conducted throughout the 1970s, the Guardian reports.
- To save the state money: In 2003, Jamaican parliament member Ernie Smith proposed virginity tests for all Jamaican schoolgirls, to combat unplanned pregnancies. Critics countered that perhaps better solutions to unplanned children might be sex ed for students, and stricter prosecution of "the typically older men who take advantage of young girls," Duke University anthropologist Deborah Thomas writes in the Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology.
Cultures have long been obsessed with virginity, especially women's virginity. As Blank points out in Virgin, the earliest written records suggest the idea of virginity was already valuable by that time. We don't have any knowledge of what people were thinking when they first decided: "Virginity is important. We want to be able to check for it."
The most popular theory is that men developed the cultural baggage around chastity because they wanted to raise the chances that the children their wives bore were their own. (Of course, someone who is a virgin upon marriage can still have sex with other partners afterward.) Over time, the premium placed on virginity became a sign of a "successful patriarchy as a whole," Blank writes in her book—where men control the behavior and movement of women and children.
Human Rights Watch considers virginity testing to be "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment." It's all of those things, and ridiculous, and all far too deeply baked into human history. It's time to root virginity testing out, whether that means opposing the Indonesian military's practices, or undermining the modern myths about virginity that persist today.