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The Controversy Around Virginity Testing


We're going to turn now to a story that made all kinds of waves on social media last week. And here is where I feel I should say we're going to get into a level of detail about anatomy that some may find uncomfortable.

The story is this. The rapper and producer T.I. said in an interview with the host of the "Ladies Like Us" podcast that he has been taking his now 18-year-old daughter to her annual visit with her gynecologist every year to confirm that she's not sexually active. How would he confirm this? By insisting that the doctor determine whether her hymen is intact. It's a practice known as virginity testing, and it's a practice that has been widely condemned by medical professionals around the world, including the World Health Organization, as unscientific, medically meaningless and even abusive.

We wanted to learn more about this, including how widespread this practice remains, so we've called Sophia Jones. She's a senior editor and journalist with the Fuller Project. That's a nonprofit journalist organization reporting on global issues affecting women. She's written widely about this. And she's with us now from Istanbul, Turkey.

Sophia Jones, thank you so much for talking with us.

SOPHIA JONES: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, first of all, how widespread is this practice?

JONES: So that's a good question, and most people don't really know. So I started reporting on this about a year ago, when I was planning a trip to Afghanistan, where - virginity testing is widespread there. And I started asking researchers and physicians in the United States if they had ever heard of this happening in the U.S. And so I started asking that question - how common is this? Have you heard of this?

And it took a few months for people to really start to get back to me and to talk about this. They said that they were routinely asked to perform hymen exams to determine virginity, which is not scientific, and that they had occasionally actually performed the exams themselves or they had heard of colleagues performing them.

MARTIN: And, just to clarify for people who may not know, what exactly is the hymen? What function does it serve? Does it serve any biological function that we know?

JONES: The hymen is a thin piece of mucous membrane that can be found near the entrance of the vagina. It has no proven purpose whatsoever. Doctors and experts really don't know why the hymen exists. Some baby girls are born without a hymen. Many are born with a hymen. But it comes in many different shapes and sizes.

MARTIN: What in your reporting have you indicated has been the consequence of these kinds of tests on women? I mean, one of the things that you wrote about is that there are a number of women who have been subjected to these tests who have found it extremely traumatic for years afterwards. Could you just talk a little bit about what your reporting indicated around this?

JONES: It was really difficult to get women to open up and talk about this issue because it's incredibly private. And of the women that I did interview, there was a handful that had undergone this procedure as children, in their teen years around puberty. And all of them said that they found it incredibly traumatizing. And some said that they considered it to be sexual assault or rape.

MARTIN: One of the things that intrigued me is the fact that a doctor would participate in this when you've told us that there is no medical purpose to it. I mean, there is no medical purpose to it. So why would a doctor perform this test on a healthy person?

JONES: That's a really good question, and that's a question I've asked several dozen physicians and nurses and sexual assault nurses. And they say - they have a variety of different answers. Some just don't want to talk about the fact that they're performing these exams because it might be due to ignorance. Even in medical school, the hymen is not widely studied, and even among doctors that I interviewed in the States, there was sort of a lack of understanding around the hymen and the role that it plays or does not play in the female anatomy.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, I noted that this story about T.I., who's, you know, a very well-known figure - and I know a lot of people reacted with kind of horror and disgust when he was discussing this issue in this way - you know, so freely on a public forum. And I just wondered, how did you react to this as a person who's reported on this?

JONES: So I wasn't totally surprised. I was just surprised that about a week after I published this year-long investigation about virginity testing, and it was so difficult to find women and medical professionals to come forward and talk about this issue, that this story popped up in my news feed that T.I. was bringing his daughter to get her hymen checked. And it sort of blew up the story in a much bigger way and gave it a platform where people were actually discussing this issue - where before, before this investigation, I had not ever read a story about virginity testing in the U.S.

MARTIN: That was Sophia Jones, senior editor and journalist with the Fuller Project. It's a project that reports on issues affecting women and girls around the world.

Sophia Jones, thank you so much for talking to us today.

JONES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.