Virginity Tests

last updated June 2010

What Are Virginity Tests?
To varying degrees, the virginity of a bride is still considered a virtue in communities throughout the world. Virginity testing, the examination of the genitals as a way to determine sexual chastity, remains popular in communities that place a high premium on virginity for social, economic, and religious reasons.

Types of Virginity Tests
Virginity tests take various forms, many of which are without scientific support. Although physicians have noted the unreliability of this test, the most common test for female virginity is the presence of an intact hymen. It is widely believed that the hymen will break at first intercourse, causing bleeding. In Sri Lanka’s Sinhala community, the mother-in-law provides a white sheet on which the couple must consummate their marriage, and this sheet is to be presented to the in-laws for examination.
In India, common methods/customs used include:
  • Kukari ki Rasam, in which thread is used to detect the presence of a hymen.
  • Paani ki Deej (purity by water), in which a woman is expected to hold her breath under water while someone walks a hundred steps.
  • Agnipariksha (trial by fire), in which a bride walks with a red-hot iron in hand with only a plate made out of leaves and dough shielding her hands from the heat. 
Brides who fail the tests are beaten and forced to disclose the names of sexual partners, who are then required to pay the bride’s parents large sums of money.
Although virginity is an important attribute in many Muslim societies, virginity testing has been observed frequently in Turkey, where a virgin bride wears a red ribbon around her waist on her wedding day. It appears that in Turkey these tests are applied for a variety of social reasons including suspicions of adultery, sex between minors, lack of bleeding at consummation of marriage, and so on. 
In some parts of South Africa, virginity testing has reemerged as a response to concerns about the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Because women are disproportionately affected by HIV, virginity tests are disproportionately applied to girls and young women. Girls are tested via the examination of their hymen; “testers” also often believe they can determine if a person is a virgin through the innocence in the eyes, “taut breasts,” and the tightness of the muscles behind the knees. In response to charges that the practice was discriminatory because it was disproportionately applied to girls, communities began to test boys as well, albeit by different standards, among which are foreskin thickness and, sometimes, the ability to urinate over a three-foot high fence without the use of the hands, and so on.
Because of both the abuses and the unreliability of these tests, South Africa’s Commission on Gender Equality has condemned these tests. There is evidence, however, that other levels of government, such as the Kwa-Zulu Natal health department, support the practice, providing gloves to ensure sanitary genital inspections and education on reproductive anatomy.

Prevalence and Effects of Virginity Tests
The statistics on how many girls get tested remain sketchy. Researchers have found evidence that such tests increase violence against women, including those found to be virgins, as there is a widespread belief that men with HIV can be cured of their disease by having sexual intercourse with a virgin (Meel, 2003). Girls who fail these unreliable tests may be ostracized, labeled prostitutes, fined, or beaten by their parents.
It has been recently reported that virginity testing was been used as a tool of intimidation against female protestors in Egypt. However and for whatever reason virginity testing is practiced, it constitutes a clear violation of women’s and girls’ right to privacy and bodily integrity.
Amnesty International. (March 23, 2011). "Egyptian Women Protestors Forced to Take ‘Virginity Tests.’" 
George, E. (2008). "Virginity Testing and South Africa’s HIV/AIDS Crisis: Beyond Rights, Universalism and Cultural Relativism Toward Health Capabilities." California Law Review, 96, 1448-1514.
Meel, B.L. "The Myth of Child Rape as a Cure for HIV/AIDS in Transkei: A Case Report." 43 Med. Sci. Law 85, 85-86 (2003) (discussing anecdotal evidence of belief in the“Virgin Cleansing Myth” contributing to child rape and the case of a nine-year old raped by an HIV-positive man).
Ramatsekisa, T.G. (2010). "The ban on virginity testing." Journal of US-China Public Administration, 7(2), 66-72

Reproductive Health Outlook. (1997-2003). Harmful Health Traditional Practices
United Nations ESCAP. (n.d.). "Harmful traditional practices in three countries of South Asia: Culture, human rights, and violence against women." Gender and Development Discussion Paper Series No. 21.