The only way to know whether or not someone has had sex is to ask.
There are no physical examinations or tests that can reveal whether or not a person has had sex before. No, not even so-called “virginity tests.”
Ahead, learn more about the unethical, medically imprecise, traumatizing practice of virginity testing. This includes what it involves and what to do if someone tries to get you tested.
Put simply, virginity testing is the practice of trying to determine whether a person with a vagina has engaged in penetrative vaginal sex. It’s usually done via a pelvic exam.
Sometimes these exams involve the examiner visually inspecting the vagina for evidence of an intact hymen. Other times it involves inserting a finger into the vaginal canal to feel for changes in the vagina. The latter test is sometimes known as a “two-finger test.”
Both of these tests are done under the medically inaccurate thought that you can “tell” if a person with a vagina has had penetrative sex by touching or looking at their genitals.
Who the examiner is generally depends on where in the world you are, as well as who has requested the test. Often, the examiner is a doctor, police officer, or community leader.
According to the
World Health Organization(WHO), “There is no evidence that either method can prove whether a woman or girl has had vaginal intercourse or not.”
The word virginity is, itself, rooted in misogyny and cissexism. It’s often accompanied by the words “lost” or “taken.”
These phrases suggest that having sex results in a person with a vagina losing something, or becoming “less whole” as a result. But this isn’t accurate!
“A first sexual experience is simply a new experience,” says Erica Smith, sex educator and creator of The Purity Culture Dropout™️ Program.
“This idea of virginity places undue emphasis on a state of sexual purity for women, which leads to seeing women and girls as sexual gatekeepers,” explains Smith.
Many sexuality professionals, Smith included, prefer the term “sexual debut” to “virginity.”
According to Smith, “it’s a phrase that’s been in use in public health for a long time because it acknowledges that a person’s first sexual experience may not be penis-i- vagina intercourse and that sex can be a lot more than that.”
You might wonder whether sex can physically alter the body — if so, know that the answer is complicated.
Depending on the type of sex had, as well as the barriers used (if any), sex can lead to pregnancy or STI transmission. Both of these things can physically alter the body.
(However, it’s worth remembering most STIs don’t result in physical symptoms, so it’s possible to have an STI even if your body hasn’t been noticeably altered).
Pregnancy and STIs aside, sex rarely results in physical changes.
Despite what you may have heard, penetrative vaginal sex doesn’t involve someone “popping their cherry” or “breaking their hymen.”
An often misunderstood part of the body, the hymen is a thin tissue that surrounds — and sometimes partially covers — most vaginal openings.
Usually, individuals who are born with the hymen partially or fully covering the vaginal opening stretch, tear, or puncture this tissue long before the first time they have sex, explains Felice Gersh, MD, author of “PCOS SOS: A Gynecologist’s Lifeline To Naturally Restore Your Rhythms, Hormones and Happiness.”
Sometimes this happens naturally as the tissue gradually thins. Other times, the hymen is torn through things like horseback riding, tampon insertion, or fingering during masturbation.
Because of this, the state of the hymen isn’t a reliable or feasible indication of whether a person with a vagina has ever engaged in penetrative vaginal sex, says Gersh.
For the record: The hymen isn’t visible to the average human eye. “Whether it’s intact or not, you won’t be able to see your own hymen or someone else’s by looking between their legs,” she says.
The fact that an intact hymen doesn’t indicate whether someone has had penetrative vaginal sex hasn’t kept the practice of virginity testing at bay.
The practice has been done in various cultures, religions, and societies that associate virginity with purity, virtuosity, honor, or worthiness. Specifically, the virginity of women and girls.
Similar tests for cisgender men and other people with a penis do not exist.
To this day virginity testing is still done in a number of countries.
These countries include, but are not limited to, the following:
- United States
- South Africa
The punishment for “failing” the test varies country-to-country, but jail is sometimes possible. In other places, the consequences include things such as social ostracization, widespread humiliation, loss of social status, and more.
As such, it should be no surprise that a number of “virginity kits” are available for purchase on the internet.
Exactly as they sound, these kits are designed to create the illusion that a person with a vagina has an intact hymen.
Some contain prosthetic membranes that can be inserted into the vaginal canal ahead of sexual activity to create the physical sensation some cis men and other individuals with a penis wrongly associate with puncturing the hymen.
Other kits contain dye packets and powders that are designed to stain the sheets with “blood.” (While it’s not true, there’s a widespread belief that “real virgins” bleed the first time they have sex).
Virginity testing is a violation of a person’s bodily autonomy and human rights.
The WHO goes as far as to call virginity testing medically unnecessary, painful, humiliating, traumatizing, and a form of violence.
Virginity testing can be especially traumatic for survivors of sexual assault, who can be re-traumatized by being touched and examined against their will.
It’s common for virginity testing to lead to mental and emotional health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress.
To be very clear: You should never have to prove or explain your sexual history to anyone. Your worthiness and honor are not linked with how many times you have had sex of any kind.
How you choose to respond if an authority figure, parent, or (potential) partner asks you to undergo virginity testing will vary on a variety of factors such as:
- Where you are located, and what the laws around virginity testing are
- How your safety will be impacted if you refuse one of these tests or “fail” them
- Whether this individual has shown other instances of heterosexism and misogyny
If you feel comfortable — and can do so without putting your safety in jeopardy — you might take the time to explain that this testing isn’t ethical or medically accurate.
- “Would you be open to reading an article about why this kind of testing is inaccurate?”
- “You can take my word that I haven’t had sex with anyone before. Would you be open to talking with me about why you’re unable to take my word for it?”
- “I understand why you think virginity testing is effective, but the World Health Organization has come out and said it is not. Can I read you the press release they put out on the topic?”
If you don’t think that you can safely explain that virginity testing isn’t accurate, consider reaching out to someone else in your life for support. This could be a trusted family member, mentor, or friend who you know shares similar political and social values as yourself.
Being forced to undergo virginity testing against your will is a form of sexual assault. If you suspect this could happen to you, consider calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673 for support.
Depending on how much your loved one knows about virginity testing, you may take time to help them understand why this kind of testing is accurate. Sending them an article like this one, for example, could be a good start.
It may also be helpful to encourage your loved one to do things that help them feel like agents in their own life and sexual pleasure. For example, you might encourage them to take dancing lessons, self-defense classes, or even to masturbate.
Finally, help them access safe spaces — and exit unsafe spaces and dynamics — as needed. That could mean inviting them to stay with you for the time being, helping them access a women’s shelter, or helping them file a police report if necessary.
Virginity repair is a medical procedure that involves a surgeon stitching a perforated hymen back together, or creating a hymen-esque structure by suturing together skin inside the vaginal canal.
Also known as hymen repair, hymenoplasty, or revirginization, virginity repair is never medically necessary. It’s cosmetic, elective surgery.
Some people elect to have this surgery because they’re concerned about a partner or parent learning that their hymen isn’t intact.
If you have an easy time digesting documents ripe with medical lingo, you might choose to read this 2020 study or
You might also be interested in learning about purity culture. “Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free” by Linda Kay Klein and the work of Erica Smith are good places to start.
Gabrielle Kassel is a New York-based sex and wellness writer and CrossFit Level 1 Trainer. She’s become a morning person, tested over 200 vibrators, and eaten, drunk, and brushed with charcoal — all in the name of journalism. In her free time, she can be found reading self-help books and romance novels, bench-pressing, or pole dancing. Follow her on Instagram.