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Testing Purity Testing

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the rapper T.I. and his annual trip to the OB/GYN in order to test her virginity. After news of the ritual broke, response was swift and unforgiving. So many people, celebrities, and doctors schooled T.I. on the absurdity of the test. Hymens break for a variety of reasons. Virginity is not really a thing — it’s a cultural value. Etc.

Now, in wake of T.I.’s hymengate, some states are proposing a ban on purity testing. In New York, Sen. Roxanne Persaud and Assemblywoman Michaelle Solanges have proposed S6879, which would impose “criminal sexual assault charges” against doctors who perform such tests, and would also impose “misconduct” charges against the doctor. While New York is the first to act, I suspect it will not be the last.

We’ll leave the question of whether or not such a law is enforceable alone for a sec. Is this law — and are laws like it — really effective? Can we legislate social change? Probably.

I’ve had this argument before. For example, do hate crime enhancements really work? Can we legislate a change in attitudes? And my response at the time was, “Yes, we can.” I have no doubt that having a hate crime enhancement will not stop every incident of bias and hate. I have little doubt that the process will be slow. However, I do believe that, over the next generation, they will think about hate crimes, about hate speech, and about racial animus in a different way. A whole generation will grow up knowing that it is a crime. They will grow up seeing and hearing about individuals who were convicted of hate crimes, and they will understand that it is not socially or legally acceptable. And if even some of them do not act on a belief or feeling, then it further changes society. It further marginalizes such acts.

Does the same apply to purity tests? Of course, the underlying factor in these cases is not whether they are legal, or not. The underlying factor is patriarchy and misogyny. The underlying issue is a sense of ownership. The real problem is toxic masculinity. Can we legislate toxic masculinity?

We’re already trying in some ways. Hate crime enhancements can apply to crimes committed against women. Furthermore, we have seen many toxic behaviors — groping, date rape, verbal harassment — already codified into law as unacceptable. Many behaviors once considered “men-being-men” have been criminalized. Has this legislation had any effect? Have numbers of these kinds of incidents diminished? Prior to the campaign and election of Trump, I would have said, “Yes.” Part of the issue here is that Trump has re-validated such misogyny and pushed back on it. But, yes, they were working.

Purity tests, however, operate a little differently. This is not public behavior. This is not taking place in a shared work space or a shared public sidewalk or subway. No, this takes place in the confines of a doctor’s office. If the doctor doesn’t report it, and if the parent or partner who wants the test performed doesn’t report it, then who will? The victim? The person subjected to this horror in the first place? Women already don’t want to report workplace harassment, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape; why would they come forward to report a purity test? Will they stand up to their father? Should we expect a 17-year-old or an 18-year-old to do so? What recourse do they have? Will they stand up to an abusive and controlling partner?

So, is a “purity test” law enforceable? Maybe not. But having the law on the books will stop some doctors from performing them. It just might give the doctor the will to do the next right thing.

Meanwhile, the negative attention that T.I. has garnered, and the positive discussions that have taken place around virginity are the beginning of a new normal.

Ritch Calvin is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. He is the author of Feminist Epistemology and Feminist Science Fiction and editor of a collection of essays on Gilmore Girls.

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