During a recent episode of the "Ladies Like Us" podcast with actress Nazanin Mandi and makeup artist Nadia Moham, rapper T.I. opened up about the extreme lengths he goes to to ensure that his young adult daughter isn’t having sex. In addition to the sex talk the hosts were asking about, T.I. noted that he mandates yearly visits to the gynecologist for his 18-year-old daughter, during which he requires her physician to examine her hymen and let him know if it's still enact. (Although the podcast episode appears to have been taken offline, the Madame Noire piece that first reported on it is still up.)
There are a number of reasons to be disturbed by T.I.’s disclosure. It’s wildly inappropriate — and borderline abusive — for a father to monitor the state of his daughter's sexual anatomy in such a fashion. And in many states, T.I.’s demands for private information about his teen daughter's health would push up against confidentiality laws that guarantee young people access to reproductive health care without parental consent or knowledge. (T.I. told the hosts that he coerced his daughter in front of the doctor to waive her rights to confidentiality: "I’m like, ‘[Daughter], they want you to sign this…so we can share information. Is there anything you would not want me to know?’ ‘See doc? No problem.’”)
But even setting aside those deeply troubling components of T.I.’s treatment of his eldest daughter, and what his now 3-year-old can expect after her 16th birthday (when T.I. said he ordered his eldest's first exam), there’s a more basic reason to take issue with the virginity tests to which these and many other young women are subjected. Namely, the very premise of examining a hymen to ensure that a woman has never had sex is based far more in men’s desires to control women’s bodies than it is in any actual fact.
Despite its reputation as something like a vaginal freshness seal, the hymen is, in actuality, just some scraps of tissue that are left over after the vagina is developed in utero. There is no one standard hymen: Some are thick and difficult to penetrate, others are so fragile they disintegrate all on their own, and some hymens have one hole while others have several. Many, or even most, people are aware that the hymen can be damaged without intercourse ever occurring, including during gynecological exams — a fact the doctor in question reportedly tried to explain to T.I., to no avail.
He told the hosts that he dismissed the science: "So I said, ‘Look, doc, she don’t ride no horses, she don’t ride no bikes, she don’t play no sports. Just check the hymen, please. And give me back my results expeditiously.'” But it’s also true that some hymens remain fully intact even after sex: There have been documented cases of hymens that stretched to accommodate not just penile penetration but the birth of a child — and even hymens that, once damaged, have managed to grow back.
But what the hymen lacks in biological basis, it more than makes up for in its historical connection to the control of women’s bodies. The reason we’re aware of the physical hymen (as opposed to women's tendency to bleed the first time they have sex, which has been all but required of them as "proof" of virginity going back centuries) is because men — and one man in particular, the 16th century Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius — were convinced that their thirst for a foolproof method of separating virgins from their sexually active peers meant that there had to be one. When Vesalius discovered some scraps of flesh around the vaginal opening during the dissection of the corpses of two female virgins, he figured he’d struck gold.
And centuries later, the myth of the meaning of the hymen remains intact.
In subjecting his teenage daughter to annual hymen inspections, regardless of their scientific validity or her humiliation, T.I. joins a long line of men who’ve exerted control over the women in their lives by demanding access to and control of what lies between their legs — in his own podcast last week, T.I. already explained to his wife that he felt that half of her vagina belonged to him ("that little sex box you got is half mine"). And he joins a long line of people who conflate who a woman is with what her genitals look like. It’s a sad and sorry legacy, and one for which women are still paying the cost.
During those mandated visits to the gynecologist, T.I. isn’t actually learning anything of value about his daughter's sexual desires, history or even her body. But his daughter is learning a great deal about how her worth as a person can be reduced to little more than a scrap of flesh between her legs — and that men feeling entitled to monitor and control every aspect of her intimate lives is a normal act of love, rather than an abusive demonstration of power.