T.I., virginity checks and what fathers don't understand about girls' #MeToo experiences

Keeping girls safe has to include keeping them healthy and in charge of their own bodies. Purity tests and other age-old patriarchal parenting tactics do the opposite.
BET Awards 2019 - Roaming Show
T.I. speaks onstage at the 2019 BET Awards at Microsoft Theater on June 23, 2019 in Los Angeles.Paras Griffin / Getty Images file
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By Soraya Chemaly, author of "Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger"

In November, during a segment of a podcast called “Ladies Like Us,” the rapper T.I. revealed that he accompanies his 18-year-old daughter to her annual OB-GYN exam to makes sure her hymen is “intact.” In other words, he said he takes her for a virginity test.

At the most basic level, virginity testing is a painful procedure with no scientific basis. It is also a human rights violation, an idea that would surely surprise many parents concerned with their daughter’s safety. When the rapper's comments elicited public outrage and concern for his daughter, T.I. appeared on Jada Pinkett Smith’s popular talk show, Red Table Talk, where he publicly apologized to his daughter — but also claimed that he was joking. Most people weren’t laughing.

Policy aside, T.I. has highlighted a damaging and yet relatively common cultural phenomenon: Fathers who harm their daughters while claiming to want to protect them.

In the wake of T.I.’s comments, identical bills filed in the New York state Senate and Assembly seek to ban "licensed medical practitioners from performing or supervising virginity examinations and subjects any medical practitioner who does perform or supervise such performance to professional misconduct penalties as well as possible criminal charges." This is probably a smart political move. But policy aside, T.I. has highlighted a damaging and yet relatively common cultural phenomenon: fathers who harm their daughters while claiming to want to protect them.

Any parent of daughters understands T.I.’s stated desire to keep her safe, as he put it, from men who “defile and destroy.” The types of sexual harassment she has undoubtedly already endured as a young black woman were erased, however, by her father’s need to know and proclaim — the point of virginity tests — that he hasn’t raised a “bad girl” and is a good father for protecting her.

Notably missing in his estimation, and in most media coverage, is how his daughter actually feels or what she believes. She has exercised agency over her privacy, but any anger, pain or humiliation that she may have experienced in the course of a virginity test, or in the fall-out of its public exposure, has not been a priority.

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Too few fathers are forced, as T.I, was, to consider how adhering to patriarchal masculine ideals can materially hurt their daughters. In fact, fathers have powerful psychological motivations to avoid serious consideration of their daughters' actual lives, instead focusing on their own ego.

My father was a case in point. The summer I was 16, my father and I drove to work together every morning. During our commute, we listened to music, regaled each other with stories and wolfed down a quick breakfast. One morning, I walked into our kitchen wearing a button-down shirt, pants, a belt, low heels and a little makeup. To me, nothing about my appearance was unprofessional. He angrily insisted that I change immediately. We sat in silence the entire ride.

As an adult, I now realize that from his perspective, I went to bed looking like a girl, but walked into the kitchen looking like a woman. I was excited to dress for work, but he worried my mature outfit would invite unwanted attention. And almost certainly, my appearance was a reminder to my father that he could not, in fact, protect me from predatory men.

Mainly, though, my father didn’t understand what it meant to be a girl.

Almost certainly, my appearance was a reminder to my father that he could not, in fact, protect me from predatory men.

At 16, I had already spent years navigating persistent sexual harassment and threats. At 9, an older boy threatened to rape me in a schoolyard. Walking anywhere meant dodging a gauntlet of men commenting on my body or demanding sexual acts. I was 11 or 12 the first time I was followed in a car by a group of boys and 15 when a man grabbed me on a busy street. Harassment took place at school and even in supposedly “safe” places, like neighborhood parties or family gatherings. Threatening men, decades older, were described in these situations, as “harmlessly flirting.”

These experiences make me average. Surveys suggest as many as one in 10 American girls is harassed before age 11. By 17, that number is closer to 85 percent. By 18, a quarter of American girls will experience some type of sexual violence. The risk of harassment, abuse or assault is far higher for black and indigenous girls, girls of color and gender nonconforming, lesbian or trans girls.

Sexual double standards and safety rules based on purity ideals, like virginity tests, are stunningly detached from these realities and their effects. Researchers have long recognized the traumatic consequences of unwanted sexual advances, which include anxiety, increased self-surveillance and hypervigilance. And yet when girls display these symptoms, they can be dismissed as difficult, moody or hormonal.

Indeed, men consistently doubt girls and women’s stories of sexism, gender bias, harassment and assault and their harms. Studies show that men, particularly if they are gender traditionalists, are more likely to endorse rape myths, blaming victims and exaggerating claims that women lie. According to one national 2018 study, more than 80 percent of American women have experienced sexual harassment — yet an Ipso Mori study that year found that American men estimate it’s just 44 percent of women.

For young black girls, coming forward, even to parents, is further complicated by considerations of the systemic harms of racism. Racial stereotypes such as a prevalent “adultification” bias that leads people to think of black children as less innocent and in need of nurturing is another important factor.

By adhering to traditional, patriarchal standards of family and sexual identity, fathers exacerbate these harms. Protective rules that belie girls’ actual experiences can alienate daughters, who may feel responsible for their harassment or assault. Additionally, rules that ignore or dismiss what is actually happening to girls don’t allow for open and productive conversations.

In my case, my father and I had a strong, if sometimes combative, relationship, yet I never told him about my experiences. Telling him what was going on would have resulted in more restrictions on me, an undesirable outcome. I was also sometimes concerned for his safety if he chose to defend me in a way that could lead to violence. But even if I had talked about it, societal norms have long minimized and even trivialized behavior that women and girls find abusive. Catcalling, for example, was up until recently widely considered a normal result of men’s uncontrollable urges, urges that girls are supposed to work around and even find flattering.

Fathers who develop honest, open and supportive relationships with their maturing daughters have enormous influence over their well-being, but fathers need to listen to their daughters and believe them when they speak. No father can personally safeguard his daughter, and many men struggle to acknowledge threats that girls encounter.

Keeping girls safe has to include keeping them healthy and in charge of their own bodies. Purity tests and other age-old patriarchal parenting tactics do the opposite. To be legitimate, protecting girls has to go beyond masculine posturing and honor. This requires that men interrogate deep-seated male ideals and entitlements and hold boys and other men accountable for predatory behavior. It is possible to embody masculine virtues and identity in ways that don’t deny girls’ rights or experiences, perpetuating structural inequalities. Virginity tests have never been one of them.