The True Test of Young Women’s Worth: Virginity

Andrea Lynch

Virginity testing is on the rise as an HIV- and unwanted-pregnancy-prevention strategy in South Africa, but it's more about controlling women's sexuality than keeping them safe.

The BBC had an interesting article last week about the rise of virginity testing as an HIV- and unwanted-pregnancy-prevention strategy in South Africa, and it offers a nice opportunity for some reflections on virginity, self-worth, and the cultural politics of young women's sexuality—since, at the moment, girls are the only ones being tested. Supporters of the strategy, including several young women quoted in the article, argue that steering clear of sex gives young women a stronger sense of self-worth. The testing sessions—which involve discussions of "general sexuality," including how to deal with rape, but not including condoms—give girls an opportunity to meet and support each other in their efforts to avoid sex. Then everyone lines up for testing.

I'm all for girls coming together to support each other, and I'm all for young women making their own sexual decisions and feeling good about themselves. I'm also all for young women choosing to abstain from sex if they feel that is the best decision for them—abstinence is, after all, a sexual right, despite its fiercest advocates' contempt for the term. If virginity does it for you, then cool. But virginity—in most cases—is a transient state. We can't all be virgins forever. Most of us will spend the majority of our lives contending with some degree of sexual activity, whether for purposes of pleasure, necessity, reproduction, or some combination of the three. So valorizing virginity seems, at best, to be a shortsighted strategy: it's all well and good to feel good about yourself because you're a virgin, but what happens when you decide it's time to have sex, or worse yet, when someone else decides for you?

Which brings me to my next point. Although I'm glad to hear that rape is on the virginity testing workshop agenda, pardon me for being a little bit confused about how rape fits into a strategy that bases women's self-worth and social value on their ability to stay virgins, especially in a country with the highest per capita rate of rape in the world? Valorizing virginity (and the whole abstinence-only approach to HIV prevention, for that matter) rests on the assumption that women can choose when they will become sexually active. We know that this is often not the case. According to a 1999 UNAIDS report, in fact, 30 percent of girls in South Africa say that their first intercourse was forced. If women are taught to draw their self-worth from their virginity, does that mean that a girl who has been raped is less valuable than a girl who hasn't been? And mightn't she already feel that way, after the experience of, oh, I don't know, getting raped? Is she still allowed to be a member of the virgin club?

Worse yet, as a number of South African activists have pointed out, publicly self-identifying as a virgin might not be the safest strategy for avoiding HIV in a country where many still believe the myth that sex with a virgin cures AIDS, and where nearly 20 percent of the population is estimated to be HIV-positive. When this and other realities of the situation are taken into account, it becomes clear that the virginity-testing strategy is more concerned with controlling women's sexuality—and putting a cultural premium on their virginity—than keeping them safe from HIV and unwanted pregnancies.

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In a perverse push to counter accusations of sexism, the strategy's supporters have proposed extending the testing to include young men. Strangely, this does not assuage my fears, since I am as skeptical of equal-opportunity denial as I am of its gender-specific cousin. Is it really a social good for all young people to be ignorant of sex? We have already established that most virgins will have sex at some point—will live the majority of their lives, in fact, as sexually active individuals. So why not equip them to develop a sense of self-worth and identity that exists concurrent with, rather than in opposition to, being sexually active? Why not encourage them to feel good about themselves, to base their decisions (sexual and otherwise) on that abiding sense of self-love, and to let it sustain them through the hardships (sexual and otherwise) that we all inevitably face in life?

To put things in perspective, the fixation on virginity as a solution to the world's thorny sexual and reproductive challenges is far from an African phenomenon, and is certainly nothing new. After all, who wants to take on the wasps' nest of sexual politics, power dynamics, and decision-making when you can just pass out silver rings instead? Current South African proponents of this latest virginity testing fad may be framing it as a return to Zulu cultural roots, but this discussion is relevant to us all, since it's not hard to find cultural elements in most corners of the world who invoke sexual purity as a direct index of women's value—and, by association, an indication of the strength of their families and communities. You don't have to look far to find virginity-promoting abstinence-only programs that cloak the promotion of sexist social norms in the language of young people's empowerment and self-worth, and that leave young people just as vulnerable to all the things that virginity is supposed to magically cure. But here's my question: why can't we just skip the virginity part and focus on empowerment, self-worth, and decision-making instead? Or would that be too controversial?

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