Last fall, another gruesome viral video emerged from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), showing an ISIS militant bragging about selling young Yazidi girls in Iraq. The Yazidis represent a small community based in Northern Iraq. In August of last year, Yazidi women were attacked, enslaved, and sexually tortured. Now, some of these young women are bravely coming forward to tell their stories from behind the front lines.
One 13-year old girl explained the trauma to PBS NewsHour:
They brought everyone to a school and put the women upstairs and drove the men away. I didn’t want to let my mother go, but they were pulling us from our mothers and beating us. The children were all put in cars. They said, ‘We’re going to sell you to others and you will have sex with them.’ The last time I saw my mother was when they took me away.
As PBS reporter Marcia Biggs reported: “So many of the girls are afraid to admit that they were raped. They use the words honor and virginity interchangeably. This woman told me she had gone to a doctor who performed a test to prove she was still a virgin.” Some survivors have even had their hymens repaired, in an attempt at “revirginization” surgery.
As a medical doctor specializing in internal medicine and public health, I have spent years training health professionals on how to objectively evaluate torture survivors, including survivors of sexual violence. During this time, I’ve learned that there are gaping medical flaws and many other problems with attempts to evaluate whether sexual intercourse has occurred through so-called “hymen testing.”
There is no factual, scientific, medical, or ethical basis for hymen testing.
First, there is no medical evidence that hymen testing can accurately or reliably determine whether a woman has been sexually active. In evidence-based medicine – today’s standard in medicine – clinical tests need to be evaluated to prove that they are sensitive and specific to what is being measured. To even begin to make a counter-assertion about the accuracy and reliability of hymen testing, we would need a large amount of data evaluating how well clinicians can predict a history of previous sexual intercourse based on physical examination. In over a decade of working in this field, I have found no such study, or anything approaching it. And I cannot imagine who would fund or conduct a study like that.
Much of what we do know comes from common sense. The hymen is a very small piece of tissue that changes over the course of a lifetime. There are many factors that influence the appearance of the hymen at various stages of life, including genetic, developmental, endocrine, spontaneous, and external influences – all of which raise more doubt about using hymen testing to determine whether a woman has had sexual intercourse.
Hymen testing adds insult to injury in cases of sexual violence by further stigmatizing women based on assumptions about their sexual histories. And now it’s leading many survivors to shun medical attention after an assault.
Ultimately, hymen testing – even without its major flaws – could never answer the question of whether a girl’s or woman’s sexual history involved consensual or non-consensual sex. Like many other discussions about sexual assault, establishing the central importance of consent is the most important issue to advance the rights of girls and women in this area.
Fortunately, there are strides being made to end sexual violence in conflict zones. The most promising initiatives focus on empowering girls and women as individuals regardless of their sexual histories. For a great example, go to End Sexual Violence‘s Facebook page.