Virginity and hymen myths must be challenged to protect Black teens like Deyjah Harris
I want us to stop putting so much emphasis on an insignificant sliver of flesh, conflating 'broken' hymens with broken promises of virginity
This essay contains discussions of sexual coercion & violation, as well as invasion of sexual/medical privacy
I used to go to church when I was in college. Not because I wanted to, but because I felt obligated to. I grew up in “the church”—of the Southern, Black Non-denominational Christian variety, and I hadn’t yet escaped the confines of my indoctrination. Nearly two decades of violent rhetoric had worked to convince me that not going to church was simply not an option.
Attending church was compulsory, and it was also a way to ward off the judgments of certain friends and folks back home who routinely asked variations of, “You going to church?” or “You found a good church up there yet?” in a tone that was somehow full of venom and accusation and pity all at once. The church was used as a measurement of my morality, of my worthiness, and of my obedience.
I tried a few different churches, though I can scarcely remember much about them now. Much of that time in my life seems like a blur. Except for certain key moments, it’s a haze of trauma, shame, isolation, chest pains, headaches, and hot tears.
But I remember when The Pastor’s Daughter walked onto the stage with a slip of paper in her hand and took the microphone one Sunday. She was a very young lady about to get married to a Good Christian Man in the next week or so and she had a special gift for her father. The piece of paper was apparently a form signed by her gynecologist. Proof that her hymen was intact, unbroken. This was the “gift” she had brought for her father ahead of her wedding—her virginity.
It was such a preposterous, self-aggrandizing thing to do, I thought. To share that so publicly, so performatively, and so transparently. What an odd way to worship her own body and choices, while effectively shaming others whose bodies and choices and realities did not or could not live up to the unfair expectation of an unbroken hymen.
But the congregation erupted in praise, hundreds of people stood up, and hooped and hollered and applauded. The pastor hugged his virginal daughter, the bride-to-be, and was so overcome with emotion that he looked as if he might cry. In that moment, we were all invited—no, forced—to consider the sexuality and nether regions of a woman most of us had never even spoken a single word to, and her father’s apparent ownership over them.
This young woman’s virginity—asinine, misogynistic social construct as it was/is—occupied a space in all of our imaginations that Sunday morning. It hung there in the air around us, as a measurement of her morality, her worthiness, her obedience—to her father, to Christian doctrine, to dominant society. Her hymen became the nucleus where all necessary evidence of her purity was located, and everyone in the building understood it as such. Even I understood, even as I sat there as a disgusted and bewildered witness to this absurdity.
The virginity and the hymens of people like The Pastor’s Daughter are nearly always conceived of in this way in these settings, of course, but in that moment on stage with her father and her sacred piece of paper, all of that meaning and measurement became a different kind of spectacle. It became an event and a performance. It simultaneously served to lift her up, to congratulate her father, and to reinforce the idea that there is shame in not being able to declare that you have an intact, unbroken hymen before you are married.
There is a clear reason why The Pastor’s Daughter presented this “proof of virginity” to her father, rather than to her mother who was also on stage, or even to her husband to-be who stood beside her. There is a reason why she presented this “gift” before an entire congregation of people, many of whom she had never even met and many of whom she would never see again, rather than in private. There is a reason why she felt the need to secure such a document from her gynecologist in the first place, and why the expectation to remain “pure” would never be impressed upon her fiancé as much as it had been on her.
It’s the same reason why T.I. proclaimed in front of the entire world with such undue self-importance and pride that he monitors his teenage daughter’s hymen. It’s the same reason the church, paternalism, patriarchy, and misogyny all converge to spurn this kind of thing into existence. And as clear as these reasons may be, what many people don’t seem to know, apparently, is how abusive and damaging this shit is for those of us who are made to endure it. Or maybe they simply don’t care.
Not only has this situation exposed T.I.’s daughter, Deyjah, to hungry, fetishistic sexual predators and internet trolls, but it has also made public details about her sexuality that should remain private, for as long as she wants them to. I won’t even talk about how invasive, manipulative, and controlling this is on the part of her father, or how much of a violation of her agency, autonomy, and privacy it is by the medical professional who agreed to it as well. Plenty of folks have addressed these things, and so much more, and parsed out the abusive nature of this entire situation and the ramifications it could have.
What I want to emphasize is how this kind of parenting produces adults like The Pastor’s Daughter who attach so much of their worth to the integrity of their hymen. How this perverse hyper focus on virginity and the hymen specifically teaches Black children and teens to buy into the lie that their own sexuality, their own body, does not even belong to them.
What T.I. did—and what so many other Black parents believe is the right thing to do—reinforces the hypersexualization of Black children, which affects us long before we even know that it exists. I had classmates and adults make me feel like shit because they read me as an irresponsible, immoral sexual being because of my developing body, as just another Fast Black Girl, years before I ever had sex.
When I turned 18, my mom sent me to the clinic for my first pap smear and exam. Before the physician used the speculum, she told me, “This might hurt, since you say you’re a virgin,” blatantly implying disbelief. It was not my choice to start birth control, my mom made sure I did before going off to college.
When I finally had sex years later, after being coerced into it, all I felt was shame. Crushing shame. For years. Until I began the daunting, painstaking work of unlearning and shedding all the ugly shit I had been taught about sex, my virginity, and my hymen. It was heavy lifting and it fucking hurt. Healing hurts.
Whether or not Deyjah chooses to or has already chosen to have sex (and, by the way, the hymen is not an accurate indicator of one’s sexual activity, some folks are even born without one) is her own goddamn business. No one else’s. Especially not her father’s, and especially not ours.
I’m angry that we are now having an international conversation about Deyjah’s body when we shouldn’t even know such intimate details about it and her medical history in the first place. I’m angry that, instead of having the safe, private experience of making decisions about her sex life for herself in her own time and on her own terms like all Black teens deserve, she now has to watch ain’t shit niggas on the internet agree with the abusive ways of her father and wholly disregard her rights as a human being, all while giving zero fucks about her sexual or reproductive health and spreading misinformation.
We can talk about comprehensive sex education for folks of all ages and how cis men especially need to shut the fuck up about the anatomical shit they don’t know about. We can also acknowledge the cisheteronormative assumptions being made throughout multiple threads of this conversation. We can definitely address the fact that teenage sexuality and sexual exploration is completely normal and that we need to help them along by teaching them ethical, safe, and healthy ways to experiment and engage with it if they choose.
All day long, we can discuss these things until we are blue in the face, and we should. But we absolutely must also prioritize combating the hypersexualization of Black children and teens, and the misogyny that allows Black parents to fancy themselves as owners of any part of their daughters—especially their hymen.
I’m fucking tired of grown folks being so concerned about hymens, especially when they care so little or not at all about the sexual health and safety of the same people they claim to want to protect. Especially when so little energy or concern is given when we are violated. Instead, they do much of the damage that we have to spend our lives trying to heal from or end up inadvertently re-creating for our own descendants.
I want us to be better equipped to protect Black teens from this harmful cult of patriarchy and associating sexuality with shame. I want us to stop putting so much emphasis on an insignificant sliver of flesh, conflating “broken” hymens with broken promises of virginity. And broken people. Hymens ain’t even that strong for folks to be putting all this weight on them anyway.