Prejudice and sexism parading as fact

Published: May 08, 2019, 07:30 IST | Paromita Vohra

Doctors are drawn from the same social mindset as us; things like virginity test only endorse that mindset

Prejudice and sexism parading as fact
The definition of sex needs to be far more expansive to include touching, kissing, cuddling and the numerous other physical intimacies exchanged by humans. Representational Pic/Getty Images

Paromita VohraThe ruling to remove the virginity test from the MBBS syllabus comes several decades too late but it is better than never for several reasons. First, the test has little or no basis in science and is simply prejudice and sexism being paraded as 'fact' or science. Some of the details in the chart to distinguish between a 'virgin' and 'deflorate' woman are: a small vs enlarged clitoris; firm, hemispheric breasts with small nipples vs flabby, pendulous breasts. In fact, every person's genitals and breasts differ and these natural variations have no link to virginity.

The idea of virginity lies at the core of social disrespect for women's sexual and bodily autonomy, the many layers of shame and shaming that surround the idea of sex, sexual life, sex education and the resulting resistance to understanding female choice and consent. It is the idea of virginity that symbolizes the clutch of assumptions about what an 'acceptable' -- read marriageable -- woman should be: sexually passive, holding on to her 'purity'.

The idea of virginity and testing it underscore the belief that women's 'sexual-ness' is acceptable only inside the space of marriage -- and that a sexually active woman is universally available and hence, a dubious victim. In fact, until today, we see repeatedly that the only sex education most schoolgirls are given is, "don't do it till you're married."

Even as contemporary sexual culture is changing, a constant unease lies beneath the lip service to female sexual liberation. When virginity is a starting point for a woman, her distance from it is constantly being gauged and with it, her sexual acceptability and the possibility of slut-shaming.

We think of the medical system as a place of objectivity, but doctors are drawn from the same social mindset as the rest of us. As long as things like the virginity test survive, they end up endorsing that mindset. These prejudices play out numerously in the medical world. For a sexually active single woman, a visit to the gynaecologist is not only exhaustingly judgmental, but can actively prevent access to correct treatments, because of assumptions about marriage and sexual activity.

At its heart, the idea of virginity is also linked to limiting the definition and understanding of sex to peno-vaginal penetration. With this as the norm, we can see why queerness becomes designated as abnormal. But it also impoverishes sexual life in general. Quite apart from the fact that a hymen may be absent for a number of reasons (exercise, horse-riding and so on), the definition of sex needs to be far more expansive to include touching, kissing, cuddling and the numerous other physical intimacies exchanged by humans. This expansion encourages us to think of sex as a journey we embark upon, in which we keep growing and understanding our own preferences and choices, becoming responsible for ourselves, rather than making it a threshold we cross. This also helps us see the act of sex more as something that is shared and less as conquest and aggression. It pushes us to redesign the equations of gender, affection and sexual choice into a positive, egalitarian, kinder and most importantly, far more enjoyable place.

The sooner this understanding of sex takes root in our systems the better placed we will be to live healthier adult lives. Jettisoning this test is a foundational step in that direction.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com

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