What the Bible Gets Wrong About Hymens

What the Bible Gets Wrong About Hymens December 9, 2015

I appreciated this subversively feminist video from College Humor debunking myths about the hymen (SFW, anatomical talk but no explicit imagery):

Watching this made me think of the infamous Old Testament law that decrees what to do if a man suspects the bride he purchased of not being a virgin on her wedding night:

“If any man take a wife, and go in unto her, and hate her, and give occasions of speech against her, and bring up an evil name upon her, and say, I took this woman, and when I came to her, I found her not a maid: Then shall the father of the damsel, and her mother, take and bring forth the tokens of the damsel’s virginity unto the elders of the city in the gate…

But if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel, then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father’s house: so shalt thou put evil away from among you.”

—Deuteronomy 22:13-21 (KJV)

The Bible’s command is that, if a man accuses a woman of having had sex before she married him, her parents must bring out “the tokens of her virginity” for the community elders to inspect. If all is in order, the man has to pay a fine for making a false accusation. But if they can’t be produced, the woman is stoned to death on her parents’ doorstep.

The text doesn’t fully explain what these “tokens” are, other than referring to them as a “garment”, but biblical commentaries clarify the issue: they’re the sheets from her matrimonial bed, which are supposed to be stained with blood by the tearing of her hymen when she had sex for the first time on her wedding night. (Left unanswered is how the woman’s parents are meant to have obtained these. Not to mention, why is it the woman alone who stands to be punished if she’s found not to be a virgin? Since women in patriarchal cultures had no say in whom they were married off to, shouldn’t her father be the one who’s punished for selling “damaged goods”?)

Beyond the obvious barbarity of this – death as the punishment for premarital sex! – the other problem, as the video states, is that it’s a myth that all or even most women bleed the first time they have sex. (Fewer than half do, according to this article.) A woman can have sex without tearing her hymen, or it can be torn through many other kinds of ordinary physical activity. It can even heal if it’s torn. Whether a woman’s hymen is intact or not proves nothing at all. Regardless of what irrationally elevated importance society places on virginity, there’s simply no physical test that can show whether anyone has had sex.

Given these facts, one assumes that the OT law must have been applied very selectively. Even so, it’s awful to think of how many women might have been brutally killed because of unfounded suspicion and jealousy.

I’d say that belief in a built-in virginity test was an innocent superstition, a misunderstanding; but of course it wasn’t. If it was a misunderstanding, it was a motivated one. It was dreamed up by cultures that wanted to believe women’s virginity, and therefore their value, was tied to something that was objectively ascertainable. If that weren’t the case, it would be much harder to treat them as property rather than valuing them as human beings. And this cruel legacy is still going on today, in countries that mandate crude and degrading “virginity tests” as a way of determining women’s fitness for jobs or education – or worse, as a way of disproving women’s allegations of sexual violence and assault.

This can be understood, if not necessarily excused, if ignorant and prejudiced men (and I do mean men) originally wrote these verses. But this is the Bible. It’s presented as, and believed by billions to be, the word of an omnipotent deity. So why does it contain this sexist, dehumanizing howler of an error about women’s bodies? Is God ignorant of human anatomy?

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