Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Like a virgin?

South Africa is a land of contrasts. One of the contrasts is between its post-Apartheid constitution – said to be one of the most liberal ever made – and South Africa’s patchwork of African ethnic traditions. Same-sex marriage was recently approved on constitutional grounds, a decision met by hostility and disbelief among South Africans of different races and classes. And last month, the Children’s Bill was adopted, which among other things bans virginity testing and male circumcision under the age of 16. This verdict was also greeted with a great deal of resentment. Traditional leaders don’t like it. Many Africans writing into blogs don’t like it. Some virgins don’t like it. (Warning: images of bare breasted virgins.)

Virginity testing? Yes, virginity testing. Whereas some American teenagers make virginity pledges and self-report their own virtue, South African girls go a step further by submitting to a pelvic examination aimed at ‘proving’ their chastity. Especially among Zulus, it has long been thought important that girls keep themselves pure for their future husbands; a young woman who has pre-marital sexual relations is thought to show intemperance and brings shame on her family. This is why a confirmation of virginity is accompanied by celebration, while failing to pass the test can lead to stigma and social exclusion. In Uganda, girls can even get a scholarship for remaining virgins, i.e. if they manage to scrape through years of poverty without exchanging sex for money and security from predatory older men.

The devastating HIV/AIDS epidemic has increased the popularity of virginity testing throughout Africa. It has given traditional leaders a modern, medical justification for an ancient practice. If girls are encouraged to pass the test, the thought goes, they will not have sex and will not acquire or transmit HIV. On the other hand, a hymen may be torn by means other than intercourse, and the pelvic examinations are performed in conditions where the hygiene leaves a lot to be desired. As the US example suggests, young people committed to virginity may have sex in alternative ways (i.e. anal and oral) that leaves them open to HIV and sexually transmitted diseases. The practice also feeds into a powerful and tragic myth in South Africa: that a man with AIDS can be ‘cured’ by having sex with a virgin. And of course, there is the detail that the practice of virginity testing is widely condemned by human rights groups as gender discrimination. If there was a reliable biomarker for male virginity, involving an invasive and possibly contaminating procedure, would that be as popular? It is hard to imagine.

Condemning the practice of virginity testing outright, however, may be unwise. One of the biggest mistakes of HIV prevention in the past is the failure (or unwillingness) to understand and take seriously the sexual culture of Africans, and the place of that culture in a network of related social practices. Here’s yet another job for African bioethicists: to help negotiate an acceptable path here between HIV prevention, gender rights and cultural traditions.


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