Virginity Can’t Be Proven—But People Still Try!

For centuries, virginity was treated as the measure of a woman’s worth (and in many parts of the world, it still is). If a woman was a virgin, she was marriage material; if that virginity had been “lost,” her value as a potential mate dropped precipitously.

But throughout history, people who wanted to ascertain whether someone was worth wifing had a little problem: It’s pretty hard to tell if someone’s had sex or not. Sure, you could keep tabs on a person every minute of every day of their life, preventing them from sneaking off to get busy, but that’s fairly time-consuming and not a particularly realistic solution.

And so, the “virginity test” was born. Based in bad science and wishful thinking, these “tests” were (and are) no more accurate than random guessing. But that hasn’t stopped people from buying into them. Here are some of the weirder historical measures discovered by historian Hanne Blank in her book Virgin: The Untouched History:

Breasts know best

Many virginity tests are based on the assumption that having sex fundamentally changes a woman’s body. In the case of the breast test—which was still considered proof of virginity into the early 20th Century—it’s the boobs that presumably changed after getting busy. For centuries, Blank tells us, “breasts have been bared and pressed into service as a prima facie proof of virginity.” Under this rubric, if your breasts are small, pert, and pointing up, with pink nipples, your chastity was assumed intact. Saggy breasts or large, dark nipples? Not a virgin.

It’s in her pee

The urethra’s right by the vagina, so it’s not that surprising that someone would assume that what comes out of the urethra might offer a clue as to what has—or hasn’t—gone into the vagina. Some, like William of Saliceto, a 13th Century Italian surgeon, were convinced that having sex physically changed the way a woman pees; according to Saliceto, virgins take longer in the bathroom because their untouched genitals are still narrow and constricted. (This was also thought to give their urination “a subtle hiss.” Make of that what you will.)

Others felt sure that it wasn’t the way a woman peed, but what her pee looked like. Blank notes that “a virgin’s urine was clear, sparkling, and thin in consistency… never muddy or cloudy.” Golden pee, on the other hand, suggested you were full of lust—while pee that became cloudy when left to stand was assumed to be full of semen. Who knew you could fake virginity just by staying well hydrated?

Virgin magic

Another class of tests assumed that sex caused some sort of internal chemical reaction that would lead a sexually active woman to respond differently to certain stimuli than her virginal peers. Various “experts” have alternately advocated for rubbing a man’s earwax on a vulva and seeing if it stings, sitting a woman over a jug of chopped onions or garlic and seeing if you can smell the fumes on her breath, and rubbing lettuce under her nose and seeing if it made her pee on the spot. In the case of a true virgin, the earwax would burn, the onion fumes wouldn’t reach her mouth, and she’d remain continent even in the presence of the most pungent leaf of lettuce.

Of course, nowadays, you’re less likely to hear about a woman’s pee or breasts being observed than her hymen being checked, which many claim offers incontrovertible evidence of whether someone’s been vaginally penetrated or not. (Spoiler: It doesn’t.)

Tune into Thursday’s episode of Sex.Right.Now to learn more!

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