Hundreds of women have come forward to say they’ve been denied healthcare because medical professionals said they were virgins, following a VICE World News investigation into the issue.
More than 200 people got in touch to say they had gone through similar experiences, and we have spoken directly to more than 100 people who said they had been told they could not receive internal examinations because they weren’t sexually active.
The majority of the people we spoke to were UK based – across 37 different locations – but we also received testimony from people in countries such as Germany and Australia who had been denied healthcare because they had never had penetrative sex.
Dr Ranee Thakar, president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, told VICE World News that “healthcare professionals must not perpetuate harmful myths regarding ‘virginity’ when talking to women about their sexual and reproductive health care.”
In December we spoke to five women in the UK who had been denied a transvaginal ultrasound, an internal probe that helps doctors examine female reproductive organs to find the cause for conditions such as pelvic pain, unexplained bleeding or cysts.
Despite British ultrasound guidelines stating that the concept of virginity, a social construct with no biological reality, should have no bearing on clinical decision-making around these diagnostic scans, individuals from a variety of different gender backgrounds and sexualities have contacted VICE World News to talk about their exclusion from the ultrasound as well as other healthcare procedures.
Dr Hannah Barham Brown, the deputy leader of the Women's Equality Party in the UK, said there was "absolutely no reason" to deny a patient a transvaginal ultrasound because of their sexual history.
“As a doctor, politician and disabled woman, I am clear about the dangerous consequences of discrimination and inequalities in healthcare," she said in an emailed statement.
“This is yet another example of how we need to improve training for all health professionals and embed equality into the curriculum and into practice. Our job should always be about supporting patients to engage in informed consent, not denying women vital and routine healthcare based on absurd notions of virginity.”
“I was asked the question ‘Are you a virgin?’ and because I said yes they said it couldn't be done. I explained I was in so much pain I didn’t mind.”
One woman who contacted VICE World News after our initial story said she visited a clinic in London’s Kentish Town for a transvaginal ultrasound to check for polycystic ovaries in April 2022. But the sonographer told her she was “not allowed the probe because I was a virgin and started talking about religion, how sex is between a man and a woman and she felt uncomfortable using the probe on me.”
The woman, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity for privacy reasons, added, “I was really shocked that medical professionals could deny me treatment because of this.”
We have received messages from people who had been denied transvaginal ultrasounds across the UK from a variety of NHS trusts in Canterbury, Sheffield, Wiltshire, Tyneside, Hertfordshire, Nottingham, Liverpool, Bedfordshire, Southampton, Cheshire, Essex, Glasgow, South Lanarkshire, Durham, Oxford, Portsmouth, Surrey, Birmingham, Hastings, Hereford, Worcestershire, Rochdale, Chichester, West Lothian and Kent as well as from several different boroughs within London.
Another woman called Julie who agreed to speak on the condition she only be identified only by her first name for privacy reasons, told VICE World News she had been referred for a transvaginal ultrasound six years ago in Newham in East London to try and find out why she was going up to six months without periods. “The doctor was a bit nervous as I was a virgin, but I wanted to go ahead. And his response was, ‘No, not your virginity’. I tried to insist on going ahead as I’d psyched myself up for it but he refused,” she said.
“It took another five years and eventually going private to get another scan and blood tests which found I was going through early menopause.”
Julie believes that had she received the scan when she wanted it, she may have still had time to freeze her eggs.
A woman in Canterbury, southeast England, said that in 2019 she had been denied a transvaginal scan and had been offered an abdominal ultrasound instead, which found a small cyst she was told would disperse by itself. “Three weeks later I had emergency surgery to remove a cyst the size of an orange and my ovary, because it had actually ‘died’ and was going septic due to the cyst cutting off its bloody supply,” she said.
“At the time of the ultrasound I was asked the question ‘Are you a virgin?’ and because I said yes they said it couldn't be done. I explained I was in so much pain I didn’t mind…but was still refused.”
In both Newcastle and Manchester, another woman who contacted VICE World News said that in both of the cities she was denied transvaginal ultrasounds to investigate her pelvic pain over eight years ago. She described she was “sexually active and queer” at the time and that the scan was refused not just because she was deemed a virgin but because “they told me they wouldn’t do one because it wouldn’t matter anyway as I wasn’t planning a family.”
“No woman should ever be denied access to healthcare on the grounds of ‘virginity.’”
In Northumberland in 2019, a woman who was 23 at the time was denied the scan because she told her sonographer that she wasn’t sexually active, and was repeatedly told it would be “illegal” to do so. “She then began saying it would be illegal and classed as some sort of assault, which I thought odd as I was consenting. I explained that I was over the age of 21, of capacity, and willing to sign a consent form for the procedure as I knew it would likely hurt. I said that if I was giving her permission, I wasn’t sure whom else she would need it from as I was more than old enough to consent to sex itself. She said it wasn’t the age that was the factor; I could’ve been 14, sexually active, and able to have the scan; it was because I wasn’t sexually active. This seemed bizarre; as I was an adult being treated with less autonomy than a child would be,” the woman recalled.
“I was sent home with a few days’ worth of pain relief. A paramedic who had previously worked in a sexual health clinic, confirmed a few weeks afterwards that this ‘law’ is complete nonsense and doesn’t exist.”
Thakar, the president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said:
“It’s important that health professionals engage in supportive conversations that enable women to make informed decisions about their own care.”
“No woman should ever be denied access to healthcare on the grounds of ‘virginity’.”
“Before a transvaginal ultrasound, as with any gynaecological procedure, every woman should be given clear, accurate information on why it is needed and what it involves, both in discussion with their healthcare professional and in the patient information leaflets provided. While the procedure is not usually painful, it may be uncomfortable for some women who have not had penetrative sex or because of menopause-related vaginal changes. Some women may have concerns related to their personal beliefs, or around anxiety or embarrassment.”
Many of those who contacted VICE World News also spoke of other instances in the healthcare system where their virginity was mentioned.
22-year-old Lily, who has been given a pseudonym for privacy reasons, contacted VICE World News about Havens, an NHS service that does medical assessments following rape and sexual assault.
She was referred there in November 2021 and when she filled in a form at the clinic, she ticked the box that said she only has same-sex partners as she is a lesbian.
“She called me a virgin so many times, it was strange.”
As the doctor gave Lily a physical examination, she repeatedly told her “we’ll use the virgin [speculum] because you’re a virgin”.
“She called me a virgin so many times, it was strange,” Lily said. “It made me kind of uncomfortable and then I found it really difficult to relax for the exam.”
“It’s definitely knocked my trust in seeking care for reproductive or sexual issues,” Lily said. “I’m not keen to go back for other problems I’ve had since.”
A spokesperson for King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, which runs Havens, said: “All doctors carrying out intimate examinations should try to reassure clients that the examination will be carried out in a way that minimises discomfort. However, this should be based on accurate information obtained prior to the examination to avoid inappropriate conclusions being made. The Havens team is aware of the issue, and learning has been shared with the team. We apologise to the client for any upset caused.”
Several individuals also mentioned being denied cervical smears, a screening programme used to spot early signs of cervical cancer.
In England, cervical screening is available to women and people with a cervix who are aged 25–64 years. People normally receive a letter before their 25th birthday, and then go on to get screened once every three years.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence’s guidance on cervical screening and eligibility for it does not make any reference to sexual activity.
But women from across the UK have told VICE World News that they were asked if they were sexually active at their screening, and then told that they shouldn’t have come for the test.
One person in Salford in northern England who identifies as asexual told VICE World News their smear test has been refused twice because they have never had sex. Another woman in Fife, Scotland was told to leave after she was asked about her sexual activity because “the nurse told me that it’s not necessary to do the test and told me I could leave. I re-read the pamphlet I got with my letter and there’s no mention of ‘virgins’ so I was very confused and annoyed.”
A Londoner was asked in December if she was a virgin before her scheduled smear test. “I asked her why that was relevant and, in a roundabout way, she said that the test would break the hymen and as such, by law, she can’t do that.”
One woman in Norfolk who identifies as a lesbian told VICE World News over Twitter DM that her partner was told her smear was painful at a local hospital because she hadn’t had “proper sex before”.
While the main causes of cervical cancer are caused by a human papillomavirus infection, which is spread through skin-to-skin contact of the genital area, any kind of penetrative and oral sex or sharing sex toys, your chances of getting cervical cancer are also raised by non-sexual factors, such as if you have a weakened immune system or smoke.
Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, the UK’s leading cervical cancer charity, states on its website that all women and people with a cervix aged 25 to 64 are entitled to cervical screening and that “while sexual history may influence someone’s risk, it shouldn’t determine whether or not they can have cervical screening.”
The website adds: “We have heard from some sample takers who are concerned about ‘breaking’ the hymen during cervical screening. This shouldn’t be a worry – the hymen is not a good indication of whether someone has been sexually active and may not be intact even if the patient has never had penetrative sex. Equally, cervical screening should not be forceful enough to ‘break’ any part of the anatomy.”
“The ‘virginity myth’ is at the intersection of bodily autonomy and pain.”
Bridget Little, head of support services at Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, told VICE World News, "Going for cervical screening can be difficult for many reasons, and women and other people with a cervix may have complex, sometimes multiple barriers to attendance. If patients don’t have a good experience, it may put them off attending again.”
“The concept and understanding of virginity varies between individuals and cultures, and as HPV can be passed through sexual contact which is not penetrative sex, it can be unhelpful in conversations around screening. HPV and cervical cancer can affect anyone with a cervix, regardless of sexual preference or gender identity. Myths and stigmas such as these, especially when they exist in primary care can have a really harmful effect."
Terri Harris, education and comms manager at Bloody Good Period, told VICE World News, “The ‘virginity myth’ is at the intersection of bodily autonomy and pain. It is indicative of practitioners' lack of awareness of key issues and highlights the fact that the needs and wants of people who menstruate are so often ignored.”
Harris added that there needs to be more guidance and knowledge-sharing is needed amongst health practitioners to overcome gynaecology myths “to ensure that these conversations are safe and inclusive and that each patient is offered an informed choice about treatment and their bodies."