This story appears in the December issue of VICE magazine.
This fall, a Swedish TV channel reported that three doctors at different medical institutions perform virginity tests, ordered by relatives, usually against patients' will.
Outrageous as that is, the requests for these exams do put doctors in a moral bind. While some physicians actually administer them at a patient's request, according to a study by the Karolinska Institute, in Stockholm, that involved 1,000 doctors, the majority of Swedish health-care practitioners issue "virginity certificates" if virginity norms will cause problems for their patients.
"One must bear in mind that this is a traumatic situation and, maybe, not be so pragmatic but have empathy toward such a patient, given the circumstances," Niels Lynöe, a professor in medical ethics and the author of the study, told VICE. Certifying a patient's virginity could be crucial to securing her safety.
A virginity test is typically performed before a woman is given away for marriage. "There are even doctors who in specific circumstances would want to restore the patient's hymen by surgery so she bleeds during her wedding night," Lynöe said.
Virginity standards like these are part of honor cultures in the Middle East and countries such as Serbia and Slovenia. If a woman fails the "wedding-night test," she risks being persecuted or even killed, which is why a "virginity certificate" can help. In Sweden, an estimated 70,000 kids and teenagers live in honor cultures.
"It doesn't help women to refer to their human rights and propose some kind of police protection, because that means she has to break up her relationship with her family, and most young women are not prepared to do that," Lynöe said.
But virginity tests have little scientific basis.
"If a white lie can help a woman in a difficult situation, then at least I understand that it's difficult [for a doctor] to say no," Lynöe said.
Correction, February 12, 2016: An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that Slovenia harbors an honor culture markedly more than neighboring countries with similar sociopolitical climates.