By now music and pop culture fans know that rapper T.I. takes his teenage daughter to the gynecologist each year to check if her hymen is “still intact.”
That disclosure, made during a “Ladies Like Us” podcast last week by Clifford Joseph Harris Jr., has generated a lot of heated response.
On Twitter, T.I., known for hits such as “Rubber Band Man,” received such criticisms as “beyond possessive” and “disgusting, possessive and controlling." Those were among the tweets liked by T.I.'s daughter, Deyjah Harris, now 18. According to her dad, she signed a waiver allowing her doctor to give her father a status report on the state of her hymen and, it appears he believes, her lack of sexual activity.
Except “virginity testing,” as the practice is known, doesn’t necessarily mean that at all, say medical experts. Furthermore, even if a young person is willing to sign such a medical disclosure, expert says, what information a parent may learn may not be worth jeopardizing a healthy parent-child relationship.
The episode holds a teachable moment for other parents who worry about their offspring, the potential perils of sexual activity and the impact on their future.
First, the medical evidence.
“Contrary to popular belief and old wives’ tales, the hymen does not necessarily break at any point,” said Beth I. Schwartz, pediatric and adolescent gynecologist with Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and Nemours/A.I. duPont Hospital for Children. “Hymens, like all other body parts, come in different shapes and sizes, and they often stretch with any kind of activity, most commonly tampon use.”
Another myth, Schwartz said, is that the condition of the hymen is proof of whether or not a woman has been sexually active.
“There is actually no way on a physical exam to tell if someone is a virgin or not,” she said.
“Even though [the T.I. story] is a crazy situation, it does point out a real and true concern, and that is that parents want to be able to help their children make safe and healthy medical decisions,” the doctor said.
The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology advises that girls have their first reproductive health visit between age 13 and 15. During those appointments, Schwartz said, one of the main purposes is a conversation — about medical history and well-being — between doctor and patient.
Open conversations are also among the best ways for parents and children to develop trust, experts said.
That’s what bothered Wanda M. Williams, a nurse practitioner and assistant professor of nursing at Rutgers-Camden, about the story of T.I. and his daughter.
“Trust is a major component in relationships,” especially between parents and children, said Williams. “You would like to think he trusts her, and this indicates to me he doesn’t.”
Sexual activity is just one part of growing up, along with drugs, bullying, other potential trouble — and all are among issues youngsters need to feel they can talk to parents about, she said.
“If she feels he doesn’t trust her, what other things will she feel like she has to hide?” Williams asked.
The Rev. Renee McKenzie, vicar of the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia, also counsels many young people as a chaplain at Temple University.
When she read the stories about T.I. and his daughter, she said she initially cringed. But she also felt more discussion was needed.
“I applaud that he had a conversation with her, but even if you’re under age 18, that’s still your body,” the reverend said. “That’s not to give the child permission to act irresponsibly with her body, but our job is to teach them how to control themselves, how to act in a particular way. We want to monitor, but we don’t want to be overly intrusive.”
If a father like T.I. was one of her congregants, she said she would “counsel him in a way that he could hear his daughter. That’s how we would change a difficult situation into something positive for the child.”
Merle Weitz, a social worker with the Sexual Risk Avoidance Program of the Southern N.J. Perinatal Cooperative, said the situation provides a good opportunity for parents to initiate a conversation with their kids.
“Don’t shy away," Weitz said. "Communication that is open, nonjudgmental and involves listening — even when you disagree — helps to build trust and encourages responsible decision-making. In fact, research shows that parents who talk with their kids about body changes and contraception actually prolong the onset of intercourse.“