A recent Human Rights Watch report details the continuing use of an outdated procedure known as the “finger test” (such a scientific name!) to determine whether rape victims are “habituated” to sexual intercourse. HRW urged that Indian hospitals drop the procedure, which involves a doctor inserting two fingers into the rape victim’s vagina to “determine the presence or absence of the hymen and the so-called ‘laxity’ of the vagina.” These findings are then used in court to form the basis of the survivor’s credibility and character.
The practice is humiliating and scientifically dubious; although people just don’t seem to accept it, the presence or absence of a hymen (or, as the Swedes would like us to call it, the “vaginal corona”) is largely unrelated to sexual intercourse. The hymen, a membrane that erodes over time, has holes or perforations in it, so it’s possible to have sex without breaking the membrane, just as it’s possible for women to be born without a hymen. This knowledge, however, does not seem to have deterred doctors who still insist on conducting the “finger test.”
The HRW writes, “Many High Court judgments reveal that doctors have testified in court that having one or two fingers inserted into the vagina is ‘painful’ or ‘very painful’ for the survivor. And when the survivor did not experience any pain - if two fingers could be inserted ‘painlessly” or ‘easily’ – then she was described as being ‘habituated to sex.’”
In addition to simply being highly uncomfortable under normal circumstances (as anyone who has had a pelvic exam can attest), the insertion of fingers into the vagina after sexual assault can be extremely traumatic for survivors, because the action mimics the abuse that has just occurred.
“I was so scared and nervous and praying all the time: ‘God, let this be over and let me get out of here fast,” one rape survivor is quoted as saying in the HRW report.
The HRW points out that although there are currently no standards for training doctors, police, prosecutors, and judges to be sensitive to survivors’ needs and rights, India is in the midst of reviewing laws regarding sexual violence, leaving an unusual window for the banning of practices like the “finger test.” And certainly, let’s hope that they do, because the last thing that a rape survivor needs is to undergo a second assault.
Photo from Flickr.