Setting the record straight: Understanding the hymen and debunking the myths surrounding it
By Emma Libner for the Menstrual Health Hub (MH Hub)
You can’t tell by looking at a woman between her legs if she’s a virgin — so why are we still talking about the hymen as proof of virginity?
For centuries, man has been greatly invested in the idea of female* chastity and ways to preserve it.
In this blog post we aim to shed light on the idea of virginity as something biologically connected to the hymen and break down why cultural and religious practices related to this widely misunderstood body part blatantly discriminate against women and girls around the world.
Hymen-related myths and misconceptions are something that affect millions of girls and women worldwide; not just in low- and middle-income countries, but in high-income countries as well. In fact, hymen reconstruction surgery and so-called ‘virginity tests’ take place in Europe as well.
Nevertheless, most of what we have been told about the hymen is untrue. Here’s why.
The hymen comes in many shapes, sizes and colors
The sanctity of female virginity has permeated modern culture and can be found everywhere from Madonna’s 80’s smash hit Like A Virgin to the deep-rooted cultural tradition and phenomenon of the ‘virgin bride’, a belief that dates back centuries. However, the concept of ‘virginity’ has a lot of misconceptions attached to it.
When most people think of the hymen, they think of a membrane that can be perforated by, say, a penis. If you have a vagina or have seen one up close, you maybe have noticed how the vaginal opening usually isn’t just a wide-open hole. In most cases, what you see down there is a tiny crescent- or moon shaped skin fold — the hymen — gently protecting the vagina.
While all girls* are born with a hymen, it’s shape is not the same for all. Like so many other body parts, it comes in different shapes, sizes and colors and we’ll mention a handful of them here. In most cases, the hymen is defined as ring of tissue with a centrally placed opening, other times the hymenal tissue is shaped more like a crescent moon. Sometimes the hymen even folds over on itself or protrudes forward as a sleeve might protrude forward over a hand, called a sleeve-like-hymen (although not to confuse with the inner labia!).
In very rare cases the hymen may be imperforate with no central opening in the hymenal tissue at all. This typically requires medical intervention to allow for release of menstrual blood at puberty.
It doesn’t ‘break’ or ‘pop like a cherry’, like we’ve been told
As is the case with many areas related to female health, the verdict is still out on the physiological function of the hymen. Many scientists, however, agree that it is most likely a simple remnant of fetal development that serves no real purpose.
What we do know is this: The hymen is very flexible which is why, in most cases, the hymen can sustain the pressure from vaginal penetration, leaving no trace of so-called ‘defloration’ or being ‘deflowered’.
In other words: no medical evidence exists to support the idea that the hymen can be used to determine whether a woman has had sex.
You cannot simply look a woman between her legs and find proof of virginity or a lack thereof.
Deconstructing the myth of the hymen
The fact that hymens don’t “pop” or disappear is a gynecological truth, which has been known for more than one hundred years. Many other mammals have hymens, too, including elephants, llamas and manatees, just to name a few.
So why are we still talking about “virginal membranes” and “intact” hymens as if the hymen is something that can be lost with a woman’s virginity? Because we live in a patriarchal society in which the hymen has been given way more cultural significance than it deserves, effectively being used as a tool to maintain social control of the female body. This, unfortunately, has outweighed the scientific facts.
In many cultures around the world, female virginity continues to be viewed as a source of dignity and purity and is closely linked to a woman’s moral character and social value. The ultimate proof of ‘losing one’s virginity’ is the proof of blood from the ruptured hymen on the wedding night. Absence of this proof has been known to bring shame on to and disgrace to traditional patriarchal families, because the chastity of female family members is an important determinant of family honor in many families.
Consequently, the social anxiety over women’s virginity manifested through the existence of their hymens, is allowing misconceptions to continue to flourish.
To this day, many girls grow up thinking that horseback riding, bicycling or using tampons or menstrual cups before they become sexually active can somehow cause them to become non-virginal. Many also fear their first penetrative sexual encounter because they have been told that sex is supposed to be painful and cause bleeding. This fear not only has the potential to make first-time sexual experiences even more painful because of the negative expectation, but also feeds into the narrative that sex should mainly serve the purpose of male pleasure.
A whole industry capitalizing on fear
The myths surrounding the hymen are in part kept alive by this very same fear and the many doctors who perform (often unsafe) ‘virginity tests’ and hymen reconstruction surgery. Additionally, ‘artificial hymens’ — small pockets of plastic containing potentially dangerous red liquid which can be inserted into the vagina before intercourse — are being sold in great numbers to fearful women online.
The truth is, a lot of women don’t bleed despite the widespread belief that a woman’s first-time sexual encounter will bring blood. Very little peer-reviewed research exists to describe bleeding at first intercourse, but they all agree that vaginal bleeding is not guaranteed.
An often-cited study found that less than half of women with Dutch background reported no blood loss at first intercourse.
There are many reasons why a woman may bleed from the vagina at first intercourse, including, but not exclusively, due to rips or tears in the hymen or vaginal walls. Forced penetration and/or a not fully lubricated vagina is often to blame.
Still, ‘virginity tests’ and hymen reconstruction surgeries continue to take place around the globe, sometimes with dire consequences for the women and girls affected.
The way we talk about the hymen needs to change
Because of their missing scientific validity, the World Health Organization (WHO) has since 2014 recommended that health care providers avoid performing ‘virginity tests’ and in 2018, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN Women and WHO jointly called for a ban on virginity testing, labelling it a gender-discriminating practice.
Many countries have already banned both testing for virginity and the many medically unjust hymen reconstruction surgeries that take place annually. But bans alone are not enough.
First and foremost, we must continue to accurately educate people about the female anatomy and health. Secondly, it is important to offer support to women affected by the hymen myth and the cultural and religious beliefs that continue to view women as the bearers of sexual morals. This also include women who have suffered from sexual violence, where rupture in the hymenal tissue or lack thereof is unfortunately still used as evidence in some cases.
One way to do this is by recording requests for virgin testing and operations and providing health professionals, public officials, and community leaders with national guidelines.
Governments have a great responsibility to make this a reality, but we too can do our part to take out the myth of the hymen once and for all. For instance, by doing what activists in Sweden and Denmark have already done: collectively changing the word “virginal membrane” to “vaginal corona”.
At the MH Hub we believe it’s important to raise awareness, promote education, and provide evidence-based research to move the needle on improving female health across the lifecycle. This includes setting the tone for new, inclusive ways to talk about the hymen. Language is power and it holds the potential for change. Words like “virginal membrane”, “intact hymen”, “defloration” and even “virginity” shape how we see the world.
How are we supposed to believe that what we have been told about the hymen is a lie, if we stick to the very words that keep the myths and misconceptions about it alive?
Books and other educational resources must be updated, too — not least in terms of how the hymen is portrayed. A lot can be done, and it starts with us!
Here are a few ways you can learn more or get involved to help change the conversation and give the hymen the accurate portrayal it deserves:
- #BreakingtheMyths petition on breaking the myth of the hymen (german)
- The hymen myth (educational video)
- The virginity fraud by Nina Dølvik Brochmann & Ellen Støkken Dahl (TEDTalk)
*We use the word female to denote the sex that can bear offspring or produce eggs, distinguished biologically by the production of gametes (ova). At the MH Hub, the term female health is used to capture the experiences related to the presence of the menstrual cycle and the specific health issues an individual may face over their life cycle as a result. We recognize that not all women menstruate, and not all who menstruate identify with being a woman, and strongly advocate for the inclusion of diverse voices, identities and bodies in discussions around female and menstrual health.