What is the hymen? Will it break when I first have sex? Will I bleed? These are all questions you may have asked yourself at one point or another. Unfortunately, from Christina Aguilera singing about her ‘cherry popping’ to rapper T.I. boasting that he takes his daughter for ‘virginity tests,’ we’re surrounded by misinformation about the hymen. If you’re confused, you’re not alone! We are here to answer your questions and put the lies to rest once and for all.
Lie one: The hymen is a vaginal ‘seal’ that every female is born with
We’ve all heard the first lie that the hymen is a ‘seal’ that covers the vagina; this isn’t the case. The hymen is a fringe of tissue around the vaginal opening, and the shape and size vary between each person. Sometimes there will be more than one opening in the tissue, sometimes it will be in a crescent shape, and then there are some females who aren’t even born with a hymen. In the rare case that the hymen does cover the vaginal opening, minor surgery takes place to allow period blood to leave the body. In other words, hymens vary a lot, naturally!
Lie two: The hymen breaks and bleeds the first time you have vaginal intercourse
The second lie we’ve been told is that the hymen breaks irreversibly and bleeds the first time you have vaginal intercourse. The hymen is stretchy. We were taught to think of the hymen like saran wrap (flimsy, breakable, and irreparable) when it is more like a scrunchie in reality. It is often elastic enough to be penetrated without damage, and over half of females will never bleed from damage to their hymen when they have penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex for the first time. Sometimes the hymen will stretch, tear slightly and bleed, but it is not ‘broken’ or destroyed.
Contrary to popular belief, people often bleed after their first experience of PIV sex because of lack of lubrication, not the tearing of the hymen. Without lubrication, friction can make sex uncomfortable and cause light bleeding. If you’re tense and stressed, your vaginal muscles may also tighten up. It is important that you are comfortable communicating with your partner and take the time to relieve any anxieties. Sometimes your brain can be raring to go, but your body won’t seem to get the message; this is called arousal non-concordance. During those times you’re expecting the Niagara Falls down under, but the reality is drier than the Sahara Desert, we recommend you grab some lube.
So, contrary to pop songs that refer to ‘popping the cherry,’ the hymen doesn’t break irreversibly and bleed every time someone has PIV sex for the first time. Lack of lubrication is a common cause of light bleeding, and in this case, lube could be the friend you’ve been missing.
Lie three: The hymen is an indicator of virginity
(Trigger warning: the following section contains mention of sexual assault that may be triggering to survivors).
What does all this mean when it comes to the hymen being used to test for virginity? The headline, there is no way to tell if someone is a virgin by checking their hymen.
The concept of virginity is a social, cultural, and historical one rather than a medical or scientific one. Historically, we have been obsessed with classifying women as the ‘pure’ and the ‘impure,’ the virgins and the non-virgins. An outdated notion, I’m sure we can all agree! That’s compounded by our definition of sex (PIV intercourse) being rooted in a sexist history, and often invalidates the experiences of many. We believe you get to decide what sex and losing your virginity looks like to you.
Despite this, virginity testing still goes on around the globe. It is carried out by doctors, police officers, and community leaders testing for marriage eligibility, social value, and checking if someone is lying about being raped. Not only is it medically unsound, but it can be highly traumatizing, painful, and humiliating, sometimes leading to depression, anxiety, and PTSD. The World Health Organization has called for an end to the practice, labeling it a violation of human rights, yet there are no laws banning virginity testing in the United States, and tests still occur regularly.
Women risk being outcasted or, in extreme cases, killed if their hymen isn’t intact, causing them to go to extreme lengths to hide it. The BBC found at least 21 private clinics in London that offer hymen reconstruction surgery, and there are ‘hymen repair kits’ being sold online with tweezers and fake blood capsules.
Spread the word
At Elvie, we value science, challenge oppression, and engage in ‘taboo’ female health conversations because we know it can change people’s lives. Lies like the ones attributed to the hymen are used to control women. They instill fear and result in traumatic procedures. Change starts with education, so please (if you can safely) spread the truth about the hymen and help make the world a safer place for women everywhere.