By Toni Brannagan
Historically, female anatomy has not been recorded in a super-scientific way — and nothing displays this more clearly than a quick Google search for “hymens.” If you had any sort of sex ed growing up, then you’ve probably heard the hymen described in one of a few ways — a barrier, some kind of wall, or, at the very least, breakable.
This makes sense when you think about how significant it used to be (and still is in many parts of the world) to “prove” a woman’s sexual status. But the false importance tied to female virginity has allowed so much misinformation about hymens to perpetuate, even today. Seriously, I’m literally writing this blog because hymens came up in an office conversation (typical Tuesday at THINX) and nooobody *really* knew what the deal was.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to start from scratch when it comes to a topic that has been so ill-defined for centuries, so I hit up Dr. Alyssa Dweck, a New York gynecologist, to help me separate the facts from the misconceptions.
All hymens are not created equal
Dr. Dweck describes the hymen as “a thin membrane present from birth at the vaginal opening. It is typically shaped like a semi-circle/half-moon and can cover part of the vaginal opening, usually the bottom portion.”
And just like most physical human features, hymens can vary, too. Some are thin and more elastic, others are more rigid. Deviations can even occur when it comes to shape. As Dr. Dweck describes, not all are the typical semi-circle/half moon:
Imperforate: The membrane completely covers the vaginal opening. If this type of hymen isn’t diagnosed at birth, you will typically notice discomfort or an inability to insert tampons or have sex.
Microperforate: Similar to an imperforate hymen, but with a smaller-than-normal (a “micro”) opening to the vagina.
Septate: An extra band of tissue creates two small vaginal openings, instead of one.
With these types of hymens, it can be difficult (or straight up impossible) to insert tampons, have vaginal sex, or even menstruate properly. Good news is they can be easily corrected with an outpatient procedure when diagnosed.
Virginity cannot be ~proven~
If you’re still wondering whether hymens and the concept of ~virginity~ have any valid relation, check out this amazing TED Talk, The Virginity Fraud, by Dr. Nina Dølvik Brochmann and Ellen Støkken Dahl, who we've spoken to in the past. Essentially, they debunk the idea of “proving” virginity using two myths about hymens — one, that hymens break and bleed after sex, and two, since the hymen is now “broken,” it’s radically altered or disappears.
For the purposes of clarity, virginity is traditionally defined here — as in, hetero penis-in-vagina sex. (Virginity is a lie, anyway, y’all.)
As I mentioned earlier, considering how different people’s hymens can be, it’s virtually impossible to simply look at someone’s vagina and prove whether or not they have had sex. Further addressing myth one, Dr. Dweck adds, “Not everyone bleeds when the hymen is disrupted. Sometimes it just stretches so no blood is seen.”
She also notes that depending on the thickness and size of the hymen, it can stretch or tear after sex, but it can also be disrupted by a number of normal activities including exercise, tampon use, masturbation, and medical exams. In some cases, hymens also aren’t disrupted at all — one woman went into labor with her hymen still intact.
As Dr. Brochmann and Ellen further illustrate in their talk, myth two is simply a logical step after the first — if some people’s hymens don’t even break or bleed, and hymens can tear or naturally wear away through a number of activities besides sex, there just isn’t a way to prove virginity that’s accurate for every person with a vagina.
Why are we still even talking about hymens?
Dr. Dweck told me that as far as she knows, hymens don’t serve a particular function, besides being used as a traditional marker for virginity, which we just talked about. This isn’t a sweeping generalization, but depending on where you live, this info isn’t exactly groundbreaking either.
However, as we’ve discussed in previous blogs, hymens are still assigned this very important role worldwide, but also close to home, with varying degrees of harm. Hymen reconstruction surgery is a very real, potentially scary thing. There’s also a whole market for blood capsules you can use to create the illusion of a torn hymen.
On a less abstract level, the misconception that your hymen will tear, bleed, and cause you pain is also why a lot of people simply deal with having painful intercourse when they are young, or just starting to have sex. Painful sex is *not* normal, y’all. A little discomfort is to be expected, but know your body, and know that you’re allowed to go as slowly and gently as *you* want. (Also, USE LUBE, especially if you’re nervous — you’re not gonna be wet, dude.)
Dr. Dweck also acknowledges that challenges with penetrative intercourse don’t always have to do with nerves, anxiety, or tight muscles, and serious difficulty could be a sign that you have an imperforate hymen. If you’re having painful sex for any reason, you should def go hit up your doctor.
The misplaced importance society has placed upon hymens has pretty much only been used to inconvenience women and other people with vaginas. Understanding our bodies really shouldn’t be this difficult.
How did you learn about your hymen? In sex ed? From an overzealous friend or family member (🙋)? Are there any other misconceptions about virginity that you’ve carried with you? Share your stories with us in the comments!