The hymen… such an enigma revolves around this small part of your body. Is it a sign of virginity and does it have such important meaning in some cultures? Let’s bust some myths and learn the real things about the hymen!
Hymen was the Greek god of marriage. The mythology tells the tale of a young, beautiful man that saved a group of women from danger. As a reward, he married one of the girls he secretly loved and they lived happily ever after.
What is the hymen?
The hymen is a membrane located at the opening of the vagina. In early fetal life (while the fetus is still inside the womb) the vagina is first formed as a solid tube. Over time, the vagina develops, turning into an empty tubular structure that has a thin membrane at the lower end, aka the hymen. This membrane may be ruptured in the first days of life. The membrane surrounds the vagina, having one or more small openings that partially cover the vaginal orifice. Some girls are born without a hymen.
Up until now, researchers did not find any clear function for the hymen.
Types of hymen
There is no standard appearance of the hymen in people with vulvas. It can have various forms, such as hymen anularis, hymen cribriformis, hymen imperforatus and many more, depending on the coverage of the vaginal opening.
The hymen thickens and increases in elasticity as puberty begins. Over time, further modifications happen due to hormonal changes, such as pregnancy, childbirth, ageing and menopause.
Myth #1: The hymen completely covers the vaginal orifice. False!
The hymen surrounds the vaginal orifice. If it would completely cover it, menstruation wouldn’t be possible.
Exception: There is a rare condition (birth defect), called Hymen imperforatus, where the hymen completely covers the vagina. It is usually diagnosed in adolescents during their first menstruation, when blood accumulates in the vagina and uterus. It is treated by the surgical incision of the hymen.
Myth #2: The presence or absence of a hymen can determine if someone has ever had sex. False!
There is no connection between the appearance of a hymen and prior sexual intercourse. The hymen can be ruptured in various contexts, such as sports, insertion of menstrual products and fingers, or surgical procedures.
Myth #3: If a virgin bleeds during their first sexual intercourse, it means that their hymen was torn. False!
The hymen has few blood vessels, therefore, even if torn, it would not bleed significantly. The presence of blood might be due to a lack of lubrication and forced penetration. Studies show that bleeding does not regularly happen during first penetrative sex.
Myth #4: Vaginal examination of the hymen can determine whether sexual assault happened. False!
Without any other type of evidence, no medical conclusion can be drawn just from the appearance of the hymen. Hymenal injuries usually heal fast, without leaving any sign of recent injury. Several studies about sexual assault survivors showed, that the hymen does not always have signs of damage as a result of forced penetration.
In many cultures, the presence of the hymen is associated with virginity. This phenomenon is an important aspect for unmarried women and their families, as their honour and status are invested in their daughter’s virginity before the marriage. Women with a premarital rupture of the hymen are shamed, humiliated, abandoned and attacked, even “honour-killed”, since their families believe that their honour is disgraced. Even from the word “virgin”, which translates to “created for men” in Latin, we can see how some cultures believe in women’s subordination to men.
Some brides, wanting to be sure they will bleed on their wedding night, approach a deceiving method. Often under their mother’s guidance, the brides would cut themselves on the thigh with a sharp fingernail. The cut will produce enough blood to stain the sheets and satisfy the tradition and maintain their family’s honour.
Hymen reconstruction, or re-virgination, is a controversial subject that still causes ethical and legal issues. Hymen reconstruction (hymenoplasty) is a form of gynaecological cosmetic surgery which aims to recreate the hymen. Some procedures go even further, as they include a gelatine capsule containing a blood-like substance. During penetration, the capsule breaks, simulating the after-intercourse bleeding.
In some cultures, female rape victims or women having had pre-marital sex have this surgery to regain their reputation and personal virtue.
Critical opinions on this procedure arose based on human rights, as surgery is a factor that continues discrimination against women. It creates this expectation of virginity in unmarried women while not in unmarried men. This approach may support the inequality of women and men, making it an offence to human rights.
Many doctors do not agree with this procedure since it does not provide any medical benefits. They also have an ethical dilemma, due to the hymenoplasty being deceptive and discriminating against women.
All the existing research proves that hymen has no functional biological purpose and its existence is most important to some cultures and honour. Unfortunately, the stigma around not having a hymen tear and bleed during the first intercourse strengthens the discrimination against women and the effect on human rights.
This important piece is written by Camelia Brande. The blog post was written for the social enterprise Kohe Lele which is empowering a worldwide community through approachable sex education. Humorous, destigmatizing and positively encouraging. Knowledge is power and everyone should have access to it. Always.
The Problem with the word 'Virginity'
Virginity only serves one purpose, to oppress women. It also puts this giant pressure on penetration.
Not only this, but it also completely excludes those from the LGBTQ+ community and invalidates their sexual experiences. It's time to ban the use of the word 'Virginity', it serves no benefit to anyone unless they are wanting to control and shame others.