I’m a pediatrician who specializes in taking care of kids who have been abused, so I have had to learn all about the ins and outs, as they say, of hymens. I think the idea of virginity is useful on a personal level, but I hate how it’s considered a measure of the value of a woman. And I hate how it’s used to sell the message that Sex For Girls Is Bad. Spending time arguing that virginity is really just a cultural construct was really very tiring, so imagine my delight upon learning that science backs me up! I think it’s really important that women and girls understand their bodies and how they work. And I want EVERYONE to learn the truth about hymens so that we can all just get over it already. (Sad to say, when I say everyone, I am thinking of a lot of doctors, including many pediatricians.) So I thank the Harpies for letting me have a platform for one of my favorite topics.
Probably the most common misconception about hymens is that the hymen is a piece of tissue that completely covers the vaginal opening, and that it is “popped open” at first penetration (with a penis, of course). Although lots of people believe this, it completely flies in the face of common sense and most women’s actual experiences – if the opening was completely covered until “first sex,” how would virginal girls menstruate? Menstrual blood flows out of the vagina, so there’s got to be an opening there somewhere. In fact, there is ALWAYS an opening — therefore, nothing to pop open! The hymen is actually tissue that goes around the opening, like a collar. In teens and grown women it looks kind of like a scrunchie – wrinkled when relaxed, but able to stretch quite a bit. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense: during reproduction the hymen not only needs to accommodate a penis on the way in, but also a baby on the way out.
Unless you’ve had a very bad injury, your hymen will always be there. It’s made of “mucosal tissue” which is soft wet tissue, like on the inside of your mouth. You use your mouth multiple times a day and nothing gets worn away, right? Your hymen doesn’t get worn away with frequent use either. It’s even still there after a big ol’ baby comes through it.
If you wanted to check yourself out, you need a mirror and good lighting. You are looking for the vaginal opening, which might be hard to see because the hymen tissue does kind of look like a scrunchie, so just like a scrunchie, when it’s relaxed, you can’t always see the opening. If you see the opening, then the hymen is just the tissue around the opening — like the lips are the tissue around the mouth. If you can’t see clearly, you could try looking while you stick a finger in there — then the hymen will be the tissue around your finger.
In very rare cases, a girl is born with the hymenal tissue completely covering the vaginal opening. This is called “imperforate hymen” and it’s a medical problem because when menstruation starts, the blood can’t flow out. In these rare cases, the hymen does need to be opened, and it’s done as a little surgical procedure by an OB-GYN.
Another misconception that comes up over and over is that a doctor or other official coochie checker can look “down there” and be able to tell whether or not a woman is a virgin. Again, pretty much no. I’m simplifying a little bit here, but: the hymen can be injured during first penetration, but it usually heals up. Occasionally, the healed injury can still be seen and then it would be considered evidence of penetration. So “virginity checks” are basically bogus. Unfortunately, that does not stop parents from dragging their teenage daughters in and demanding that I check them. Which I refuse to do.
In related news: Women/girls do not always bleed the “first time.” There have been actual studies about this and it seems that about 60% of women bleed, so that means 40% or so (almost half!) don’t. Therefore, absence of bleeding is not proof of anything.
Some people think that any hymen injury that is seen is meaningless anyway because hymens can be damaged by “vigorous exercise” or horseback riding or doing the splits (otherwise known as “straddle injuries”). I like this thought because it seems protective of girls who might be otherwise slut-shamed or worse, but it’s not really true. I’m simplifying again–unless someone wants to discuss the physics of soft tissue injuries–but by my estimate 99% or more of the time falling with the balance beam between your legs does not injure the hymen. Structures around or near the hymen can be injured that way, but not the hymen itself. In the rare case where part of the hymen is injured, the injury generally just looks different than a penetration injury. And, as with other hymen injuries, they usually just heal up.
In a related matter – apparently some people in Florida want to argue against paddling in schools using the argument that it is harsher towards girls because it might damage their reproductive organs. They don’t actually mention broken hymens, but I’m wondering if it’s implied. I am against paddling anyone in school or anywhere else, but I don’t know what these people are talking about. Female reproductive organs, including the hymen, are more protected than male organs because they’re tucked up inside our bodies. If anything, I would worry that harsh paddling might damage a boy’s testicles.
Back on topic — Those of you not bored out of your minds and still reading may be asking yourselves whether you should go ahead with that virginity restoration surgery. The truth is I have no idea what it is those surgeons are doing when they talk about rejuvenating the hymen. A quick google search suggested that they add a piece of tissue (where they get it, I don’t know) over part of the opening so that something will tear and bleed. Or, a few stitches are placed in the tissue to “tighten” it, again so something will rip and bleed. I am guessing this last technique is like stitching the corner of your lips closed so that something rips the next time you open your mouth. So I’m going to go ahead and say that whatever they’re doing, I don’t recommend it.
I could go on and on (and on!), but I think it’s time to stop and take a breath. This topic always gets me worked up. I hope this information was useful and I hope you pass the word about hymens!