by Fei Cai
Hymen. Maidenhead. Cherry.
For something that people do not seem to know much about, it definitely has a lot of names.
I am not sure when I first heard about the hymen. Like many growing up, I thought it would hurt to tear it, and that it was some kind of physical sign that a woman had lost her virginity. I was convinced that the first time I had sex, there would be bleeding and pain, which of course, added to the already huge amount of anxiety I had about having sex for the first time.
Many years later, in medical school, I forgot for a while the anxieties of hymens and virginity—after all, I was going to become an obstetric-gynecologist, and I knew all there was to know about sex and the female reproductive system, right? And strangely, it was not until I learned about what the hymen actually was that I realized that we had never discussed it, or indeed, talked about it any amount of detail during my first two years of medical school. It was not even during my Ob-Gyn rotation, but Pediatrics, that someone finally talked about the hymen. And it was only then that I realized that all of my anxieties, everything I had known about the hymen prior to that point, and indeed, almost everything about the hymen written in books, talked about in TV shows, and whispered among girls after class was completely wrong.
From my experience, it seems that not many people know what a hymen actually is. At first, I thought that it was just me that had this misconception, but more than once, I have had to explain the hymen to my friends, classmates, and even physicians. If even healthcare professionals and medical students, those who should know the human body best, are confused about this part of the female anatomy, I wondered just how many people knew the truth. I’m writing this piece because I want to 1) explore why the same wrong ideas about the hymen haven been perpetuated for so long, 2) question the social implications of these beliefs, and 3) hopefully raise more questions and discussions among you readers.
So, first things first. What is a hymen?
It is not, as many think, a membrane that covers the entire opening of the vagina. It definitely does not break the first time a woman has sex the way you pop the piece of plastic at the top of your Nutella jar. If that were the case, a woman would not be able to menstruate until she had sex, or rather, she would menstruate, but the blood would build up behind the hymen, leading to discomfort and pain (an actual medical problem, called an imperforate hymen).
To talk about the hymen, we must first talk about the anatomy of the rest of the vagina. Imagine in the picture above that you are looking at a woman’s genitalia while she is lying on her back and you are looking between her legs (figure 1). The outer, puffy parts of the vagina are called the labia majora. Directly within the labia majora are the labia minora, or what most people call the vaginal lips, which are splayed open in these images to show the inside of the vagina. The labia minora come together at the top to form the clitoral hood, which houses the clitoris. (Congratulations! You found it!) Directly beneath that is the opening of the urethra, and below that, is the vaginal opening. Around the vagina opening is a ring of tissue called the hymen.
Before puberty, the hymenal tissue is taut, but after puberty, due to exposure to estrogen, this tissue becomes thinner and stretchier. The best way to describe this is that prior to puberty, the hymen is like a rubber band, but after, it is more like a hair scrunchy (figures 2 and 3). Without proper lubrication, sex or trauma to the vagina can lead to tearing of the hymen, especially before puberty, which can be seen on a physical exam by a doctor. However, these tears can heal prior to puberty.
Despite my hair scrunchy analogy, this is only half the story. Even in a high estrogen state, hymenal tissue can be worn away by many things. This includes athletic activity (even walking), use of tampons, self-exploration, and, yes, sex. For many women, the hymen is already partially or completely gone by the time they first have sex because of this wearing away process (and if not then definitely by the time the woman gives birth). Some women still do have bleeding the first time, but this is usually due to inexperience and unfortunately, a poorly-lubricated vagina from lack of arousal. The blood is from tearing of the vaginal wall, not the hymen.
Before learning about all of this, I had always thought it unfair that women, but not men, had some kind of outward sign that they had lost their virginity. After, I wondered why everyone continued to tell this lie. How many women had to fake bleeding during the first time they had sex? How many women failed so-called tests of virginity and were persecuted for not having something that was in no way related to whether or not they had had sex? Why is that even in 2015, books and movies are made where women and men talk about “popping cherries” and tearing hymens?
The sad truth is that to maintain the myth of the hymen is to maintain patriarchal control of the female body, and our society is helping to continue this myth. The hymen should just be another part of the female anatomy, but it has become a way to police female sexuality and to re-write it through an outdated male lens. After all, what better way to scare young girls into celibacy than telling them that someone else can know when they are no longer virgins, and therefore, their future husbands will value them less? Of course, the hymen is not the only thing that is used to control women’s behavior. What I want to know is why certain things, like the phrase “play like a girl,” have been reclaimed by the feminist movement, but the hymen has not.
One of the biggest reasons, I think, is related to slut-shaming, leading to lack of communication about female sexual experiences. While men do not always tell the truth in terms of how often and how well they have sex, there is at least a social green light in American culture for a bunch of guys to get together and talk about their sexcapades. (Whether or not it is healthy for young impressionable men to listen to other guys bragging about sex is another argument all together.) For women, however, there is no such motivation. In fact, talking about sex when female is almost equivalent to admitting to promiscuity. Therefore, most of the time, women obtain what they consider to be normal sexual experience from what they read and watch. And when a woman does not bleed after her first sexual experience, she may feel that she has deviated from the norm and therefore keep the experience to herself. Also interesting is our cultural dichotomy of the vagina: it is at once both sexy and disgusting. The idea of the vagina being used during sex is arousing and desired, but when it comes to the actual vagina, with all of its functions unrelated to men (think periods, vaginal discharge, giving birth etc), it somehow becomes an object of embarrassment. This makes it even more difficult for women to talk about their vaginas and what happens to them.
If it is difficult for women to talk about their vaginas and their sexuality to other women, it is even more difficult to talk about these topics with men. I say men, and not just people that have sex with women (even though talking about sex and sexuality between any partner can be awkward and hard), because there is a societal expectation for women to keep the functions and the daily maintenance of their girly parts a secret. It is fine to share these secrets with other women, but there is some convention that these things should be kept from our male counterparts. Women always ask other women in very quiet, sheepish tones if they have an extra tampon or pad because starting one’s period is for some reason embarrassing (even though it is a process that occurs once a month for a good portion of a woman’s life).
It is precisely this embarrassment that makes it hard to broach the subject of the hymen with men, but it is also male expectations of the hymen that need to be dissipated in order for this myth to finally go away. If men expect there to be some physical sign of virginity, if men expect a woman’s first sexual experience to be painful and bloody, then they will unknowingly perpetuate this current patriarchal model. Right now, the implications of the hymen contribute to the belief that it is the natural order of things for men to enjoy sex but women to not. It is not that sex is not a nerve-wracking and possibly even embarrassing thing for pubescent boys, but for them, it also holds the promise of eroticism and orgasm. Unfortunately, for girls, it contains the same amount of angst and embarrassment with the knowledge that it will and is supposed to hurt. If both sides expect the first time to be painful and unpleasant, then there is no motivation on either side to make sex pleasurable for the woman, which can lead to a life-long fear of sex. It is no wonder that in the United States, approximately 40% of women have sexual concerns and 12% report distressing sexual problems1. Dispelling the myth of the hymen will not only get rid of these current biases, it will also open communication lines between many sexual partners and lead to better sex.
And really, who can be against better sex?
So, while it is important for women themselves to begin dissipating this “phallusy” of the hymen, we cannot expect only half of the population to fight this battle.
After two pages and many more hours agonizing over this essay, I have not even begun to cover all of the problems of this hymenal myth, but I have hopefully gotten you thinking. Even more unfortunate is that I do not have a good way of dispelling the myth of the hymen other than through my writing. I could idealize huge changes in media, where knowledgeable and feminist directors will create movies that openly talk about female sexuality and write witty lines accurately portraying female genitalia, but that doesn’t seem likely in the near future. America, after all, is still rather Puritanical in its views toward sex. Therefore, my only conclusion is this: we, as individuals, will have to slowly start chipping away at this myth. I can write and teach my small group of friends. And now that you understand the physiology of the hymen, you, too, can start talking about it with your friends. You obviously do not have to rant about it at every given opportunity, like I do, but if someone makes an offhand remark about virginity and “popping cherries” just add in your two cents or show them this piece. I cannot hope to change everyone’s beliefs overnight, but we can hope to at least start more conversations about the hymen and female sexuality.
- Shifren JL, Monz BU, Russo PA, et al. Sexual problems and distress in United States women: prevalence and correlates. Obstet Gynecol, 2008; 112:970.
Fei Cai is a fourth year medical student at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. She is studying to be an Ob/Gyn and is passionate about medical education and research. Her research has been published in Frontiers in Molecular and Cellular Oncology and the Rhode Island Medical Journal.