School sex ed classes often describe the hymen as a membrane which covers the vagina and “pops” or “breaks” when you first have penetrative sex. We’re warned that this can cause bleeding, pain and an obvious, irreparable change easily detectable by future sexual partners, who will naturally be devastated when they realize they’re not the first.
Fortunately, those “facts” just aren’t true. These myths have lived on for centuries in an effort to control and condemn women’s sexuality. Girls become afraid of “ruining” themselves, believing a “broken” hymen makes them damaged goods.
It’s time to change the way we talk about and understand the hymen, once and for all.
Myth 1: Hymens completely cover the vaginal opening.
We’re often taught that the hymen is like a layer of saran wrap over the opening of the vagina, which will be “popped” open by the first penis to go up there. Some educators add the fun fact that this can also happen during activities like gymnastics or horse-riding, which isn’t exactly wrong, but isn’t exactly right either.
At birth the hymen really is one unbroken structure, but this doesn’t last long. By the time you’ve hit puberty, it will most likely have worn into a circular ring of tissue known as the “vaginal corona.” If it hadn’t, you wouldn’t be able to menstruate. Activities like gymnastics and horse-riding may speed up this process, but the membrane should just wear away into a doughnut-like shape on its own, regardless of whether you can pull of the perfect back handspring.
In rare cases, a person with a vagina may be born with an “imperforate hymen” which doesn’t form a corona and remains in one piece. That type of hymen requires surgical correction, however, rather than modification-by-penetration. It can also form multiple holes or breakages, known as a “septate” or “cribiform” hymen, and some people with vaginas are born without a hymen at all – everyone’s hymen is different.
Myth 2: You can tell if somebody is a virgin by the state of their hymen.
Virginity verification exams are a well-recorded – and troubling – phenomenon throughout history. And it’s not just hundreds of years ago: In 1981, when Lady Diana Spencer was about to marry Prince Charles, several magazines and newspapers reported that she was examined by the Queen’s surgeon-gynecologist to ensure she had an intact hymen.
However, the state of the hymen is not an accurate indicator of anyone’s sexual status. Penetrative sex doesn’t just make the hymen magically “pop” out of existence; like any membrane, it can stretch to accommodate pressure put on it, including any pressure from a penis. It can sustain tears during penetrative sex, but nothing a quick once-over by a health care provider could draw any legitimate conclusion from. Hymens come in so many shapes and forms that it’s impossible to know whether any tearing has come as a result of daily activities, tampon use, masturbation, sex, or if it’s just a regular anatomical variant unique to the person.
Myth 3: Bleeding and pain during your first time is because of the hymen breaking.
Discomfort and bleeding during first-time sex often has nothing to do with the hymen at all. The hymen has very thin tissue, with barely any blood supply, and tearing it is unlikely to trigger a bleed. Instead, pain or blood during first-time sex is often down to nerves, which can lead to poor vaginal lubrication, coupled with the fact that you just don’t quite know what you’re doing yet. It’s all far less sinister than any sort of irreparable damage being done to your body.
By countering these myths, we’re not just learning more about the bodies we live in – we’re also standing up to patriarchal forces and the lies they tell us about our vaginas. Confusion around this quirky little membrane and its minimal physical consequence has caused unnecessary fear, anxiety and stigma for far too long.
Breaking these myths down is just a small step we can take towards building a stronger, more sex-positive world. In 2019, no one should be seeing the shape of their hymen as a signifier of their self-worth.
Chloe Kent is a multi award-winning journalist based in London, who has written for the New Statesman, Refinery29 and Grazia. She specializes in health and lifestyle writing and currently works for Verdict writing about medical devices and health tech.