Hymen: Breaking the Most Common Myths

There is a popular misconception that the hymen completely covers the vaginal opening, and it should break during first sexual intercourse — resulting in some bleeding, discomfort, or pain. In certain cultures, a woman's sexual history may be inferred from the way her hymen looks.

Key takeaways:

Regrettably, this misconception about the hymen has brought on unnecessary concern and stigma around women's sexuality. It's important to debunk these beliefs and alter the way we understand the hymen.

What is a hymen?

The hymen is a membrane of tissue that is located about half an inch inside the vagina and surrounds the vaginal opening. It can be seen by spreading the vaginal lips.

The hymen develops during the gestation period and becomes perforated during fetal life. As a result, it usually has a central opening — although the shape and appearance of the hymen can vary from person to person. The perforation of the hymen can create an annular, semilunar, fimbriated (fringed) appearance. In some rare cases, the perforation of the hymen doesn’t happen, which results in an imperforate hymen.

diagram with different types of hymen

It has no medically established function, although in some cultures, the appearance of an unruptured hymen is wrongly considered an indicator of virginity and has extreme sociocultural significance.

Myths about the hymen

Although the misconceptions about the hymen have no scientific basis, the majority of people continue to believe them. Below, we discuss some of the most common examples.

Myth 1: Hymen entirely covers the opening of the vagina

Typically, the hymen occupies just a portion of the external vaginal opening.

During development, the hymen is an unbroken membrane that covers the vaginal opening. However, often in the first days of life, the rupture of the hymen occurs — forming a ring of the membrane around the vaginal entrance with one or more small perforations. It is believed that activities like vigorous exercise such as gymnastics or horse-riding, or inserting objects into the vagina, speed up this process. Nevertheless, the membrane should just wear away over time on its own.

In rare cases, a person with a vagina may be born with an imperforate hymen. It is a condition where the hymen doesn’t rupture and remains intact in one piece. This type of hymen requires surgical correction.

Myth 2: Hymen is rigid and penetrable

The tissue is stretchy and flexible, which means it does not necessarily tear with penetration.

Across a woman’s lifespan, the shape, size, and flexibility of the hymen change significantly due to the influence of her hormones.

In the first years of life, the hymen is thick and pale pink. Later in life, it becomes relatively thin and smooth-edged. As puberty approaches, the hymen thickens, may assume a fimbriated or crescentic appearance, and hymenal elasticity increases. Further adjustments occur as a result of hormonal changes during pregnancy, delivery, aging, and the decrease of hormones after menopause.

Myth 3: You can tell if somebody is a virgin by the state of their hymen

The shape or condition of the hymen is not a reliable predictor of one's sexual status.

Penetrative sex doesn’t always result in the rupture of the hymen. Due to its elasticity, the hymen can stretch to accommodate pressure put on it.

Moreover, the appearance of the hymen varies from person to person, therefore, it is not accurate to determine if any ripping was caused by daily activities such as tampons, masturbating, or intercourse, or if it's simply a normal anatomical difference specific to the individual.

Myth 4: Hymen breaks during the first sexual intercourse, causing bleeding and pain

Discomfort and bleeding during first-time sex often have nothing to do with the hymen at all.

Because the hymen is made of relatively thin tissue with little blood flow, ripping it is unlikely to result in bleeding.

However, pain or blood during sexual intercourse can be a result of lacerations to the vaginal wall because of poor vaginal lubrication or forced penetration. In some cases, painful sexual intercourse can be a sign of vaginismus.

The significance of debunking the myths about the hymen

In some cultures, conclusions regarding the sexual history of women are often based on assumptions about the hymen. The appearance of the hymen is taken as the most important proof of the absence of sexual activity. The sexual history of women is used to determine their individual, social, and familial status.

In some countries, the hymen's cultural importance has resulted in virginity testing. A vaginal examination is performed to determine whether a woman's hymen is intact. It is usually done before marriage.

Although human rights and international health organizations have denounced all types of virginity testing, it is still done in many nations worldwide. Some examples include: Afghanistan, Brazil, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Jamaica, Jordan, Palestine, South Africa, Swaziland, Turkey, and Zimbabwe.

In conclusion, probably the most detrimental and debilitating misconception is the belief that virginity can be measured by the state of the hymen. The appearance of the hymen is different from person to person, and it is incorrect to assume the sexual history of a woman from the way it looks. Cultures that advocate using tests for virginity promote inaccurate judgments about women's sexuality and anatomy.

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