Image conceptualized from Georgia O'Keeffe's painting, "Grey Line with Black, Blue and Yellow” (1923)
Most likely at one point, someone told you that when a woman has sex for the first time, she bleeds. And most likely, at that same point in time, someone also told you when she bleeds, her “cherry” has been popped—signifying the death of her virginity. Renditions of this story are told throughout the world, in almost every country and culture, in every state and province: the idea that women have a virginity detector between their legs, which can be inspected and appraised to determine her innate sexual and marital value. But what if I told you it wasn’t completely accurate? Not all women bleed after their first time having sex. Would you believe me, if I told you that the hymen, as you once knew it, was actually just a patriarchal myth?
Many people think they have a competent understanding of the hymen. The majority of us are taught by our mothers, grandmothers, friends, and sex education teachers that the hymen is a soft, rubbery membrane which covers the vaginal canal. Consequently, when something, or someone, penetrates the hymen, it is then destroyed, causing the woman to bleed. However, if it were true that the hymen completely sealed off the vaginal canal, then where would a woman’s period go? The blood and linings of the uterus would become trapped behind the seal, unable to flow freely. That simply cannot be an accurate depiction of the hymen because women’s vaginas would then fill with blood over time and eventually explode (there is no scientific research to back up this statement because it is scientifically and physically impossible—a woman’s hymen doesn’t work that way…). It is also inaccurate for the fact that there are many young “virgins,” who’s hymens are very well intact, but yet still menstruate (instead of exploding).
Alternatively, sexologists, gynecologists and general practitioners all agree that the hymen should be thought of more like a rubber band that lines the outside of the uterus, than a seal. The hymen is a relatively thin, flexible, fleshy bit around the vagina and usually has a big enough opening for tampons, fingers, and yes…even vaginal penetration. Although hymens are thought to be homologous, in reality every woman’s hymen is unique with different notches and folds. Hymens can differ in densities—some being very thin and fragile, others thick and unbreakable. This is why some women bleed during their first time having sex, and others may not. Some women’s hymen’s may be so thin that they will rip and bleed from doing the splits, using a tampon, or just simply moving around in everyday life. On the other hand, one study reported in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescents Medicine, 52 percent of sexually active teenage women had intact hymens.
This may be true because just like other fleshy parts of the human body, such as skin, when the hymen breaks it eventually heals itself. Just think of an open cut on your arm. After a period of time, the cut will scab over and begin the process of healing into new skin. The hymen does a similar process. It may not scab, but the little rips and tears will soon heal back into its original form. This means there is no way to truly tell if a woman has had vaginal intercourse or not—thus it is impossible to determine a woman’s virginity simply by examining her genitals.
The significance of this is that in many places around the world, women are forced to show government officials that their hymen is intact. If they don’t they can be denied jobs, barred from making rape accusations, or even thrown in jail. This myth that it is possible to determine girls and women’s worth based on a piece of internal flesh, has grave social, physical, mental, as well as emotional consequences for all women who are held to this impossible standard. Virginity exams should be considered sexual assault because they don’t prove whether a woman is a virgin, but instead reinforce moral values of virginity onto women.
The myth behind the hymen was created not out of medical accuracy, but out of the want to control women’s sexuality and mobility in society. If you really want to know if a woman is a virgin, just ask her.