The Many Misunderstandings of the Hymen
Determining sexual "purity" based on the presence of a "torn" hymen is an outmoded way of thinking that never stood on any medically solid ground. The hymen is a small piece of tissue that forms a ring around the vagina and marks the boundary between the skin of the perineum (the area between the vulva and anus) and the mucosa (mucous membranes) of the vagina.
The so-called purity measure is just one of many outdated pieces of conventional wisdom about the hymen. Find out a few facts about this thin piece of vaginal tissue, including why it is not a signifier of virginity.
The hymen is not a sign of purity
Scientifically speaking, an intact hymen can't be a sign of sexual purity.
"The hymen is not like a seal on a drink. Hymens come in various shapes and sizes," said Wendy Goodall McDonald, M.D., a board-certified OB-GYN and a clinical instructor at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. "Some are wider and some are more narrow. Some will 'break' with first penetrative intercourse and some won't. Some will break before or outside of intercourse.
"The state of the hymen is not evidence of sexual activity or lack thereof," she added.
The hymen is a membranous tissue at the opening of the vagina, and it can break or tear from activities other than sex, such as:
- Riding a bicycle
- Exercising at a high intensity
- Riding a horse
- Using a tampon
- Pushing during a constipated bowel movement
"A woman who tears her hymen when she is not sexually active does not mean she is no longer 'pure,'" explained Thais Aliabadi, M.D., a board-certified OB-GYN and founder of Trimly, a personalized weight-loss practice based in Los Angeles.
Where does the purity belief come from?
In many cultures, the hymen is thought to be a "seal" on the vagina. If the seal is intact, it's believed the person has not experienced vaginal penetration and is a "pure virgin," Goodall McDonald said.
"Some cultures would even go as far as to gather around the bedroom of newlyweds waiting for bloody sheets to be hung outside," she explained. "The idea behind this was [if] the person was a virgin, their hymen would break and bleed with [the] first act of intercourse and prove their purity."
This test of virginity dates back to the middle ages, according to Aliabadi.
"When a man had sexual intercourse with a woman and she bled, it meant the woman was pure and their child would be born from marriage, ultimately allowing the child to inherit property from his father," she said.
The hymen doesn't always break or tear when you have penetrative intercourse for the first time, Aliabadi said.
You cannot tell whether a person has had sex, or detect their sexual activity, based on how their hymen looks, Goodall McDonald stressed.
Some cultures seem to believe the hymen is a thick barrier that completely covers the vagina, which is not true. Rather, the hymen is a tissue that surrounds the opening of the vagina and allows blood and discharge to flow out, Aliabadi explained.
In fact, if your hymen was a solid sheet of tissue that completely covered your vagina, you would have an "imperforate hymen," which would be detected during puberty and treated with a minor surgical procedure to open the blockage.
An imperforate hymen can prevent blood flow from the uterus and vagina during menstruation, which can cause pelvic pain, urinary retention, and constipation or pain with bowel movements, said Julia Arnold VanRooyen, M.D., a gynecologic surgeon who practices in Boston.
Hymens can stretch and change as you age
The hymen is part of embryological development, so it stretches and changes over time, Aliabadi said.
"The size, elasticity and thickness change due to age, hormones and physical activity. Sexual intercourse is one of the many ways a hymen can break or tear, but not the only way," she added.
Not all vaginas have hymens
A hymen is a remnant from embryological development and does not serve a biological purpose. It is unclear why women have a hymen, VanRooyen said.
Then again, not all women are born with one. If you are born without a hymen, it is not harmful to your body, Aliabadi said.
Not all hymens look the same, either.
"The biggest misconception is…all [hymens] look the same. They don't," Goodall McDonald explained. "The hymen can look like a smooth ring or washer, or it could have ridges and spaces. Some may be easy to see and some may be difficult to find at all. They are not all the same."
In addition to an imperforate hymen, there is a microperforate hymen, which has a very small opening in the tissue. There's also a cribriform hymen, where the tissue has multiple holes, and a septate hymen, where a thin band of tissue divides the vaginal opening into two sides, VanRooyen explained.
"The hymen has caught the attention of many and has been in the center of many myths, but not many facts," Aliabadi said. "Education is the most empowering force in the world, and we can give men and women the resources to dispel these myths. Because of the prevalence of myths around the hymen, I do get asked at times by my patients to put their hymen back together due to cultural pressures."
Some hymens never break
Fifty percent of sexually active teenagers have intact hymens, VanRooyen said.
"Some hymens are very stretchy and won't break, even during intercourse," Goodall McDonald explained. "Not every woman breaks or tears her hymen during sexual intercourse, either."
Nor do hymens "pop."
Some cultures equate the loss of virginity with "breaking your hymen," and some people use slang like "popping your cherry." These phrases lead many people to believe that when the hymen does break, it pops, which is not true.
"The term 'pop' comes from the myth that once a woman has sexual intercourse for the first time, she will bleed," Aliabadi explained. "However, this is not always the case. Some women who break or tear their hymen may have little to no bleeding at all."