When considering virginity, people often highlight the hymen, but few actually know what it is. We know that when we have sex for the first time, sometimes we bleed—but sometimes we don't. Sometimes the hymen breaks while riding a bike or exercising or engaging in foreplay.
In reality, a hymen doesn't have much to do with virginity, a social construct that we can't see or physically hold. It's just something that happens: One day someone hasn't had sex, and the next day they have.
Let's set the record straight on hymens
Firstly, a hymen is a piece of tissue which covers all or part of the vaginal opening, said Amanda Kallen, M.D., an OB-GYN who teaches at the Yale School of Medicine.
"The hymen is formed during fetal development," explained Kecia Gaither, M.D., an OB-GYN in New York City. "The thickness, shape and size of a hymen is different from woman to woman."
According to Gaither, there are various types of hymens:
- Septate: Has extra tissue that gives the appearance of two hymens.
- Microperforated: Covers the opening to the vaginal canal with the exception of one small hole.
- Imperforate: Has no opening at all, covering the entirety of the vaginal canal.
- Cribriform: Has several small holes in it.
- Annular: Crescent-shaped, the most common type.
"[For most people,] it will look like a small amount of extra tissue around the edge of the vaginal opening," Kallen said. "It can be in a crescent or ring shape around the opening, or cover more or all of the opening."
Busting harmful societal stigmas
Myths about hymens persist, such as the presence or absence of a hymen indicates sexual activity. Some people believe an intact hymen is unequivocal proof of virginity while a broken hymen suggests the person has had sexual intercourse.
However, Kallen said that's not foolproof evidence.
"The hymen is soft and stretchy, and can 'break' from everyday activities or from inserting a tampon, as well as vaginal penetration," Kallen said.
Hymens can get worn down and break from biking, horseback riding, gymnastics, yoga, dancing or masturbation. It is very common for your hymen to break while participating in these activities. Someone can indeed be a virgin with a broken hymen. Additionally, hymens don't always break during sex. Someone who has had sex and is by society's definition no longer a virgin could still have an intact hymen.
The hymen has no known medical purpose. There is also no scientific basis for the idea of virginity and it does not relate to the hymen in any medically significant way.
How do you know if your hymen is broken?
In order to know if your hymen is still intact, you can try to look at your vaginal opening with a mirror or ask your gynecologist during an exam, but Kallen said it can be hard to see.
A typical sign that your hymen has broken is pain or bleeding, but Kallen stated that only some people experience these symptoms. For others, a broken hymen might be completely painless.
Gaither agreed: "Most women don't even realize the hymen has broken."
Once your hymen is broken, however that happens, it cannot grow back. Some people may feel anxious about potential pain or bleeding from a broken hymen, symptoms that are also linked to "losing your virginity."
"Getting familiar with your body can help with those anxieties," Kallen recommended. "Become comfortable with what's down there through exploration or masturbation, which can make you feel more relaxed during vaginal penetration."
That's Hymens 101. While yours may be broken already, the thin tissue has no connection to your purity or innocence. It's just a part of the body.