The Hymen: Breaking the Myths

December 31, 2008

Different types of hymens. Drawing: Nina Reimer. Different types of hymens. Drawing: Nina Reimer.

The value placed on virgin brides in some cultures led to much talk this year about “reconstructing” virginity (see: hymenoplasty) and the legal relevance of virginity (see: “essential quality” for marriage). So it seems only fitting that we should end with an inflated device designed to fake virginity by mimicking the “breaking” of the vaginal tissue known as the hymen.

According to the product description, once inserted the device “will expand a little and make you feel tight. When your lover penetrate [sic], it will ooze out a liquid that look [sic] like blood not too much but just the right amount. Add in a few moans and groans, you will pass through undetectable.”

Putting aside the issues of why someone would consider this a necessary product  — and the looming question: what do they use to make the fake blood and do I really want it in my vagina?? — let’s take a step back and discuss the hymen and what really happens to this misunderstood body part.

For this we turn to Carol Roye, a nursing professor at Hunter College and a nurse practitioner who specializes in adolescent primary and reproductive health care. Roye recently wrote an an article on the hymen that was published at Women’s eNews (and reprinted at Our Bodies Ourselves).

First off, contrary to what girls are often led to believe, “the hymen is not a flat piece of tissue covering the vagina, which is punctured during intercourse. If it were, girls would not be able to menstruate before they lose their virginity because there would be no outlet for menstrual blood.”

“Usually, the hymen looks like a fringe of tissue around the vaginal opening,” adds Roye. “It is not an intact piece of tissue draped across it. Some girls are born without a hymen, others have only a scanty fringe of tissue. Moreover, for all its fabled mystery, the hymen is just a body part.”

Furthermore, while hymens can be torn during sex or other physical activity, they don’t “break.” These torn areas can bleed, but it doesn’t always happen.

Some of Roye’s patients ask whether using tampons or riding a bicycle can affect their hymens (and their virginity), or if they are “de-virginized” if a partner inserts a finger into the vagina. Roye also deals with parents who ask her to determine if their daughters are virgins.

“Of course, in New York (and many states) teens have a right to confidential care so I cannot tell the mother anything unless the teen gives me permission to do so,” Roye writes. “But even if I am allowed to talk to the parent frankly, I often can’t give the yes-no answer they want. It is not so easy to tell whether a girl is a virgin, because hymens are so varied. If there is not much of a hymen I have no way of knowing what happened to it. Was it a boyfriend or a bicycle? Or, perhaps, this girl did not have much tissue there to begin with.”

Back to the virginity question, Roye states that she believes “virginity is what the individual thinks it is. It certainly is for men, who bear no tell-tale signs of lost virginity.” She adds:

The concept of virginity has an emotional connotation. It is more than just the physical disruption of hymenal tissue.

If a young woman has had a sexual relationship with her partner, and she feels that she has lost her virginity, then she has, regardless of what actually happened to her hymen during the encounter. There are ancillary issues that each woman must answer for herself.

Well said.

Interestingly, “hymen” is the most popular internal search term at the Our Bodies Ourselves website. (In case you’re wondering, orgasm, abortion, yeast infection and vagina round out the top-five searches.) This self-guided tour is very useful in helping you to find your hymen, if remnants remain.

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