The Hymen’s Tale: Myths and facts about the hymen
Misinformation and circulated myths about women’s health can be incredibly harmful for women. One commonly misunderstood part of female anatomy is the hymen.
The hymen is a remnant tissue just inside the opening of the vagina that’s left over from how the vagina forms during embryonic development.
It’s commonly seen as a small amount of extra tissue in a crescent-shape or ring-like configuration around the edge of the vaginal opening. Many people might be surprised to learn that the hymen has no proven medical or physiological purpose.
For some women, there’s practically no tissue at all. For others, it’s a membrane covering the vaginal opening. That situation is rare, and it can interfere sex or tampon usage, but it can be removed surgically.
The most common myth around the hymen is that it remains “intact” until it’s broken during vaginal penetration, which renders it a physical marker of virginity. Though there are many instances where women do experience a small amount of bleeding from hymenal tearing at first intercourse, this is by no means a universal experience, as there are many women who have very little tissue there in the first place.
Another common myth is that the hymen is rigid and penetrable. The tissue is actually stretchy and flexible, which means it does not necessarily tear with penetration. In many cases, some tearing or stretching occurs over time from tampons, gynecological exams or vigorous exercise.
Because of these factors, it’s impossible to tell by examining a woman if she’s a virgin.
The idea that virginity can be measured or verified is perhaps the most harmful and damaging myth. Assuming that a woman’s sexual behavior can be inferred from her appearance is demeaning, and cultures that suggest the use of a hymenal exam to test for virginity invite incorrect and unfair judgments about women.
In reality, the only way to find out if a woman has had sex is to ask her.
Jonathan Schaffir is an ob/gyn at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.