The concept of “virginity” for people with vaginas has a complicated history, and it has frequently been (incorrectly) linked to hymen rupture. Bleeding after sexual intercourse was mistakenly thought to be proof of an unbroken hymen, and thus proof that a person had not previously had sex. However, the truth is that your hymen has nothing to do with sexual activity.
We’ll separate fact from fiction and explain what a hymen is, how a hymen breaks, and its complicated relationship with the historical concept of virginity with the help of Dr. Jessica Shepherd, a board-certified ob-gyn and a spokesperson for Paragard, and Alexandra Eisler, a health and sex educator from Healthy Teen Network. Continue reading for 9 facts about this tiny tissue that you should be aware of. But first, let’s define some terms:
What is a hymen?
“The hymen is a thin membrane that surrounds the opening to the vagina,” explains Dr. Shepherd. The hymen is just a portion of the vaginal canal that really doesn’t serve a purpose. It has no known biological function and it does not, in any way, indicate whether or someone has engaged in sexual activity.
1. The hymen can broken in a variety of ways and is not a marker of virginity.
The hymen can be broken in a variety of ways. Sexual activity (including penetration, oral sex, fingering, and masturbation) can break the hymen, yes, but so can the insertion of a tampon or even exercising. It’s also worth noting that you can break your hymen without even knowing it. Dr. Shepherd explains that it’s entirely possible to disrupt the hymen during a weight-bearing exercise and not feel a thing. It’s also possible to notice a bit of bleeding and tenderness. It’s different for everyone.
2. On the flip side, it’s possible to engage in sexual activity and not break the hymen.
It is possible to engage in sexual activity without breaking the hymen. It’s very possible that the hymen could not be broken during fingering or oral sex, explains Dr. Shepherd. It’s even possible (though uncommon) to have intercourse without breaking the hymen.
It bears repeating: the presence or absence of a hymen does not prove or disprove whether someone has engaged in sexual activity.
3. Chances are, even if your hymen is intact, you won’t be able to see it.
If you try to look at an intact hymen, it may be difficult to pinpoint. “If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’d have a really hard time telling the difference, because it will be a fleshy colored membrane in a place where you have flaps and folds and hair,” Eisler says. If you do want to go exploring, though, it’s located about about 1-2 centimeters inside your vaginal opening.
4. There are different types of hymens.
Hymens are not one-size-fits-all. There are actually five types of hymen which are medically classified as:
- Normal: hymen with a generally crescent shaped opening.
- Cribriform: hymen with several small openings through which menstrual blood can flow.
- Imperforate: hymen with no opening at all.
- Microperforate: hymen with extremely small opening.
- Septate: hymen with a thin band of tissue in the center.
Imperforate, microperforate, and septate hymens interfere with menstrual flow and tampon use. In these cases, you can have a minor surgery (called a hymenectomy) to remove the extra tissue and open up the hymen so period blood can flow through. This is performed by a gynecologist.
5. Once a hymen has been broken, it does not grow back.
Once a hymen is broken, either naturally or through a hymenectomy, it will not grow back.
6. Virginity is a social construct rather than a medical condition.
According to Eisler, virginity is a social construct, not a medical condition. “While there is no medical definition for virginity, it is an important concept to many people,” she says. “It’s built by social norms and beliefs, even if it doesn’t have a scientific basis.”
So you likely have a definition about what virginity entails based on your friends, what your parents have taught you, and whether or not you have specific religious beliefs. To many, virginity means you haven’t yet had sex, though what is considered sex can vary from person to person. It should also be said that having sex doesn’t change anything about you; it doesn’t add or take away value, just as not having sex doesn’t.
7. “Losing your virginity” does not necessarily mean penis-in-vagina sex.
The concept of virginity has long been tied up with the heteronormative idea that when a penis enters your vagina, you’re no longer a virgin. There are some obvious problems with this definition. “It gets ridiculous when you think, okay, if someone is a lesbian, knows they’re a lesbian from day one, and has never had penetrative sex, are they going to be a virgin until the day they die?” Eisler says. “If someone only has anal sex but not vaginal sex, are they still a virgin? I’m really clear with folks, that when we say sex, we mean oral, anal, or vaginal sex.”
8. You don’t have to prove your sexual history to anyone.
You should never feel you have to prove your status, and furthermore, it’s not even possible to do so. We would argue that the best way to find out if someone has not yet had sex (if they really care to know) is simply to ask — and it’s entirely up to you whether or not you want to discuss it at all!
9. You are in control of your sexual activity.
There are some major problems with the concept of “losing your virginity.” The term implies that it isn’t in your control. If you lose your phone, is that a conscious decision? No! We need to change how we talk about the first time a person has sex. It shouldn’t be something that someone takes from you.
“[I don’t like] this idea that young women should be passive receivers of sex,” Eisler says. In too much of the world, women are still controlled in this way. “The most important thing is to keep yourself safe, and do what you feel good about,” Eisler recommends. “Take it slow and really know what sexual experiences are really comfortable for you and your body, what’s going on down there and relax about a lot of it.” And for sure, don’t worry about your hymen. Or lack thereof.