The concept of female virginity has a complicated history. We’ve all heard the old stories about maids coming to check the sheets after the wedding night when a king marries a young woman, searching for the telltale bloodstain, which was supposedly proof that she was a virgin. Or remember Claude’s horrifying virginity test on the last season of “Reign”? That still happens in some cultures.
At the center of all this commotion is a small, ragged membrane just inside the opening to the vagina, called the hymen. That old-timey expression “popping your cherry”? The cherry is the hymen. The hymen, or lack of one, has long been the gold standard for determining virginity, although this gets complicated, as you’ll see in a sec.
But how important is this little piece of tissue? Does it truly explode/rip/pop upon contact as pop culture would have us believe? To get to the bottom of the hymen and its role in virginity, we chatted with Alexandra Eisler, the training and technical assistance manager at Healthy Teen Network, an organization that provides sex education and social policy advocacy for teens.
Here, 8 facts about the hymen and virginity you need to know:
1. There is no medical definition of “virginity”: According to Eisler, virginity is a social construct, not a medical condition. But we should still talk about it. “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 or belief 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.
2. Losing virginity does not necessarily mean penis meeting a vagina: The concept of virginity has long been tied up with heteronormative ideas — 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, OK, if someone is a lesbian, knows they’re a lesbian from day one, and has never had sex with a male-bodied person, are they going to be a virgin until the day they die? Does that mean if someone only has anal sex but not vaginal sex, are they still a virgin?” Eisler says. “I’m really clear with folks, that when we say sex, we mean oral, anal, or vaginal sex.”
3. You can’t prove virginity: So because there is no medical diagnosis, there really isn’t a way to prove that a woman is a virgin or not. (We would argue that the best way is to just ask her!) “But what about the hymen?” you ask…
4. The hymen is not a closed membrane: It’s easy to imagine the hymen as a wall or a structure that needs to be broken, sort of like being the first one to cross through the finish line tape in a race. In reality, the hymen is a thin membrane that is just inside the vaginal opening. But — get ready for it — it also has an opening in it, so that menstrual blood and other secretions can get out. Generally, that opening is in a crescent shape, but it varies from woman to woman. Some have very small openings, and some even have multiple openings in the hymen. Rarely, a woman will have a closed hymen, which is called “imperforate,” but that requires medical intervention.
5. Your hymen can be hard to see: If you try to look for yours, 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.
6. By the time you decide to have sex, your hymen may already be undetectable: “Think of it like tissue paper,” Eisler says. “It can stretch or tear or easily rub away.” Activities like horseback riding, biking, gymnastics, using tampons, fingering, and masturbation can all cause the hymen to move out of the way.
7. There’s a good chance you won’t bleed the first time you have intercourse: While some women experience a few drops of blood the first time they have vaginal sex, it’s pretty rare, because of all the reasons mentioned above. It doesn’t really take that much to fully open the hymen. According to Eisler, it doesn’t even have a huge blood supply, so even if it is intact, you may not bleed much or at all. “People make a big deal about whether you bleed the first time you have sex. But the idea of ‘popping a cherry’ is not the momentous event that a lot of people think it is or are told it will be,” Eisler says. (Just read these women’s accounts of having sex for the first time for an idea of expectations versus reality.) Sometimes sex can cause bleeding from the vaginal mucosa, not the hymen, if it s particularly dry or the movements are too fast or rough.
8. You are in control of your virginity, if not your hymen: There are some major problems with the concept of losing your virginity. That 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 virginity. 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 and that young men are going to do something to them,” 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 something you feel good about,” Eisler recommends. “Take it slow and really know what’s comfortable for you and your body and 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.