Image: ‘Virgo’ in Urania’s Mirror, a set of constellation cards published in London c.1825
This week we tackle another reproductive health myth, and perhaps the most dangerous one of all… The idea that there is a part of the female body that indicates whether or not that person has had penetrative heterosexual sex.
1. The myth…
The story goes that the ‘hymen’- a thin bit of stretchy skin that sits just inside the vaginal opening- will ‘break’ during the first time that a female human has sex with a male human, and bleed- a supposedly strong and visual ‘test’ of virginity .
Therefore, it is believed that you can ‘tell’ if a female human is a virgin or not, by an invasive examination of their genitals, or by looking for blood on the bed sheets after the first time that person has sex . Note– only female human virginity is ever tested.
The term, ‘virgin’, is applied to all female, intersex, and male humans who have not yet ‘had sex’ with another human. However, virginity is also symbolically associated with the spiritual, religious, or moral ‘purity’ of a person, although in reality, this is usually only applied to girls and women .
2. The truth…
The hymen is not a reliable indicator of virginity
First of all, not all female humans are born with an obvious hymen and it gradually wears away with age and normal everyday activities such as exercise/ movement, menstruation, or masturbation . Note– the idea that riding, cycling, or gymnastics, can somehow ‘break’ a hymen is another myth, so don’t let it put you off enjoying sports. Only severe ‘straddle injuries’ caused by falling onto an object can possibly damage the hymen/ corona . Secondly, contrary to popular belief, the hymen does not ‘cover’ the opening of the vagina . It is a ring of folded tissue (like a hair scrunchy ), about 1cm inside the vagina, that can appear in many different forms, but nearly always (99.9% of the time) has an opening .
To try to address this common misunderstanding, some Swedish sexual health activists have renamed the hymen, the ‘vaginal corona’, to better describe its form . The coronal opening is of critical importance because menstrual fluid has to pass through it on its way out of the body. In fact, in the rare case that a person’s hymen/ corona lacks any opening (known as an imperforate hymen- found in approx. 0.1% of the female population), a doctor has to make an small incision in it, to allow normal menstruation to occur .
Question– Do you know what your hymen looks/ looked like? Many people are too scared to even take a look with a mirror! There’s nothing shameful about getting to know your own body- it belongs to you- and your vaginal corona is just another part of you, like your elbow, or nose…
Finally, the hymen/ corona is usually flexible and can even stretch to accommodate tampons, folded menstrual cups, fingers, and yes, even a penis, without tearing [7-9]. Some people’s hymens/ coronas will remain ‘intact’ even though they have already had sex . Other people who have never had sex, may only have a partial hymen, or one that is torn . So, it is not possible, even for a doctor, to know for sure if somebody has had vaginal sex, just by looking at their hymen/ corona (unless they have an imperforate hymen– and this would usually be discovered when menstruation starts i.e. typically before the age of sexual consent) .
Doctors (and others) have been trying to tell everybody these anatomical facts for centuries . However, the cultural pressure to maintain social control over the female body (due to its reproductive powers), is immense.
Sex is not impure or immoral
Newsflash! Heterosexual sex is still the most popular way to make human babies! It is an important activity for the survival of the human species, and also an enjoyable one if both partners are of the age of consent (16 years old in the UK) and demonstrably up for it (have clearly communicated mutual consent).
The problem is, heterosexual sex can lead to pregnancy and whilst a female human can always be pretty sure that she is the parent of her child, her male sexual partner is not able to be quite so certain. In a market-based society, children require a large investment of parent’s resources- so an individual may not want to invest in offspring that do not carry their genes. But (prior to DNA-testing) how could a father be sure that the child was his, and not that of another male?
Well, the solution for most of history was to control female human sexuality . In order to override the natural desire to have sex, male-dominated societies came up with novel ideas to make it difficult for female humans to have sex unless it was with the one male human who had bought the rights to (and over) her body. Not very kind and certainly against equal human rights, but still happening today in the guise of religious doctrine, cultural norms (including morality), and political laws… Despite the fact that rates of cuckoldry are very low  and unplanned pregnancies are much less of a problem nowadays- if people are able to access reliable methods of contraception .
Anything that reinforces the idea that a female human is morally, or spiritually, ‘bad’ to have sex (or to use a method of contraception) actually stems from this fear of uncertain paternity. Even if it is presented as a way to ‘protect’ women.
Note– Obviously, having unprotected sex with multiple partners does increase the likelihood of contracting a sexually transmitted disease, which might technically count as an ‘impurity’, or at least something ‘bad’ (stay safe, use a condom!). But, the same rule applies to all humans, regardless of their sex or gender, so health risks were definitely not part of the hymen/ virginity myth-making process.
3. The impact…
The hymen/ virginity myth is responsible for a lot of unnecessary violence (including many murders), pain, shame, stigma, invasive ‘medical’ procedures, fear, and unjust cultural beliefs and practices that discriminate against humans based solely on their sex, or gender . Here are just a couple of issues that directly affect reproductive health;
Bleeding or pain during sex is never ‘good’
The belief that the hymen/ corona ‘should’ bleed and cause pain when a female human first has sex, is harmful. Any pain or bleeding during sex is not normal or a positive experience; it is usually a sign of a minor injury (but more rarely, a medical condition or disease) . You are more likely to experience pain or bleeding if you are not sexually aroused, afraid, or if your partner is too rough (this is the same for non-virgins, too) . Unfortunately, the hymen/ virginity myth only adds to the fear of having sex for the first time.
Note- If you, or your partner, does experience pain or bleeding during or just after sex, try using a lubricant next time- if this doesn’t help, see your doctor. Thankfully, many people do not bleed the first time they have sex, because as we already know, the hymen/ corona stretches and is not that easily torn .
Invasive and unnecessary ‘medical’ procedures
Did you know that in the UK, doctors still perform medically unnecessary (and morally dubious) surgery to ‘restore’ the hymen/ corona? A recent newspaper article revealed that the NHS had carried out at least 109 such operations between 2007 and 2017 . The number of operations carried out by private surgeons is unknown, but likely to be much higher (there are at least 9 private clinics offering this surgery in Central London) . This is shocking. Especially in a country where FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) is a crime punishable by up to 14 years in prison .
As a result of their anatomical training, doctors definitely know that the hymen is not a reliable indication of virginity- so how can they possibly justify these operations (aside from making money in the case of private practitioners)? Dr Naomi Crouch, spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) made this statement in response to the story ;
“Hymenoplasty is a form of female genital cosmetic surgery (FGCS) which involves creating scar tissue so that a woman whose hymen is no longer intact can bleed the next time she has intercourse. There is a lack of reliable evidence about the clinical effectiveness and risks of FGCS, and there is no medical indication for these operations to be carried out.
It is important that clinicians inform and reassure women and girls about variations in female genitalia, thoroughly explore the reasons behind the request for FGCS, and advise on the management of physical symptoms rather than suggesting surgery as an option.”
The reasons why so many people wish to undergo unnecessary surgery may be psychological, social or religious- but never medical. The hymen/ corona does not play any known role in reproductive health.
4. Virginity is not a physical state…
As outlined above, the hymen is pretty useless when it comes to defining ‘virginity’. What counts as ‘having sex’ is also difficult to define…
For example, sexual violence ought not to count, since the victim did not consent to being attacked, and yet many societies continue to stigmatise survivors of rape. Victim-shaming is so ‘normal’ that several countries even have laws to force female children and adults to marry their attackers . This used to be the case in the UK, too, at least until the 17th Century .
In response to these issues, as described brilliantly in the video* below (from 5.55 min), human rights-based approaches now define virginity as something that belongs to you, and can only be shared with another person by choice (i.e. with your consent). This reduces the stigma attached to survivors of sexual abuse and violence, whilst keeping the idea of ‘virginity’ as something positive, and special.
We at Menstrual Matters are big fans of this healthier definition of virginity- please help us to share it widely!
*Many thanks to Kathy Lowe (expert in virginity and the hymen) and her nephew Matthew Shribman (of Science in the Bath fame), for creating such a useful resource!
References and notes:
1. ‘Physical virginity’ is a very ancient myth predating, and therefore integrated into, the texts of every major global religion. The methods of testing virginity (hymen examination – visual, or physical- and blood-stained sheets) have remained the same for thousands of years. The best book I’ve found on the history of virginity is by Hanne Blank (2007) Virgin: The untouched history. New York: Bloomsbury.
2. Berenson, A. B. et al. (1992) ‘Appearance of the Hymen in Prepubertal Girls’, Pediatrics, 89(3), p. 387 LP-394. Available at: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/89/3/387.
3. Price J. (2013) Injuries in prepubertal and pubertal girls. Best Pract Res Clin Obstet Gynaecol. Feb;27(1):131-9. doi: 10.1016/j.bpobgyn.2012.08.008.
4. Shout out to Kathy Lowe in the video at the bottom of this blog for coming up with the best description of the structure of the hymen/ corona I’ve ever heard- the hair scrunchy- it’s perfect!
5. Fahmy, M. A. B. (2015) ‘Hymen’, in Rare Congenital Genitourinary Anomalies: An Illustrated Reference Guide. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg, pp. 159–170. doi: 10.1007/978-3-662-43680-6_10.
6. The Swedish Association for Sexuality Education (RFSU) renamed the hymen in 2009- the new term- vaginal corona- is more descriptive of its structure, and disassociated from the harmful virginity myths https://www.thelocal.se/20091208/23720
7. Although, it is still possible for all of these thing to accidentally tear the hymen/ corona- it all depends on the shape of the opening and how relaxed the person is during insertion. For this reason, many menstrual cup, or tampon manufacturers advise people who are worried about tearing their hymen/ corona to avoid using these products. However, as we hope this blog clearly outlines- there is no reliable connection between the condition of a hymen and virginity.
8. Studies show that although internal menstrual management products can affect the hymen, in many cases they do not- and also some people who never insert anything into their vagina still have notches and tears in their hymens/ coronas. In a nutshell, the shape of a hymen is not a useful ‘test’ of anything. e.g.
Goodyear-Smith FA; Laidlaw TM. (1998) Can tampon use cause hymen changes in girls who have not had sexual intercourse? A review of the literature. [Review] [29 refs] Forensic Science International. 94(1-2):147-53
9. Adams JA; Botash AS; Kellogg N. (2004) Differences in hymenal morphology between adolescent girls with and without a history of consensual sexual intercourse. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. 158(3):280-5
10. I know of several historical texts that state that the hymen is an unreliable test of virginity, including; Hollick, F. (1860) The Marriage Guide or Natural history of Generation; A private instructor for married persons and those about to marry, both male and female. 200th edn. New York: T. W. Strong. p 43; and Anon (1684) Aristotle’s Masterpiece, or The Works of Aristotle, the Famous Philosopher London p 67 – Modern experts couldn’t be any clearer on this matter, either:
Independent Forensic Expert Group. (2015) Statement on virginity testing;
“Virginity testing (virginity examination) is a gynecological examination that is intended to correlate the status and appearance of the hymen with previous sexual contact. ….. The IFEG concludes that virginity examinations are medically unreliable and have no clinical or scientific value.”
11. Review of General Psychology, by the Educational Publishing Foundation (2002), Vol. 6, No. 2, 166 –203: Cultural Suppression of Female Sexuality
12. Anderson, K. (2006). How Well Does Paternity Confidence Match Actual Paternity? Evidence from Worldwide Non-paternity Rates Current Anthropology, 47 (3), 513-520 DOI: 10.1086/504167
13. Finer, L.B. and Zolna, M.R., (2011) Unintended pregnancy in the United States: incidence and disparities, Contraception, 84(5), pp.478-485.
14. Blank (2007) Virgin: The untouched history. New York: Bloomsbury.
15. NHS. (2018) What causes a woman to bleed after sex?. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/common-health-questions/womens-health/what-causes-a-woman-to-bleed-after-sex/. [Accessed 27 July 2018]
16. Unfortunately there is no large scale data on this topic, but informal research carried out by a doctor with 41 of her female colleagues, found that the majority (63%) had not bled the first time that they had sex. See reference below;
Paterson-Brown, S. (1998) ‘Commentary: Education about the hymen is needed’, BMJ, 316(7129), p. 461. Available at: http://www.bmj.com/content/316/7129/461.abstract
17. Apologies for referencing a bigoted newspaper- (elsewhere they imply that the majority of patients were Muslim, when in fact, according to this research, the majority had no religion, followed by Christians, and only 2 patients stated that they were Muslim!) The Daily Mail. (2018) Women ‘wanting to be as pure as possible again for their husbands’. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-5714425/Women-undergoing-virgnity-restoring-operations-NHS.html. [Accessed 27 July 2018].
18. A quick Google search found 9 clinics offering this surgery in Central London, 5 of which were on Harley Street.
19. Whilst FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) is a different and much more serious procedure, with horrendous lasting effects on the lives of those who are subjected to it, I still think it’s curious that invasive non-medical surgery on the hymen/ corona is not illegal in the UK. Doctors aim to ‘do no harm’ to their patients- which surely includes not reinforcing a dangerous myth, that is well known to be behind the murders of multiple women.
20. Here’s a good overview of these sorts of laws- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marry-your-rapist_law
21. Basher, N. (1983) ‘Rape in England between 1550 and 1700’, in The Sexual Dynamics of History London pp 28-46