5 Facts About the Hymen
It’s time to talk about the hymen. This small skinfold is often regarded as an indicator of virginity across cultures. However, the gap between medical knowledge of the hymen and our cultural interpretation of its role is vast. In this post we’ll take a look at five facts about the hymen, answer the question ‘what is the hymen?’, explain hymen’s meaning, and debunk myths once and for all!
1. The hymen doesn’t cover the vagina
First, let’s take a look at hymen’s meaning. Coming from the Greek word meaning membrane, the hymen is a small piece of skin found inside the opening of the vagina. Contrary to its name, the hymen is not a complete membrane covering the full vaginal opening. After all, menstrual blood can pass through the vagina before we have had penetrative sex for the first time.
A very small number of women are born with what’s called an imperforate hymen (that means a hymen without any openings) - this may require minor surgery so that menstruation can pass through. However, for most of us, the hymen is shaped more like a donut with a hole (or in some cases, several holes). This leads us on to our next hymen fact….
2. Hymens vary a lot in how they look
Just like the vulva, hymens don’t all look the same. Some may be larger than others, some have fringing, while others are more lobed-shaped. Some have round holes, others have perforations shaped like a half-moon. There is not a standard of ‘normal’ when it comes to what hymens look like. In fact, the idea that a hymen should look a certain way is particularly harmful, as we’ll cover later on in this post.
If you're curious to see if you have a hymen or what it looks like, you can take a look yourself at home with a hand mirror and a flashlight. The hymen may be visible if you part the labia on your vulva and look inside the vaginal passage. Don’t be worried if you can’t find your hymen, this skinfold is tiny and in some cases may not be visible at all.
3. The hymen stretches - it doesn’t break
We often talk about the hymen being broken when we have sex for the first time. However, the hymen is already perforated - we know blood, tampons and fingers can pass into the vaginal passage without the hymen disappearing. When we have penetrative sex for the first time, nothing disappears, the hymen may simply stretch.
This contradicts much of the language we’re familiar with when we talk about virginity. In reality, nothing physical is lost, and while our first time having sex may be significant for many of us, there isn’t a biological change to our bodies.
4. Not everyone has a hymen
Some women are born with a very small hymen or with no hymen at all. This is perfectly healthy and does not mean that they are missing anything, or need medical attention. For many of us our hymens can be stretched long before we have penetrative sex, whether it’s from sports, self-exploration or using menstrual products like tampons.
Again, you can check if you have a hymen, and should not be alarmed if you can’t find the hymen. Of course, if you have concerns about your reproductive health, you can always talk to your health care professional.
5. Virginity exams are not medically recognized
In 2019 the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists released a statement saying that they do not provide guidance on virginity testing. This is because you can’t tell whether a woman has had sex or not just by looking at her vagina. As covered earlier, every hymen looks different, so there is no set standard for finding evidence of penetration.
This idea that the hymen breaks when we first have sex has also led to a belief that our first time should be painful. In reality, pain during penetration is more likely to arise from anxiety, or from sexual inexperience, than from stretching the hymen.
While a medically accurate virginity exam does not exist, some cultures continue to carry out ‘virginity testing’. The World Health Organization declares virginity testing a breach of human rights. While we may feel removed from such practices as forced virginity testing, this is a worldwide problem that can affect women and girls everywhere. Understanding our own reproductive health is a great way to tackle myths and misinformation.
Knowledge puts you in control
We hope you’ve learned something new about the hymen! Here at Natural Cycles, we’re passionate about empowering women with knowledge and debunking myths about our reproductive health. Whether you’re looking to learn more about your body, prevent pregnancy or plan a pregnancy, our app can give you unique insights as to what’s happening in your body.