A few months ago at a dinner party, the topic of hymens came up (don’t all your dinner parties go like this?) and how on rare occasions the membrane is completely sealed and has to be surgically opened. One of the men there wondered how the condition could go unnoticed, seeing as it would block the passage of urine. It took me a while to realize that he thought women urinated from the opening that leads to the vagina. This from a twice-married father of 3 in his 60s.
Being female doesn’t guarantee we know the score either. We grow up with so many myths and get so little useful information about the female anatomy. Is it surprising that what we know about the hymen–its anatomy, its history, and its relationship to a woman’s sexual history–is flawed, incomplete, and yet totally ingrained in our collective consciousness?
For example, friends often tell me they didn’t bleed the first time they had intercourse because gymnastics or horseback riding broke their hymens. In fact, the bonk of a balance beam tends to get absorbed quite well by the vulva. Heather Corinna of Scarleteen points out that it’s more likely that, in the past, the threat of a broken hymen was used to discourage women from doing just these kinds physical activities.
As for me, during a long sexual dry spell, I’ve joked that my hymen must be growing back. Guess what? This can actually happen. In “Virgin: The Untouched History,” author Hanne Blank tells the story of a Taiwanese woman who had no less than three hymenotomies to unseal a relentlessly regenerating hymen. Even a sex ed film from 1947 tells us the hymen has nothing do with virginity, so why have the myths persisted?
Let’s take a journey into the misunderstood world of hymens and see what’s really going on down there.
The hymen is an inconsequential little bit of tissue: Or as Hanne Blank describes it: “A hymen is what’s left over when you make a hole.” The hymen can be thick or thin. It can change shape, grow, shrink, or disappear over time. It can have one hole, several holes or have no hole at all (this is the imperforate hymen, which gets noticed at puberty because it blocks the flow of menstrual blood). When penetrated, some women bleed a lot and some don’t at all–and that blood can come from any irritation on the vulva or vagina. It can happen the first time you have sex as well as the 23rd. Most importantly, hymens tell as accurate a story about a woman’s sexual history as the tip of a man’s penis tells about his. That is, no story at all.
There’s more than one useless way to check a woman’s virginity: Checking a woman’s hymen may be the gold standard these days, but it’s just one of a long line of attempts to prove the unprovable. Many ‘virginity tests’ were based on the idea that intercourse opened a channel between a woman’s vulva and throat. So, using this obvious faulty logic, the woman in question might be asked to smell a head of lettuce to see if it would cause urination. Or, she’d be seated on a cauldron to see if its smoke could be smelled on her breath. Yet another test used string to measure the ratio of a woman’s head to her throat (this one makes a fun party trick, see below for a link to a bonus video).
The hymen wasn’t even discovered until 1544: It started when the anatomist Andreas Vesalius went looking for a reason as to why some women bled during intercourse. He isolated a bit of tissue in two female cadavers he was studying, and because one was a nun and the other a hunchback, he decided neither had had intercourse with a man. The presence of this tissue sealed the deal, so to speak. Many other men followed his path of discovery and the magical hymen went from being a tiny anatomical body to the ne plus ultra of female virginity. You see, men really wanted and needed a medicalized definition of female virginity, one that smacked of scientific accuracy, as opposed to all those bits of string and lettuce leaves.
It all sounds ludicrous, but so were the tests to find witches and look where that got us. Lest you think present-day ‘virginity testing’ only happens in far-away countries where women are veiled, my own Manhattan gynecologist has told me stories of mothers bringing their daughters in to her to be verified as virgins. (She patiently explains to them the only way to know is by asking). And just a couple of months ago, a guy posted Facebook photos of what he claimed were his bloody honeymoon sheets, boasting to the world that his wife was a virgin. People were outraged, but I think mostly because they thought that all that lady blood looked gross.
There is a giant re-virginizing marketplace: Given the pressure on women to ‘perform virginity loss’ to the specifications of the misinformed masses, there is much money to be made selling products that recreate signs of virginity that have nothing whatsoever to do with virginity. Here’s my own consumer rundown:
Creams like China Shrink Cream, Liquid Virgin, and Like a Virgin are applied to the vaginal walls in order to (allegedly) cause swelling and tighten the vagina. For under $10 they promise to make it feel, you know, like the very first time. One also claims to be an excellent disinfectant and deodorant. We asked an intern to try it on her lips but nothing happened.
The ‘artificial hymen’ is actually a small piece of plastic embedded with red dye that’s inserted into the vagina before sex. It sells for about $30 online and those in the know recommend the Japanese brand over the Chinese because it won’t cause as many infections. Despite ordering the Japanese model for myself, I couldn’t convince my husband to try it out. It sounds like a joke but in 2010, Egyptian clerics demanded that anyone caught using one of these rather icky devices should be put to death by the state.
More hymen myths and some of the revirginizing products on the market.
At the most drastic end of the spectrum are the different varieties of hymen reconstruction. Many women, even those who have never had intercourse, go to clinics all over the world, including the US, to get a stitch or two put into their labia (the hymen is usually too fragile). This is to ensure bleeding on wedding-night penetration. Hymen reconstruction is a common practice in Europe, the Middle East, and South America, but carries a real stigma for doctors and very few actually admit to doing it. In contrast, US clinics advertise hymen reconstruction all over the internet, right alongside ‘vaginal rejuvenation’ surgery.
As for me, I never bled my first time, and I know it wasn’t because of gymnastics, which I did my best to avoid. I think the event was just so anti-climatic, my hymen remained as unmoved as the rest of me.
Bonus video link: Watch Hanne Blank demonstrate the string virginity test on Therese Shechter.
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Therese Shechter is raising money to finish her documentary “How to Lose Your Virginity.” You can watch the trailer and support the project at http://kck.st/GTtgMY. The film has reached over a third of its $35,000 goal, but it needs to be fully funded by May 9th or the filmmakers get nothing.