Sometimes the world is good. Like when in 2018 the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued a statement calling for the elimination of so-called “virginity testing,” (examining people’s hymens to try to see if they’ve had sex) and called it a violation of the human rights of girls and women (and trans-men and NB honeys too tbh).
And sometimes, it is extremely bad… please see: absolute shithead rapper T.I.’s comments late last year.
Women’s bodies and everyone’s opinions on them are constantly thrust into the spotlight in an unfortunate manner. One of the most discussed and debated components? Hymens.
So what are they exactly, and why are we as a culture so obsessed with them? (Spoiler alert: It’s because people are obsessed with trying to control women.)
Mythologised as hell, there’s a lot of misinformation and misconceptions around hymens out there (if we hear ‘pop your cherry’ one more time…). We chatted with Christine Rafe, a psychosexual therapist at Good Vibes Clinic and We-Vibe ambassador and sex educator Georgia Grace (@gspot._) to get the low down on just what is going on down there.
What is a hymen?
“Physiologically, a hymen is a membrane which surrounds the opening of the vagina,” explains Rafe. (That is: inside, not out).
She adds: “They’re kind of like a doughnut shape with an opening in the centre, though there’s a lot of variations around what hymens can look like and where they are perforated and how they are perforated.”
Grace adds that “many people think that the hymen totally covers the opening of your vagina until it’s stretched or broken, but it’s not the case most of the time. They’re kind of like an elastic band with the sensation of Glad Wrap over it—a very thin, fine tissue.”
Some people can even be born with very little hymen tissue and appear not to have one. A “ghost hymen” if you will. (Imagine being such a powerful introvert you ghost your own hymen. Legendary.)
Who has a hymen? Do only girls have hymens?
“Most vulva- and vagina-owning babies are born with hymens,” Rafe tells Syrup, “And most of them already have some sort of perforation in them from birth.”
As we are deeply aware, gender is not a binary and your assigned-at-birth or anatomical sex isn’t always an indicator of your gender identity, so no, not only girls have hymens.
What are hymens for?
Okay, so some of us have these things inside us, but do hymens do anything? Do they have a biological function?
“It’s not super clear!” says Rafe, “A lot of the research tends towards viewing it as a defence mechanism. We have a hole in the body and having a kind of thin membrane or skin that covers and protects that sort of makes sense, though it is something we don’t know a lot about.”
How can I tell if my hymen is intact or perforated?
“For one, it doesn’t really matter,” says Rafe. “For some vagina-owners, particularly those who may be younger in age, who maybe haven’t done so much “wear and tear” it may be possible for some of them to see their hymen.”
“But again, because it’s so varied in terms of what any sort of perforations or stretching or tearing could look like. There’s no definitive way to say this is what it would look like if you have it.”
And if you were still to go digging and see what your hymen looks like: “Typically, if you were able to see some sort of thin skin like tissue towards and around the opening or just inside the opening of the vulva, you may be able to see it,” according to Rafe.
Grace adds: “One way to know what your hymen looks like is to open your legs in front of a mirror and to get a sense of what you can see, you may want to put a bit of lube on your finger and feel if there are any natural tears.”
Do we need to worry about anything health concerns related to hymens?
“In some rare instances—and I’m talking pretty rare—people can be born with an un-perforated hymen,” says Rafe, “But to put that in perspective, if someone was born with an un-perforated hymen and reached the age of menstruation without it becoming perforated, they wouldn’t be able to menstruate because they wouldn’t have an opening for that blood to come out.”
Don’t worry though, it’s a relatively simple procedure to ‘snip’ the hymen to allow blood, fingers, penises, toys, etc all up in and out of there. On the topic of perforation, let’s tackle some of the common myths around hymens.
Breaking (Down) The Hymen (Myths)
How does a hymen “break”?
Contrary to popular belief, having penetrative sex for the first time is not usually the instances a hymen is “broken.” Hymens can perforation through any number of things says Rafe: “Bathing, walking, masturbation, horse-riding, athletic stretching—basically anything can cause a hymen to tear of perforate or stretch enough that it doesn’t need to tear.”
The perception we have for vagina-owners that the first time you have sex your hymen will break and that this will be bloody or painful is a myth.
“It’s a narrative,” says Rafe, “It doesn’t need to be like this and it shouldn’t have to be. And if it is, then maybe take a step back, take a breath, speak to your partner see if there’s something that you can do that feels a bit more comfortable.”
But wait, don’t you always bleed during the having sex for the first time because of the hymen breaking?
Ding ding ding! Another myth, the hymen is in fact stretchable. While some people with vaginas may bleed during their first penetrative sexual experience, it’s not always the case. The hymen can be stretched by fingers, penises and other objects, and with proper lubing up (actual lube or bodily fluids) this shouldn’t be painful.
This whole bodice-ripping ‘blood on the sheets’ business is another cute myth made up by the patriarchy, a woeful lack of education around sexual anatomy and men who wanted to excuse being bad in bed and not caring about their partners.
Does having a hymen mean that you’re a virgin?
“Having your un-perforated hymen doesn’t necessarily mean that you are still a virgin,” says Grace. The hymen is “by no means a judge of whether you’ve had sex for the first time because there is a whole range of reasons that your hymen may still be present and have tears in it.”
Can you test whether someone is a virgin by checking their hymen?
The answer is no. A million fucking times no.
The misconceptions around hymens that are continually perpetuated today are what prop up “virginity testing,” a fraught and archaic practice. According to WHO “virginity testing is often performed by inspecting the hymen for tears or its size of opening, and/or inserting fingers into the vagina (the “two-finger” test).” There is literally not a shred of a medical basis that this “test” can prove whether someone is a virgin.
It actively harmful, can be re-traumatising (especially if someone has suffered sexual violence or rape), often causes severe emotional and psychological distress, and violates several human rights and ethical standards including the fundamental principle in medicine to ‘do no harm.’
It’s so incredibly important to empower yourself and everyone around you with evidence-based sexual health knowledge (porn can be good *sometimes* but, no, it doesn’t count, guys). Having open discussions about sex pretty much only benefits you, helps you feel more comfy about sex (feeling comfortable = better sex) and dismantles reductive patriarchal ideas about people’s bodies and their bodily autonomy.
And if u don’t know, now u knowwwwww.
Lead image: Sex Education (2019)