I’ve learned some interesting things recently about the hymen, and surfing around sexuality sites and blogs, I’m realizing that many sex positive, feminist bloggers and activists appear to be as in the dark as I was about the hymen. So! Time to change that.
1. The hymen does not “break.” I think most feminist, sex-positive people are aware that breaking the hymen doesn’t equal virginity loss, that there isn’t always blood, and probably that “virginity” itself is a social construct. But did you know that the hymen doesn’t break at all? I’d learned, at some point, that the hymen is a thin membrane of tissue covering much of the vagina, and that it breaks when you have intercourse or insert a tampon or ride a horse or what have you, and then the tissue just washes away with your blood or natural fluids and there it goes. Not true! The tissue can tear and change the shape of the hymen, or it can stretch so that it pretty much becomes an unnoticeable part of the surrounding vaginal tissue, but there isn’t any one “breaking” moment.
2. There are different shapes of the hymen. Some are more convenient than others. Many women have basically circular shaped openings in the hymen, or something like a ragged circle. Others have a shape that’s basically round but has lots of little fingers coming off from it, like a sunburst. Others have a kind of blob like shape like an inkblot. Others have a circle with a band of hymen running across. Others have a tiny hole, or many tiny holes, or none at all (this is usually “fixed” at birth due to the issues of menstrual blood needing to escape). And you can have a combination of shapes! The shape might change over time.
3. If the hymenal opening is very small or has a band going across it, it can be cut. This is apparently a very simple procedure in the gynecologist’s office. A lot of us have heard about the surgeries to “sew up” the hymen and give the illusion of virginity, but I haven’t heard much talk about the option to cut away problematic hymenal tissue. This can be done at puberty if a girl is having trouble inserting a tampon or having a very slow flow of blood during her menstrual cycle. It can also be done to alleviate pain during penetrative sex.
4. Some hymens are more flexible than others. As far as I can tell, the stretchiness of the hymen, and how much it blends in with the vaginal walls, depends somewhat on estrogen. So things like birth control, HRT, and menopause may affect how stretchy the hymen is and how easy penetrative sex is. Lubricant helps.
This post was originally published on the blog Sex Positive Activism, which has now merged to become the sex & relationships section of Queer & Now.