What, Actually, Is A Hymen?

Contrary to popular belief, the hymen is not a cling film-like covering of the vagina. But, what is it? And why has it become such a powerful symbol of female purity?

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Maybe I broke mine horse riding or when I fell on a fence.’

A friend is trying to figure out what became of her hymen. She is in her thirties now and about to become a mother, but when she first had penetrative sex as a teenager, she didn’t bleed. She doesn’t recall the experience as being painful and she says she was only aware of the notion of a hymen because she had encountered it in novels and sex education books.

Several other women I know (women brought up in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s in the United States, the Middle East, the UK and Ireland) tell me similar stories: they heard about the hymen in school and in books, but as they progressed through their teens – getting their periods; masturbating; or experiencing penetrative sex for the first time – it often failed to present itself in the way that they had imagined.

A lot of women I speak to describe their hymen as a sort of seal, like a piece of translucent sheeting that protects the opening of the vagina, and therefore a woman’s purity, waiting to be pierced – usually by a penis.

However, not one of the women I speak to actually confirms ever having encountered her own hymen in the way she would describe it. And actually, women’s descriptions seem various – some were unaware of their hymen, some barely aware, and some others experienced difficulty.

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What is a hymen?

It’s pretty obvious that there is a disconnect between the imagined hymen and the real, biological hymen. Because, the thing is – the hymen is not a tautly pulled skin protecting a girl’s vagina. It is actually, as defined by the anatomy textbook Gray’s Anatomy, a ‘thin fold of mucous membrane situated at the orifice of the vagina’.

‘It’s not a covering,’ confirms Adeola Olaitan, a consultant gynaecological oncologist working in private and public practices in Manchester when I ask her to explain the hymen to me. ‘In the majority of people it’s like a crescent.’

Imagine the vagina as a ring, she says, and in most women, the lower part has a crescent – the hymen – partially occluding it. In some cases, the hymen will not be crescent-shaped but will be ring-shaped, too, a circle of tissue sitting just inside the vagina.

How do you know if your hymen is broken?

In most cases, a vagina – and a hymen – will ‘probably accept a finger without any difficulty at all,’ Dr Olaitan tells me. ‘But there are variations around that.’

‘Needing a surgical intervention to open up the vagina is extremely rare,’ she says, but usually a girl or woman will find herself being referred to a specialist if her periods fail to arrive.

This very unusual imperforate hymen (where the vagina is completely occluded) or microperforate hymen (where there is a small hole) is actually quite like the ‘stretched membrane’ notion of the hymen that persists in our culture – but even then, that erroneous but persistent description of a sort of cling film-like hymen is wildly unhelpful.

A lot of women describe their hymen as a sort of seal, like a piece of translucent sheeting that protects the opening of the vagina

It is estimated that around 40 per cent or so of women are born with an ‘average’ hymen - that crescent shape. Others will have a ring shape. Some may have no hymen or a hymen that is much thicker.

Changing hormone levels might mean that the hymen wears away gradually as a girl gets older or it might be stretched through the use of tampons or masturbation. In some cases, remnants of the hymen will be present, even after penetrative sex has occurred and may become more obvious later, after childbirth, for example.

The hymen is not a film pulled across a girl’s vagina protecting her virginity.

But that is what it has come to be perceived as by many, even by women whose experience of their own hymens, their own vaginas, their own bodies, has told them otherwise. And that notion has been allowed to become so pervasive, in part, I think, because the hymen has no biological function. No one really knows why the hymen is there and so the hymen has become a hugely significant symbol in a culture that polices women’s sexuality.

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The hymen and virginity

Female virginity is seen as a state that must involve a man – and his penis – to be undone. This sense exists in almost every culture, in every religion: being a virgin means to never have had sex – but that sex is usually understood to be penetrative heterosexual sex.

In some cultures, there is particular emphasis placed on purity and virginity. In her book on feminism in the wake of the Arab Spring, Headscarves and Hymens, Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy explores the preoccupation with women’s purity that exists in Arab cultures.

‘Our hymens are not ours,’ she says starkly. ‘They belong to our families.’

A woman who has had sex before marriage will bring shame on her family, she writes, and a woman’s virginity is a countable commodity passed on from one family to another, presented to a new husband on a wedding night.

Some women living in traditional Arab cultures (or in other cultures where virginity is highly valued) who have had consensual sex before marriage, or have been raped or assaulted, will find themselves in dire circumstances before their wedding night.

If a woman is suspected to not be a virgin, her husband will tell his family and she will be punished and shunned. Her family could be ostracised. She might be instantly divorced. There have been particularly heinous cases, in which women who were found to have had sex before marriage were murdered in so-called honour killings. If a woman does not bleed – which may be the case for a variety of reasons – her virginity will be questioned, too.

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What is hymen reconstruction surgery?

Sometimes, women who have had vaginal sex before marriage resort to a procedure known as hymen reconstruction or hymen repair. At clinics throughout the Middle East and all over the world, there are doctors performing operations designed to make women bleed on their wedding night. Some of the remnants of the hymen, or other tissue present in the vagina, will be fused together, usually with dissolvable sutures (stitches) a few weeks before the wedding ceremony. And so on the night of her wedding, the woman will bleed when the fused tissue is torn.

Here in the UK, there are private clinics offering this service and it is occasionally made available on the NHS. Most patients will come from conservative families with Middle Eastern and Asian backgrounds. Dr Olaitan compares such a procedure, if done for purely cosmetic reasons, to female genital mutilation, but stresses that an NHS doctor performing the procedure should have weighed up the benefits for the patient.

The thinking goes: although there is no medical indication, if this will save a young woman from being ostracised or mistreated within her family or community, or even killed, then isn’t it better to perform it?

For women living in Western cultures, there is less emphasis placed on the hymen, but so-called liberal cultures are still haunted by the hymen and what it represents. It lingers in the way we talk about sex.

Virginity is presented as the act of a penis penetrating a vagina, which leaves LGBTQ+ girls and women wondering how to define their first sexual encounters. And when we speak of the penis-in-vagina virginity-losing, there is an assumption that the boy or man will orgasm (maybe too soon, the jokes go) whereas the girl or woman will face blood and pain.

There is an assumption that a girl or woman will have a bad time the first time she has sex; and actually, in a lot of society, there is even something like a hope that she will.

This is an edited and condensed extract from Vagina: A Re-Education by Lynn Enright, published by Allen & Unwin.


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