Many of us were raised to believe that the hymen signified someone’s virginity status, that it was a solid “wall” over the vaginal opening, and that it basically dictated your whole value as a person.
From slumber party gossip to pop culture references, church sermons to misinformed doctors, you seemingly can’t go anywhere without people talking about the hymen — and putting a lot of social pressure on this part of our body.
But is the hymen the All-Knowing Vagina-Protector it’s cracked up to be? You deserve to know the truth about your body, so let’s dive in and separate hymenal fact from fiction.
What Is the Hymen?
You may have heard that the hymen is a thick, muscle-like “cover” or “door” over the vaginal opening that only “pops” after vaginal intercourse — this is completely, totally, 100% false.
The hymen isn’t an impenetrable fortress. The hymen is a thin band of folded-up mucosal membrane situated about 1-2 centimeters into the opening of the vagina. It’s stretchy, not rigid, and for most people, it thins out over time. It’s the same color as the skin around your vaginal opening, so it can be hard to see.
If you were born with a vagina, then you most likely have a hymen (or some remaining hymenal tissue). Some people are born without them, or with hymens so thin, they’re not medically noticeable. Others may have hymens that remain thicker throughout their lives and may require surgical adjustment. While this is pretty rare, it’s not impossible!
While hymens come in all shapes and sizes, most babies are born with an annular (or donut-shaped) hymen which, throughout life, thins to a crescent shape.
Less commonly, people may have hymens that cover most or all of the vaginal opening.
There are a few different categories of this type of hymen: imperforate, microperforate, cribriform, and septate hymens. Between .01-.1% of people with vaginas have one of these hymen types. They’re all still fundamentally hymens, just different shapes of them!
Each of these less-common hymen types can cause some type of vulvovaginal discomfort — for example, you might not be able to insert a tampon. While ease of tampon insertion is something your doctor might ask about if they’re assessing you for a hypertonic pelvic floor (otherwise known as vaginismus), having an imperforate hymen doesn’t mean you have vaginismus, and vice versa.
No one is quite sure what purpose the hymen serves (so go ahead and add that to your list of vaginal “mysteries” that research isn’t paying enough attention to). Some theorize that it developed as a way to minimize vaginal infections in infants — the belief goes that if the band of tissue is thicker in infancy, it may help keep out bacteria.
But ultimately, we don’t actually know. So, here’s what we do know about the hymen:
- It’s a thin area of layered mucosal membrane
- It’s stretchy, not rigid
- It typically thins out or separates over time
- Some people have hymen shapes which may cause discomfort or require surgical opening
Hymen vs Vaginal Corona
In 2009, a Swedish organization named RFSU successfully campaigned in Sweden for the hymen to be renamed the vaginal corona. But why?
Well, because “hymen” has become an exceptionally loaded term, and carries with it a lot of stigma, expectation, and societal bullsh*t. In Swedish, the term for hymen was even more loaded — mödomshinna, which literally translates to mean “virginity membrane.” Yikes!
So, RFSU decided that this bit of the human body needed a rebrand.
The new Swedish term that was introduced was slidkrans, and its English equivalent became vaginal corona, though the term didn’t catch on quite as much in the United States.
Whichever term you opt to use, just remember to leave stigma out of it. Body parts are just body parts!
Can You “Pop” Your Hymen?
Have you ever heard the expression “pop your cherry”? It refers, in theory, to the hymen “popping” (and bleeding significantly) during someone’s first time having vaginal sex.
The truth is, hymens don’t pop — they’re not balloons — and most people’s hymens significantly thin out, open, or break long before they have vaginal sex for the first time. The hymen is made out of stretchy tissue, so for most people that tissue becomes thinner and loses elasticity over time.
For others, it might open, separate, or “break” during any variety of activities, like…
- Using a tampon
- Doing athletic activities like cheerleading, gymnastics, dance, or horseback riding
And yeah, during sex.
To be clear, the vast majority of people with vaginas won’t notice their hymen separating or breaking. It typically happens slowly over time, does not cause noticeable pain, and for many people may not bleed at all. Everyone’s body is different!
On the other hand, if you have an imperforate or microperforate hymen, and you try to force something into your vagina, that can hurt.
That pain and discomfort is why a minor surgical procedure called a hymenectomy is typically recommended for folks who have non-crescent-shaped hymens. If you can’t insert a tampon, talk with your doctor to get to the root of what could be going on.
Does a Broken Hymen Mean You’re Not a Virgin?
In much of the world, the hymen is deeply tied to the concept of “virginity.” In some parts of the world (including in the United States), some people with vaginas may be subjected to “virginity tests” — physical examinations of the vagina to determine if the hymen is intact.
To be clear, there is no medical definition of virginity, and there is no test or exam that can tell you if someone has had sex. Virginity is a cultural construct, not a medical or scientific principle.
Someone may have a broken or absent hymen, but have never had vaginal sex before. Someone else may have a present hymen, but be having sex frequently. You simply cannot tell anything about someone’s level of sexual experience by looking at any part of their genitals, hymen included.
Beyond that, virginity status doesn’t actually tell you anything about who a person is, what they like, or what is important to them — and it certainly isn’t a measure of their worth as a person. It just means they’ve either had sex before or they haven’t, and even then, we all define sex differently…so it really doesn’t tell you anything at all.
So, take the pressure off of your body. The only person who can tell the story of your sexual experiences is you — not your bits.
The hymen may sit on a high pedestal in our society, but in reality, it’s just one part of the human body — just like our skin, labia, nose, tongue, and appendix! So the next time you encounter a hymen-related myth, use your newfound knowledge to stop the stigma and just let this body part rest easy.