What is a hymen? Is the hymen a marker of a woman’s virginity?
There is a common misconception that the hymen—a membrane found at the opening of the vaginal canal—is an indication of virginity. Because of its location and potential to change over the course of a woman’s life, there’s a common but incorrect belief that the hymen is a barrier that’s permanently “broken” the first time that a penis penetrates the vagina.
Let’s debunk the myth of hymen or the “virginity membrane.”
Is Hymen a Marker of Virginity?
Society has come to know the hymen as the “virginity membrane.” According to sex researcher Emily Nagoski, this misconception is dangerous because of the powerful impact it can have on women’s lives.
When an unmarried woman’s hymen is absent or torn, she’s seen as impure or marked as “damaged goods.” In some cultures, this has resulted in women feeling pressured to have surgical reconstruction of their hymen as if it were a medical necessity. Nagoski adds that in some extreme cases, women are even beaten or killed because people have seen anything but a fully intact hymen as proof that she has had sexual intercourse outside of marriage.
On the other hand, Nagoski maintains that people have used the presence of a hymen as proof that a woman couldn’t have been raped, preventing her from seeking justice for the crime committed against her. The logic goes that if the hymen is a barrier and it’s still intact, there was no penetration and thus no rape.
Nagoski concludes that the basis of these real-world consequences is an idea that’s entirely false. In reality, the hymen serves no biological function (including being a barrier). Some women are born without them, and when they’re present, they simply stretch with penetration. If they do happen to tear, they heal.
(Shortform note: While Nagoski claims that the hymen is an evolutionary byproduct serving no real function, in reality, biologists don’t agree about why it exists. In addition to the virginity theory mentioned previously, other theories suggest that the hymen’s purpose is to make sex painful—therefore encouraging more caution amongst young women interested in sex—or that it evolved to prevent foreign objects from accidentally entering the vagina.)
|The Hymen and Virginity Testing|
Although Nagoski discusses some possible outcomes of evaluating the state of a woman’s hymen, such as shame, the denial of rape, and even death, she doesn’t provide information about how people conduct this evaluation.
Both historically and cross-culturally, people have subjected women to so-called “virginity testing.” Usually conducted by a doctor—though sometimes carried out by other community members when a medical professional isn’t available—virginity testing is an invasive procedure that involves inspecting a woman’s genitalia to determine whether her hymen is still intact. The World Health Organization (WHO), as well as other global organizations, condemns the practice as a human rights violation and a violent act against women that has the potential to cause both physical and psychological harm.
Despite having no scientific merit, the practice is still used today in certain cultures around the world. As recently as 2020, for example, virginity testing was being used on rape victims in Pakistan before the Lahore High Court banned it at the beginning of 2021.
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Here's what you'll find in our full Come As You Are summary:
- Why women should change the way they talk, think, and feel about their sexuality
- A look at the misinformation and harmful cultural messaging surrounding sex
- A discussion around the individual experiences of arousal, desire, and orgasm