There’s perhaps no part of the human body as fraught with myths as the hymen. Growing up, many people with vulvas hear bleak and frightening warnings about first-time sex being painful because the hymen supposedly has to break. Some are even forced to have their hymens examined in tests designed to determine if they’re virgins or not. This is not only based on inaccurate information, but also harmful to people’s relationships with their bodies and with sex.
Our whole concept of the hymen is so warped, there’s even a movement to change its name; The Swedish Association for Sexuality Education renamed it the “vaginal corona” in 2009 to reflect that it’s a small piece of tissue only partially covering the vagina, not a seal that blocks it off, as you commonly hear.
There are different types of hymens, but for the most part, the organ is smaller, thinner, more elastic, and less prone to pain and bleeding than you typically hear. In fact, what people learn about the hymen often has more to do with cultural and religious traditions than with science.
Here are a few common myths young people are still learning about the hymen — and what we should be teaching them instead.
1. Your hymen will be intact if you have not yet had penis-in-vagina intercourse.
Many people — even including modern-day figures like rapper TI — still subject adolescents to “virginity tests” that supposedly determine if they’ve had sex based on whether their hymens are intact.
The truth is, examining the hymen cannot tell you this. The hymen can tear during many other activities, like bike-riding, gymnastics, or inserting a finger or tampon into the vagina.
Not everyone is even born with a hymen, and because the hymen can stretch rather than break and heal if it does tear, there’s actually no relationship between its size and whether a vagina has been penetrated.
So, contrary to popular belief, there is no physical test that can tell you someone’s sexual history.
2. The first time you have intercourse, the hymen must break.
People with vulvas who are planning to engage in penis-in-vagina intercourse are often told that the experience will be painful and bloody because the hymen has to break — AKA “popping your cherry.” The truth is, this does not have to happen at all.
First of all, not everyone engages in this kind of sex. Second of all, not everyone who does engage in it even has an intact hymen by the time they do (see myth #1). Thirdly, if your hymen is intact and you want to have penis-in-vagina intercourse, you can stretch it rather than break it. This can be done by inserting a finger, then two, gradually increasing the amount you put inside the vagina.
Bleeding is not inevitable. One study found that only 37% of women reported bleeding the first time they had sex. More could probably avoid it if they gradually stretched it out, went slowly, and used lots of foreplay and lube.
3. The hymen is responsible for any pain and bleeding that happen during first-time intercourse.
While it may seem natural to attribute pain or bleeding during first-time (or second-time or third-time) intercourse to the hymen, there are actually more often other culprits to blame, such as emotional discomfort or lack of arousal, both of which can lead to dryness or tight vaginal muscles.
“Any blood with first penetration is more likely due to general vaginal tearing from lack of lubrication than to damage to the hymen,” sexologist Emily Nagoski writes in her book Come as You Are. Clitoral stimulation, lube, and a partner you trust can all help with this.
It’s also important to know that pain during sex, especially if it continues, can be a sign of a medical condition like vulvodynia, pelvic floor issues, or endometriosis (especially if combined with period pain). So, you should talk to a doctor if you have severe or enduring pain during sex.
4. Your hymen defines your virginity.
Not only does the hymen not tell you whether a vagina has been penetrated — it cannot tell you whether someone is a virgin, because virginity is a social construct. Even those whose vaginas have been penetrated by a penis may consider themselves virgins, for example, if the penetration was not consensual. Or they may simply not identify with having “lost their virginity” because they don’t subscribe to the concept. Some find the whole idea problematic, as it’s been used to judge people’s (primarily women’s) “purity.”
Furthermore, someone may consider themselves to have lost their virginity from activities other than penis-in-vagina intercourse. For example, someone with a vulva who has had oral or manual sex with another person with a vulva may consider that to be the instance in which they lost their virginity. The typical definition of virginity is based on heteronormative, cis-normative assumptions.
Virginity is a concept, not a physical reality, so you get to define it however you want.