At some point in our early lives, most of us learn about the formidable hymen.
As legend has it, the hymen is a thin piece of tissue that extends across the opening of the vagina, sealing a woman shut. This being the case, the legend goes, the first time a woman has vaginal sex, the pioneering penis must plow through the tissue, resulting in the pain and blood that’s associated with the female initiation into sexual activity.
If you’ve done even a little bit of research into the topic, however, you’re probably aware that that this conception of the hymen is as flawed as it is popular. And in case you haven’t, let me state for the record: This portrayal of the hymen is a myth.
While tissue does exist down there (more on this in a moment), the notion that it’s a uniform piece of female anatomy that must, at some point, break is just plain wrong.
Let me explain. For one, the idea that the hymen is an unbroken barrier is a massive red flag. If the vagina were completely sealed off, menstrual blood (not to mention other forms of vaginal discharge) would remain trapped within the body, causing a whole host of issues.
So you might have naturally intuited that the hymen already comes with an opening (usually, anyway—in rare cases it doesn’t and requires some surgical intervention). You may also be aware that sometimes that one hole is actually two—or several.
And if you’ve studied even further, you’re likely aware that the state of the hymen doesn’t actually reveal any information about a woman’s sexual history. While some women make it to that first sexual experience with an intact hymen that’s injured upon contact with a penis, others have already damaged or discarded theirs by horseback riding, tampon use, or masturbation, just to name a few hymen-damaging activities.
But even if you know that the hymen can take many forms, and that its existence says little about a vagina’s past or present, you’re probably still under the impression that the hymen is a real, discrete part of the body—one that must be taken care of in some fashion if a woman wants to have an enjoyable sex life.
And that’s where you’re wrong.
As Hanne Blank explains in Virgin: The Untouched History, from an anatomical perspective, “a hymen is what’s left over when you dig a hole.” You see, when the fetal vagina is created, miscellaneous scraps of tissue get left over in the process—sort of along the lines of those oddly shaped bits left over after a batch of cookies has been stamped out of a sheet of dough. In the case of the vagina, these assorted leftovers collect around the opening to form the hymen.
In the same way that there are many and varied types of labia, there’s a plethora of hymen styles out there. Doctors recognize a handful of common hymen shapes, but that’s actually just the tip of the iceberg of hymen diversity. Hymens can be incredibly visible or barely there at all, so fragile they fall apart at the slightest touch or thick and elastic enough to stretch in response to pressure. As one learns more and more about the vast array of hymens, it seems less and less like a discrete, specific body part with an actual, universal function—especially since it turns out that not everyone needs to lose, or tear, their hymen in order to have enjoyable sex.
Yes, contrary to everything we’ve been told, the hymen doesn’t actually have to serve as a barrier to pleasurable intercourse. While some hymens do functionally prevent penetration, and may result in pain and bleeding when sex is attempted, others are able to stretch to accommodate a penis’ presence. So not only does the lack of a hymen not serve as proof of a deflowering; the presence of a fully intact hymen isn’t necessarily a sign that sex hasn’t happened.
And while this may seem like an ultimately inconsequential bit of anatomical nerdery—along the lines of debating why, exactly, we still have wisdom teeth—our belief in the hymen has very real consequences. Even in more liberated societies, where virginity tests and the social ostracization of sexually active women are things that happen elsewhere, our belief in the hymen sets us up to believe that pain is an unavoidable aspect of becoming a sexually active woman—that whether it happens in the bedroom or on the horse trail, a woman must, at some point, suffer a painful initiation into womanhood. That’s a dangerous idea that teaches women to normalize their suffering, to see painful intercourse as a burden to be endured, rather than a sign that something is wrong.
The hymen isn’t real—at least not in the way we think it is—but the harm that it causes women is undeniable. Clinging to our delusion that women must be painfully initiated into sexual activity doesn’t just perpetuate a myth about female anatomy. It actively hurts women.
Lux Alptraum is a writer, comedian, and consultant with one thing on her mind. Follow her on Twitter at @luxalptraum.