It was the fall of 2003, my sophomore year of college. Like millions of coeds before me, I had made an appointment at my campus health clinic to get birth control. I was in a long-distance relationship with my high school sweetheart and had just learned his military unit was shipping overseas. We’d decided to get hitched before he departed and I was taking proper precaution. As good Christian kids, heavy petting was the only thing we’d done in our one-and-a-half years together. But had I known that waiting for marriage would only reward me with years of pain and secrecy, I might have tested my virginal waters sooner. I was about to learn that my body had a cruel surprise waiting for me.
Lying back in the stirrups for the exam, I steeled myself for this feminine rite of passage. I assumed it would be uncomfortable, but I wasn’t prepared for the pain—inserting even the smallest speculum was excruciating. The physician made soothing reassurances that this was often normal if you weren’t used to penetration. She tried using her forefinger and then pinkie but ran into the same resistance.
When my body rebelled against a Q-tip, she began to ask questions: Had I ever had an internal exam before? Had I ever tried using a tampon? Had my fiancé or I ever used a finger inside me? No, no, and no.
A second doctor was called in as I tried to breathe deep and relax, willing my body to cooperate, but she didn’t get any further. Laying a hand on my knee, she softly explained that I had an “imperforate hymen.” It happened sometimes, and it could be taken care of by a simple operation. I burst into tears.
Never heard of a hymen that has to be removed surgically? That’s because it’s so uncommon that estimates vary from one case in 1,000 or one in 10,000. There is no known cause, genetic mutation, or environmental trigger responsible for the anomaly. Medical intervention isn’t optional—it’s required. Trying to force through an unyielding hymen can put a woman at risk for major hemorrhaging.
Trying to grasp my peculiar situation, I read as much about imperforate hymens as I could. I learned mine was technically called a “microperforate hymen” because my period blood could pass through. (True imperforate hymens completely block the vaginal opening, causing menstrual fluids to pool in the uterus and cause severe abdominal pain.) While the medical literature strives to be objective, it’s peppered with words like abnormal, incomplete, congenital disorder, rare, malformation, and uncommon. I sat in my university library, overwhelmed and bewildered by how to process this information. I was raised to believe that my virginity was “a gift” to be offered up on my wedding night, but my cockblocking hymen was making that impossible.
I felt betrayed by this piece of tissue only a few millimeters wide. Aside from my fiancé and parents, I told no one. My friends already assumed I was having “real” sex—how could I explain that I had deviant genitals and needed corrective surgery? I felt like a biological freak and didn’t want to answer any awkward questions about something that felt so intensely private.
With my fiancé in another country for the next several years and only phone sex available, the hymenectomy (the medical name for the surgery) was ultimately shelved until I was 24. As the date approached, I should have been excited that I was finally going to be free of this anatomical deviation that I had kept secret for so long. But I was more scared than elated, and my anxiety was founded—the procedure was supposed to take 30 minutes, but mine lasted an hour due to complications with bleeding. And despite being promised that recovery would be just two days, I fell into a post-surgical haze for several weeks.
For other women who’ve endured hymenectomies, their private pain might end here, as they move past the experience and enjoy ordinary sex lives. That is not my story. While nature decides who is born with a hymen complication, the physicians who treat us can determine how we recover from what can be a physically and emotionally taxing experience. And the physician I saw next seemed to consider my pain as a personal inconvenience.
At my follow-up appointment after the surgery, I knew that I would experience vaginal penetration for the first time, so my fiancé came with me for support. Perhaps this gynecologist had seen one too many vaginas to really care anymore. He asked no permission to enter and gave me no moment to prepare—there was a single swift motion and an immediate wall of pain like nothing I’ve felt since. I wailed and pleaded for him to stop but he ignored the tears he was causing. He actually seemed annoyed that his rooting around was causing me to clamp down and make his job more difficult. He finally withdrew, said I was healing fine, and left the room. My fiancé helped me dress as I numbly went through the motions of gathering my things, my underwear catching tiny spots of fresh blood.
Almost a decade later, my husband still gets angry when he talks about the experience: “That doctor’s whole attitude was ‘we cut you open, you’re good to go now, stop crying, next.’”
A hymenectomy is supposed to give a woman her body back. Women are warned of some soreness during the recovery phase, but vaginal tissue recovers quickly. I wish my experience ended with happy, normal sex—but it was not to be.
Even though my husband and I had the green light for sex, I experienced residual pain every time we were intimate. It felt like the type of period pain that makes you curl up in a ball and not want to move for hours. There were times my body physically would not let my partner in. My pelvic muscles were acting like an internal chastity belt—the very thing the hymenectomy was supposed to alleviate. I felt deep anger at the unfairness of the situation. What fresh hell was this?
I visited a more caring physician and learned I was dealing with an entirely new issue: vaginismus, a condition in which your pelvic floor muscles involuntarily spasm. My body was remembering the trauma of the surgery and the first exam, according to the doctor. It’s a defense mechanism, like instinctively blinking your eye to fend off dust. Benign as it sounds, after everything I’d already endured, it only added insult to injury.
In the end, I underwent physical therapy to train my body to graciously accept penetrating objects. But even today, we still have to be careful. Entering my body requires deep breathing, communication, and a few seconds of adjustment. My partner is patient and responsive. These extra moments of precaution are routine for us and in no way lessen the intimacy that follows.
While I doubt any woman would describe a hymenectomy as pleasant, it’s typically a simple procedure with no lasting complications. The greater challenge for women is accepting that their obstinate hymen is not a sign that they are flawed or deformed. If a woman doesn’t flatly (and repeatedly) reject being responsible for the way her body developed, shame can rush in.
Take the case of my friend Amanda, who asked that I change her name to protect her privacy. When she tried (and was unable) to use a tampon at the age of 17, she assumed she was doing something wrong. Her doctor later revealed she had a "septate hymen," which has fibrous bands that create several openings but still need to be removed. While the surgery was awkward to talk about with her parents, they reassured her that nothing was wrong with her body.
“My dad was actually the most helpful. He said it was no different than wisdom teeth—I just have something extra that I don’t need so there’s nothing to worry about,” Amanda told me.
The procedure was performed at the gynecologist’s office with only numbing gel and no stitches. Amanda was able to use a tampon after several weeks of recovery. “I didn’t tell a soul,” she said. “My friends would have seen me differently.” Her first sexual experiences in high school were painful because she still remembered the stress from the procedure, but the discomfort and apprehension gradually faded away.
Even though it’s been a decade since the surgery and she’s given birth, Amanda said she continues to feel acutely self-conscious about what she went through. She only told her husband of over six years about it the day before our interview. “I walked around for 17 years not knowing something was different about me,” she told me. “I don’t think I really processed that for years after the surgery.”
Having a hymenectomy is a lonely experience. I couldn’t find a single study that investigates how the surgery affects a woman’s sexuality or confidence. Amanda is the only person I’ve met in my 32 years who has revealed her experience. We both used the word “weird” to describe how we still feel about our private ordeals.
Will I ever want to thank my hymen for yielding only to a surgeon? I’m not holding my breath. I can’t deny that my body produced a biological fluke and required surgical intervention. But what I do know is that this piece of tissue doesn’t define who I am as a sexual being. The hymenectomy will always be part of my story, but it wasn’t then and isn’t now a reflection of me. We would all do well to remind ourselves that no body is perfect.
Jennie Morton is a freelance writer by day and college instructor by night. Her favorite X-Men character is Jean Grey.