The hymen is a piece of tissue that, during development, blocks some or all of the entrance to the vagina. It exists in many species, and scientists have no real understanding of its purpose in humans.
Not every woman has the same type of hymen. In some women, the entrance to the vagina is mostly, or completely, unobstructed; in others, a condition called imperforate hymen can block the entire entrance so that not even menstrual blood can escape. There are, of course, variations in between.
What Does the Hymen Have to Do With Virginity?
The presence or absence of the hymen does not say much about a woman’s sexual experience. Many women lose their hymen through physical activities such as bike riding, while others maintain their hymens even through early sexual experimentation.
Misconceptions about the hymen, and how it functions, are a number of problematic beliefs about sexual intercourse. The concept of “popping a girl’s cherry” is archaic, as well as medically inaccurate. Even for a woman who still has an intact hymen at the time of her first sexual experience, the hymen usually stretches during penetration, and it may or may not be painful. Sometimes tearing and/or bleeding may occur, but that has to do with the flexibility of the tissue. Every woman’s body is different, and so will be her experience with sexual penetration.
Except in societies where a woman’s life and social standing may be in danger without this structure that is often misconstrued as physical evidence of purity, there is little to value about the hymen. Nonetheless, plastic surgeons have developed a procedure known as hymenoplasty to recreate the hymen surgically in women who have lost theirs. Although it is somewhat ridiculous for a woman who has had sex to believe that reconstructing her hymen will make her a virgin again, the surgery can be useful for women whose lives might be in danger without it.
Interestingly, some countries consider hymenoplasty to be a form of female genital mutilation, and it is occasionally outlawed under statutes designed to protect young women from this type of violation.
Virginity and STDs
People generally are concerned about the status of a woman’s hymen because of the misconceptions about it’s relationship to virginity mentioned above. Culturally, many people think it is important to police female sexuality, and assessing for the presence or absence of a woman’s hymen is thought to be a way for them to do just that. It isn’t, but there are far too few people willing to have that conversation, let alone conversations about why people think it’s important to monitor and constrain female sexuality while ignoring male sexuality.
It is worth noting that while for some individuals, the question of virginity is seen as a moral issue, for others it’s thought to be a practical one. Many people believe, incorrectly, that if they have sex with someone who is still a virgin that there is no risk of getting an STD. Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily true. First, some STDs such as oral herpes can spread through casual contact within a family before a person is sexually active. Second, many other STDs can spread during activities such as anal sex and oral sex, which do not imperil either the classic definition of virginity or a woman’s hymen.
The truth is that whether or not a woman has a hymen has little to do with her sexual health or even, in a broad sense, her level of sexual experience. The only way to know those things about someone is to talk to them, and before you do, it’s a good idea to ask yourself why you think it’s any of your business and do some deep thinking about why you care.