Everything You Know About The Hymen Is (Probably) Wrong

Photographed by Nicolas Bloise.
Maybe you first heard about "popping the cherry" on the bus to middle school. And ever since, you've always had some vague idea that a hymen is this thing inside your vagina that polices your virginity. If you have one, you're pure. And if you don't, you're not. Right?
If that's how you feel, the kids on your middle school bus led you astray. But don't blame them too much, they were simply spreading a myth that seems never to die. According to Go Ask Alice!, Columbia University’s Health Q&A Internet Resource, societal understanding of how a hymen looks and functions has long been wrong: "Throughout history, there have been cultures that forbid sexual activity outside of marriage; some of these have considered an 'intact' hymen 'proof' of purity. This connection continues to have a psychological and cultural impact today. Medically speaking, however, the concept of an 'intact' hymen is a myth."
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Looking for proof of virginity based on a hymen doesn't work for several reasons, one being that every hymen looks different. The "popping the cherry" myth implies that hymens are a sheet of tissue that entirely covers the vaginal opening and is punctured the first time someone has penetrative sex. But that's not how it works. If it was, then no virgin would ever be able to have a period, because menstrual blood couldn't flow out. Instead of a sheet, hymens tend to be a layer of thin, fleshy tissue that surrounds the vaginal opening, with a hole in the centre. Some people have thicker layers of tissue than others, and some have layers so small that it seems they have no hymen at all, according to Planned Parenthood.
The bleeding and pain some people experience when they first have penetrative sex comes from stretching or tearing the tissue. But it isn't just sex that can stretch hymenal tissue. Some people tear their hymens putting in a tampon for the first time, or masturbating with fingers or a sex toy, or playing sports like gymnastics, football, or horseback riding, according to Go Ask Alice!. Other people never feel any pain with penetrative sex, either because their hymen has already been stretched, because they never had much hymenal tissue to begin with, or because their hymen is so flexible that it just moves aside to make room for a penis, fingers, or sex toy. So what someone's hymen looks like is by no means an indication of whether or not they've had sex.
And "popping" your hymen during masturbation, fingering, or any other activity that you don't feel was sexual, doesn't mean that you've lost your virginity. The whole concept of virginity is fickle anyway, and means many different things to different people. Someone who's straight and has had only oral sex might still consider themself a virgin, while someone who's gay might consider the first time they had oral sex as the time they lost their virginity. In the end, what makes you not-a-virgin depends totally on whether or not you feel that you've had sex; not whether a tiny bit of tissue inside of you has been torn.
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