Most females are born with a hymen, a thin piece of skin that partially covers the vaginal opening (or introitus). The main purpose of the hymen is to protect the vaginal opening and the areas immediately surrounding the introitus during a female's early developing years. Despite its biological function, many cultures place a significant amount of importance on the hymen and whether or not it is intact. This small and seemingly insignificant piece of tissue is of such great importance to many cultures because an intact hymen is believed to indicate the chastity of a female. The presence of the hymen implies that the female is a virgin (one who has never engaged in sexual intercourse). The importance of a female's chastity is often emphasized in patriarchal societies and by traditional religions. Some arguments that are used to back this notion are the presumption that a chaste bride values fidelity and the that there is an increased guarantee that her offspring will be her husband's children and not someone else's. Men are also encouraged to seek virgins as wives because they are deemed “pure” and not sexually promiscuous.
One problem with this theory, however, is that if a woman does not have an intact hymen, it is possible that she is still a virgin. A woman may not have a hymen for a variety of different reasons. Many women tear their hymen, thus enlarging the vaginal opening, through nonsexual activities that put tension on the hymeneal tissue. These activities include engaging in sports, horseback riding, or inserting tampons. Women may not even be aware that their hymen has torn, since there may be little or no blood and no pain. Sexual intercourse is only one of many reasons why a woman may not have a hymen. Likewise, a non-virginal female may still have an intact hymen. The hymen can stretch sufficiently to permit entry of tampons and sometimes even a penis.
In societies that emphasize the importance of a hymen, a woman without a hymen may be at risk on her wedding night. In many cultures that put an emphasis on virginity, the husband expects to “pop” his wife's “cherry.” Blood-stained sheets are often put on display to mark the loss of virginity and prove the bride's purity. A female who does not bleed on her wedding night may be judged as to be a non-virgin. She risks being shunned by her family and new husband. She may even be returned to her family as "used goods," stoned to death, or banished from her society. Again, virginal women may not have an intact hymen or experience bleeding upon intercourse.
The hymen carries a great deal of importance and symbolism even in the United States. There have been instances in the United States, especially among college students, of people being eager to lose their virginity as soon as possible. In this case retaining one's virginity is seen as a stigma of inexperience. However, in many places in the U.S., losing ones virginity still carries a stigma for young women. Perhaps because of the stigma associated with this act, men and boys alike are sometimes eager to be the ones who “take” a girls virginity. Men and boys alike may be eager to “pop a girl's cherry.” However, other than tearing or stretching her hymen, there is no other biological change that a woman goes through after her first intercourse. The thought that a woman loses value by losing her virginity is an outdated and degrading concept. We can only hope that as more and more people begin to understand the basics of human sexuality, these false myths will be eradicated.
Another problem with connecting the presence of an intact hymen and lack of penile-vaginal penetration to virginity, is that it often excludes the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) community. Members of the LGBT community consider sex with the same partner as a relinquishing of virginity, and may feel discredited or discounted by the heteronormative view that pervades discussions of virginity. Similarly, there has been a rise in alternative sexual activity among teenagers who have taken chastity pledges. This alternative sexual activity includes practices like oral sex and anal sex, which they often do not think of as sexual intercourse. Because virginity is a complex and culturally constructed concept, we recommend that you take it with a grain of salt. Whether or not you tore or stretched your hymen, it is up to you and no one else to decide whether you are a virgin. Besides, your virginity is not an accurate measure of your worth or morality.
Hymen Reconstructive Surgery
In many religious communities, there has been an influx of hymen reparation surgery. In some Muslim communities, virginity is expected of a bride. For this reason, women who no longer have an intact hymen have their hymens surgically reconstructed in order to appear virginal on their wedding night. This is especially prominent among students who have gone to live in more sexually permissive cultures. The surgery creates a fake hymen at the vaginal opening. It generally costs from $400 to $1000, but varies from country to country. In addition to the surgery, some women have a gelatin capsule full of blood inserted within their vaginal canal to cause bleeding upon penetration. Beyond reasons of religious necessity, some women will get this surgery done as a gift to their husband along with a tightening of the vaginal canal.
Last Updated 7 March 2013.