The hymen is a thin piece of skin that surrounds and partially covers the vaginal opening (also called the introitus) in females. 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. The intact hymen normally has a small opening to allow for the passage of menstrual fluids and the insertion of a finger or tampon. The hymen often, though not always, rips or tears the first time a woman has penetrative intercourse, which may cause some temporary bleeding and slight discomfort. The hymen can stretch and/or tear as a result of various other behaviors, such as insertion of multiple fingers or a sex toy, and non-sexual activities like gymnastics (doing “the splits”) and horseback riding. Some women may not be aware when their hymen tears, especially if it does not occur during sexual activity, because it may or may not cause bleeding or discomfort. The hymen can hold very important cultural significance in certain cultures because of its association with a woman's virginity. The hymen has been and continues to be a source of intense concern in many cultures. You can read more about the cultural significance of the hymen here.
The shape of the hymen varies from woman to woman; many different configurations are possible. The picture below shows the most common configurations. In most cases, a female who has not had penile-vaginal intercourse can still menstruate and insert a tampon through an opening in the hymen - there may be one or multiple openings. When a hymen has one opening, it is called an annular hymen, seen top left. When a hymen has a band of tissue over the hole causing two openings, it is called a septate hymen. In rare cases, the hymen may have very small openings or none at all. The bottom-left picture depicts a cribriform hymen, which as many small openings. When a hymen has no opening at all, it is called an imperforate hymen (bottom right) and is usually first noticed during puberty. There also exists the microperforate hymen (not shown), which has a very small hole. Females with a microperforate hymen often have difficulty inserting a tampon. These three cases are easily rectified with a simple surgery that creates a wide enough opening for menstruation to occur.
When a woman engages in penetrative intercourse for the first time, the hymen typically stretches or tears to accommodate the penis. Some hymenal tissue may remain after a woman has had intercourse. After childbirth, there are few remnants left of the hymen.
Checking for the Hymen
If you are curious about what your hymen looks like, you can use a flashlight and a mirror to see inside your vaginal canal. Position the mirror in between your legs so you can see your vagina, and slowly spread the lips (known as the labia minora and labia majora) of your vulva. If you cannot see into your vaginal canal, use a flashlight to illuminate the area (although this can be tricky while trying to hold the mirror and your labium apart). If there is a thin layer of skin with a small hole (or holes) present, your hymen is most likely intact. If you notice small traces of broken skin surrounding your canal, you may have already stretched or broken your hymen.
Last Updated 7 March 2013.