The hymen is a thin piece of mucousal tissue that surrounds and partially covers the vaginal opening (also called the introitus).1 Every hymen is shaped differently: some are thin and elastic, while others are thicker and less stretchy. The evolutionary purpose of the hymen is unknown, but one theory says that the hymen is there “to protect the vaginal opening and the areas immediately surrounding the introitus during a female's early developing years.”1 An intact hymen typically has a small opening (or openings) that allow for the passage of menstrual blood and other fluids. The hymen oftentimes, though not always, rips or tears the first time a female engages in penetrative intercourse, which may cause some temporary bleeding and slight discomfort. The hymen can stretch and/or tear as a result of various other sexual behaviors, such as the insertion of multiple fingers or a sex toy into the vagina, and nonsexual activities such as gymnastics (doing “the splits”), horseback riding, or engaging in other physical activities.
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.1 The hymen is often attributed important cultural significance in certain communities because of its association with a woman's virginity; however, it can easily be torn through nonsexual behaviors. Its presence is a poor and unreliable indicator of one’s virginity. The hymen has been and continues to be a source of extreme concern in many cultures, and even now, many myths regarding the presence of the hymen exist due to ancient cultural traditions and a lack of scientific knowledge.
Structures of the Hymen
The shape and structure of the hymen varies from female to female. The picture below shows the most common configurations.
· An annular hymen has only one opening (seen top left).
· A septate hymen has two openings separated by a thin band of tissue. In rare cases, the hymen may have several very small openings (seen bottom left).
· An imperforate hymen has no opening at all (seen bottom right).
· There also exists the microperforate hymen (not shown), which has one very small hole. Females with a microperforate hymen often have difficulty inserting a finger or a tampon.
If/when a female decides to engage in coitus (penile-vaginal intercourse) for the first time, the hymen typically stretches or tears to accommodate the penis. Some hymenal tissue may remain after a female has had intercourse; even after childbirth, there may be a few remnants left of the hymen. Even if a female has not had penile-vaginal intercourse, she should still be able to menstruate and insert a tampon through an opening in the hymen.
Having a septate, imperforate, or microperforate hymen is usually not problematic; however, if problems do occur, they can easily be rectified with a simple surgery that creates a wide enough opening for menstruation to occur.
In many cultures, the presence of a hymen is synonymous with female virginity. Furthermore, many societies associate a premarital girl’s intact hymen in a premarital girl represents family honor and dignity. The intact hymen supposedly symbolizes a female’s chastity and morality and indicates that she will stay faithful to the family, culture, or religion for years to come. In many parts of the world, women who are found with a ruptured hymen face severe and sometimes fatal consequences. For example, by some Arab customs, a woman who is found to not be a virgin on her wedding night brings great shame to her family. Some of these women are even subjected to having a physician directly observe the hymen and report to the family. Many other families simply wait to see if the bride will bleed when she first engages in sexual intercourse. If a female does not bleed on her wedding night, or she is reported as no longer having an intact hymen before her wedding night, she may be beaten or killed by her close family members, usually by her brothers and uncles, and at times by her own father or husband. 2
Although in many cultures the hymen is seen as a sign of female virginity, it is important to remember that the hymen is an extremely unreliable marker of virginity, as the hymen can break through a wide range of noncoital or nonsexual physical activities. Ignorance about the structure of the hymen and why it may not be intact can have severe consequences for women. Therefore, it is very important to educate physicians and family members about the development of the hymen and the myths that surround the hymen’s relationship to virginity.
You can read more about the cultural significance of the hymen here.
Myths About the Hymen
As mentioned, having sexual intercourse is not the only way that a female can break her hymen. Therefore, the obsession that many cultures have with checking a woman’s hymen before marriage to make sure she is a virgin is an unreliable tradition, as the hymen is not a good indicator of virginity. You could very well be a virgin and have no hymen, or you could have had multiple sex partners and still have an intact hymen.
Some believe that differences in the appearance of a woman’s hymen should prompt the evaluation of sexual intercourse or sexual abuse. This is not the case because even when trained physicians are “evaluating” the virginity of a woman, the integrity of the hymen can be very difficult to assess. Many studies have shown that the hymen’s diameter should not be used to verify sexual abuse as the hymen’s diameter changes due to nonsexual physical activities. It is generally accepted amongst health professions that the hymen is an ineffective indicator of vaginal-penile sexual intercourse.1
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” of the vulva (known as the labia minora and labia majora). 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; however, there is no need to panic or be scared. Many women are born with perforated hymens. Having a hymen that is already broken or perforated is completely normal and natural.
1. Hegazy, A. A., and M. O. Al-Rukban. "Hymen: facts and conceptions." The Health 3 (2012): 109-115.
2. Smerecnik, Chris, et al. "An exploratory study of Muslim adolescents' views on sexuality: Implications for sex education and prevention." BMC public health10.1 (2010): 533.
Last Updated 29 May 2014.