The bio-sex female anatomy has always been something of great mystery. From the giant question mark that is placed over the word clitoris during high school sex-ed to rumours regarding vaginal smell, size and shape, people – regardless of gender – really don’t know much about what makes our reproductive organs really tick.
Is it because its more complicated to learn about? More difficult to understand?
No. In short, it’s because the people who hold this anatomy are often the most vulnerable in society. Cis women, trans and non-binary folks can have a vagina, a reproductive system, a period. Yet, these are the same people who face stigma in society simply for existing. And when stigma is bred, there are some conversations which are left unspoken. And when things are left unspoken in an intelligent, calm and scientific manner, there becomes room for rumours. Room for myths. Room for people to sit crying in their room for hours upon end because they think that they aren’t “normal”; because they’ve never been told that normal is a spectrum, not a definite article.
So, lets start from the beginning – or at least my beginning in terms of myths about bodies: the great enigma that is the hymen.
Like most Gen Z’s and younger Millennials, the majority of my early sex ed came from Google. YouTube, Tumblr, the lot. But better still was the information that came from other people my age. Being a late bloomer myself, the majority of my early knowledge came from overheard whispers of girls. And I soon realised that here was a commonality in terms of the way they spoke about sex – sex, I gathered, was like a movie. Not a romantic movie with kissing and love and mutual bonding – but a scene straight out of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre: blood, guts and hymens “popping” (whatever the f*ck that means) were apparently just normal parts of sex. Admittedly, that installed the fear of death into me – something which I would never ever wish upon anyone.
So, lets talk about hymens and sort out the myths and questions once and for all.
What’s a hymen? Can I see it?
A hymen is a thin layer of membrane (a barrier) that partially covers the opening of the vagina. It has no actual physiological function and is made of pretty weak tissue with little to no nerve endings. This means that its structurally weak, and so often tears (pain free!) when a hymen-owner does simple things like riding a bike, horse riding or even jumping. In terms of seeing it, it really does depend on the person – due to it being so thin, most people won’t be able to see it. But, if you’re particularly flexible and move some things around, and if you shine a flashlight from your phone on it, you’ll be able to see it. So, if you find yourself bored on a Sunday afternoon, its certainly a task you could try out.
Do all women have hymens?
No – and for various reasons. As mentioned, the hymen can rupture from physical activity. However – contrary to popular belief – it doesn’t disappear into the void and never return. It can heal pretty easily if accidently ruptured, and many women who run, ride horses and have sex (chronological order of these events is optional) still have intact or mostly intact hymens. The human body is wonderful and can repair itself, and hymens are not exempt from this However, some women are born without hymens and some women (i.e., trans women) may not have a hymen at all.
Is there a connection between hymens and virginity?
Absolutely not. In many cultures, the hymen is considered to be a symbol of virginity – if the hymen is intact (i.e., no signs of tearing or stretching) then the person is considered to be a virgin. However, this is completely illogical. There is absolutely no way to “check” if a person has had sex – except for asking them.
Wait, so the age-old phrase of “popping your cherry” that some boy told me when I was 13 and I’ve internalised and believed well into my adult life is…a lie?
Yes. It’s a lie, and it’s a damaging lie. Besides the phrase making me want to vomit, it’s also incredibly flawed. The hymen shouldn’t completely tear (and thus bleed) the first time someone has sex. However, it sometimes does happen, and that’s nothing to worry about! But, this has little to do with the hymen and more to do with lack of lubrication or tension caused by nerves – which in tandem with the hymen, can cause bleeding during sex. Either way, it doesn’t happen to everyone and its actually more common to not bleed than to bleed. In terms of pain, the hymen is so thin that even being stretched shouldn’t cause pain. Again, pain during sex can happen for a variety of reasons including lack of lubrication, nerves, tension, or pre-existing medical conditions – and has little to do with hymens most of the time. Regardless, its time to stop passing down these outdated (and medically incorrect) phrases to the next generation. Its time to prioritise our wellbeing and to let ourselves come to our own conclusions instead of relying on others for misleading advice.
So, are all hymens the same?
No, hymens can be categorised into four types. Of course, there is your bog standard (that’s the scientific term I promise) hymen. The one that around 95% of the biosex female population have – it can stretch, it can fit a tampon in it if needs be, it doesn’t cause any particular issues.
• However, there are some hymens that are a bit thicker – so thick in fact that they completely cover and partially obstruct the vaginal opening. While things like menstrual blood can come out, nothing (or very, very little) can be inserted into the vagina due to the hymen creating a thick barrier. This is called a mircoperforate hymen.
• In addition, there is also the imperforate hymen. This is a hymen that completely obstructs the vaginal opening – disallowing the flow of menstrual blood and often causing painful internal build-up of blood in the uterus. Like the microperforate hymen, insertion is impossible.
• Finally, there are septate hymens – essentially creating two vaginal openings and again making insertion impossible.
Women who have these hymens may choose to undergo a surgery called a hymenectomy – a quick surgery where the hymen is removed in order to allow the woman to have vaginal penetration and to be able to insert a tampon.
To conclude, it is clear that hymens come in many shapes and sizes – all of them wonderful, and all of them perfectly normal. Is it essential that people of all genders know the four types of hymens, about hymenectomies, about hymen tearing? Of course, it is. The biology of women, trans women and non-binary folks is often left in a corner untouched at best or tainted by lies at worst. When knowledge is gathered, agency is gained. And in a world that is so critical of our bodies, our reproduction, our sex, our differences: agency over our bodies is the most powerful thing we can have.
To read more from Susanna, click here.
For more information about the hymenectomy procedure (including first hand accounts), please visit the hercampus website.