What the Hell is a Hymen?

Here's another post that's not specifically related to sex advice, but in a way, sort of is. In response to a comment/question here, I snooped around to see if I could find out what people are saying about hymens these days. It seems that while everyone loves to talk about them, there are very few people who really know anything about them. So after a search which was, admittedly, not at all exhaustive, here's what I've found and what I think about hymens.

First of all, not everybody agrees that they exist in the first place. While it would seem that the hymen is a simple, biological fact, there is some controversy. A nurse and doctor in Sweden studied the evidence and anecdotes about the hymen in 2005 and concluded that there has never been any accurate medical descriptions of what the hymen is and what it consists of. They believe that the hymen is simply a part of the vaginal opening, is not distinct in and of itself, and that the use of the term should be discontinued. Hmmmm.......who knew? I tried to find this study but so far I can only locate the Swedish version. Sadly, my Swedish is not good enough to understand a medical study.

Second, depending on who you talk to and which 'statistics' you read, between 30% and 43% of women report bleeding the first time they have penetrative sex. That's not all that high. So it seems to me that the idea that every woman has a hymen and that it stays intact and then 'breaks' when she has sex, cannot possibly be true. I often hear that a hymen can be 'broken' during horseback riding or exercise but I don't really buy that. I've been horseback riding and I've done vigorous exercise and neither of those involved anything pushing into my vagina. I understand the idea but it doesn't make sense to me. The concept that you can 'break' your hymen by using tampons, does make sense because at least that involves putting something inside the vagina. I think the whole point behind these oft-stated 'facts' is to protect women who may be found to be hymen-less and thus assumed to be non-virgins. And to me, that's just sad.

What I did not know is that, according to some of the medical literature I read, in babies and very young girls, the hymen is quite thick and, due to hormonal changes, it thins considerably as women age. It may disappear almost completely. There is also the theory that the hymen is very elastic and may stretch a lot during sex which would account for the lack of pain and bleeding.

To me, what is important is what the hymen represents. The concept of virginity has been used to control women and their sexuality for millenia. The hymen is a symbol of that control. To this day, women are subjected to virginity tests to prove their suitability for marriage or their fidelity. Now women are undergoing hymenoplasty to artificially restore their hymens and re-virginize themselves. Why? Underlying this hymen-hysteria are two very clear messages. First, women's sexual 'purity' is much more valuable than her own sexual experience or freedom and must be preserved. Second, women cannot be trusted to tell the truth about their sexual past and must provide proof.

Why do some women experience pain and bleeding during their first penetrative sexual experience and others don't? Here's a radical thought. Perhaps it's not because they've broken their hymen. Perhaps it's because the women that don't experience pain are having good sex! Perhaps it's because they are relaxed, fully consenting, prepared, fully aroused, and fully wanting and ready to be penetrated. Maybe, just maybe the reason why so many women have pain and bleeding the first time they have sex is because it's rushed into too quickly without any sort of knowledge about the value of foreplay. If we're not ready to be penetrated, it flat out hurts when we are. And it's not unusual to cause abrasions during sex that one is not prepared for. It's just a thought.

As far as advice about this goes, I did find a few gems of advice for women who were having pain during sex, or were worried about their first time. One woman felt that her partner could not break her hymen because it was still painful. Advice to her (from the public, not from a an advice columnist) was to take some pain medication and have her partner push harder.

Laura Berman's advice to a woman who was worried that sex for the first time would be painful was that she needn't worry because she'd almost certainly already broken her hymen during exercise or horseback riding. She also recommended she use lube. That's not a bad peice of advice. But there is a key part here that she's missing. What I've never seen anybody talk about in these discussions is that when a woman is very aroused, her vagina widens and her cervix and uterus pull upwards. Her vagina is getting ready to be penetrated. Being aroused is not just about getting wet, it's also about this process called 'ballooning', which makes it so much more comfortable, and pleasurable. When you rush into sex before this happens, the vagina is too tight and too short to accomodate and it hurts!

No one has ever been able to show a medical reason why the hymen exists or why it's physically important. I think it's high-time for the concept of the hymen to stop tryannizing women and die a quiet death.

And for a laugh, check out this awesome video that lampoons the idea of preserving your virginity for God. It's called Saving My Hymen for Jesus.