How The Hymen & "Virginity Testing" Myths Got Started
Last week rapper T.I. made headlines when he revealed his particularly disturbing brand of parenting. As the rapper detailed on the Ladies Like Us podcast, every year he accompanies his daughter Deyjah to the gynecologist to make sure her hymen is intact and his daughter is still a virgin. Deyjah, by the way, is 18 years old.
Naturally, this admission sparked controversy for many reasons. So much so that Ladies Like Us even removed the original interview with T.I. in which he actually said, “I will say, as of her 18th birthday, her hymen is still intact." This is problematic on so many levels, including the fact that Deyjah is 18 and therefore protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which, among other things, means she has a right to privacy in regard to everything health-related in her life. But Deyjah’s right to privacy is just the beginning.
What Is The Hymen?
When it comes to virginity, especially related to people with vulvas, we tend to hear a lot about the hymen. Although it’s 2019, for some, the “breaking” of the hymen is what immediately takes a person with a vulva from being a virgin to being a non-virgin. But after speaking with five experts on the matter, there really is no “breaking” that goes on.
“[The hymen] is a thin mucosal membrane that surrounds or partially covers the vaginal opening,” Dr. Mary Jacobson, chief medical director at Alpha Medical, a site that helps women take control of their health care, tells Bustle. “Vaginal intercourse may stretch the hymen to make a larger opening or may cause a tiny tear (causing bleeding), but it does not actually break.”
The reason the hymen doesn’t break is because it’s not a barrier in most people. In fact, it’s only a barrier in the cases of imperforate hymens. The U.S. National Library of Medicine describes an imperforate hymen as a “blockage of the vagina” and something that can be fixed with an incision that removes the blockage, which is technically an extra membrane in the hymen. However, imperforate hymens are very rare; so rare that only 1 out of 1,000 people are born with them, according to Amy Baxter, M.D., FAAP, FACEP, a clinical associate professor at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University.
“[The imperforate hymen] is a membranous hymen [and] the condition usually shows up when girls don’t bleed monthly, but have increasing bad cramps with a backup of blood,” Baxter tells Bustle. “Even with the rare imperforate hymen, when puberty hits, the estrogen allows the hymen to stretch, sometimes leaving a ‘septum’ or string from the bottom to the top which can catch tampons, or could rip with sex, but it can also just stretch and move to the side.”
But even in people who don’t have imperforate hymens, which is the majority, tearing and stretching can be caused by other things. Not necessarily a penis.
“Penetration of the vagina by a tampon, finger(s), trauma (straddle injury)… can tear this membrane, which usually quickly heals with no obvious scarring,” Nina Carroll, M.D., of Your Doctors Online, an online source for doctors, tells Bustle.
What this means is that the hymen doesn’t “break,” nor does one have to engage in penetrative intercourse to have this part of the vagina slightly torn. But while this may be a biological fact, there’s still the persistent rumor that a “broken” hymen goes hand-in-hand with the loss of a woman’s virginity. This misguided and archaic approach to virginity isn’t just clearly wrong but also harmful, especially in a society that’s so quick to judge people with vulvas when it comes to sex.
“In terms of virginity as a physical or emotional state of being — or even as a moral barometer — there are many sexual experiences that don't involve a penis penetrating a vagina (and don’t cause bleeding) that would serve as a sexual awakening for [people with vulvas],” Jacobson says, reiterating that the mythical “broken” hymen isn’t the end-all be-all when it comes to virginity.
Where Did The Breaking Of The Hymen Equal "Loss" Of Virginity Myth Originate?
As is the case with any rumor, whether it's true or untrue, it has to start somewhere.
"It’s not entirely clear how or where the myth started originally," Dennis Idowu, M.D., FACOG, medical director and cofounder of Femme, a women’s health urgent care center in Thousand Oaks, California, tells Bustle. "There are loose references describing the hymen as a cherry dating back as far as the 16th century."
But as Idowu explains, the cherry that was referenced back then was actually a woman's pubic hair, which further proves the lack of knowledge in the 16th century as to where the hymen actually was.
"In more recent jargon, the phrase appears to have come about in the 19th century based on the notion that a woman was 'ripe for the picking' if she was a virgin," Idowu says. "Regardless of how it started, this myth of breaking the hymen or 'popping the cherry' persists due to a lack of understanding of the female anatomy and an ongoing lack of education about female sexual health and well-being."
This lack of education about the female anatomy is so persistent that even as recently as 2008, according to Idowu, The New York Times described the hymen as a “vaginal membrane that normally breaks in the first act of intercourse.”
"It’s important that any discussion about the hymen be medically grounded if we want to stop perpetuating this myth," Idowu says.
There’s also the ill-informed thinking that if a woman is a virgin, the proof will be in the blood that’s left on the sheets. However, this is setting up another false narrative about how a person with a vulva's body responds to their first vaginal penetration experience.
“Historically, a stretched or torn hymen — and the blood as proof of its breakage — supposedly signaled that a woman's vagina had been penetrated for the first time, and thus a loss of her sexual virginity,” Jacobson says. “However, the theory is informed by antiquated thinking around what constitutes sexual virginity, as well as even more archaic, yet somehow persistent cultural norms around the importance of an ‘intact’ hymen to a woman’s social, sexual, and marital value, and thus shouldn't be given credence — medically, morally, or otherwise.”
A person with a vulva's morality and value can’t, nor should it ever, be defined by whether or not they've ever had sex, or by how many sexual partners they've had or will continue to have. Purity and virginity are not linked in any way. But again, society is all about double standards when it comes to what’s “OK” for people with penises and what’s “OK” for people with vulvas, so we’re left with that never-ending battle.
“We know now that there is bleeding with the first episode of penetration in less than 40% of women,” Carroll says. “Sometimes there is no hymenal tissue at all, or in some women the hymen simply stretches.”
So people with vulvas shouldn’t be alarmed if they don’t bleed the first time they have penetrative sex. It’s more likely that they won’t bleed and this lack of blood doesn’t mean anything. It's also important to acknowledge that for some people, their first sexual encounter isn't penetrative at all, nor does it involve a penis.
Is There A Test To Prove Someone Is Still A Virgin?
Although T.I. boasted that his daughter’s hymen is still “intact,” all the experts I spoke to are adamant that there is no way to tell if a woman is a virgin or not. These "tests" aren't just simply frowned upon — they are condemned.
"The American Medical Association condemns virginity tests," Brittany McBride, senior program manager for sexuality education at Advocates for Youth, tells Bustle. "A doctor who is committed to ensuring young people are healthy and safe would never conduct such a test or share that personal information without the young person's permission."
Baxter points out that not only is this a myth, but even if a person with a vulva is injured badly and there's a rip in that part of her body, like during childbirth for example, the damage doesn't last long. "It can heal so completely that five days later it looks completely normal," Baxter says.
Jacobson, too, says not only is there no test, but there’s also “no scientific or clinical basis,” for it. According to Carroll, things such as tampon-use, intercourse, and straddle injuries may “subtly change the appearance of the hymen tissue,” but still it can’t be used to determine a person’s virginity status. That definitely makes one wonder where T.I. found a doctor who not only agreed to play along with his interesting brand of parenting, but who would also risk their reputation enough to conduct a test that’s not even legitimate and is actually condemned. Also, as Jacobson points out, a person’s virginity should hardly be the concern of any doctor — or father, for that matter.
Idowu takes things even a step further in regard to these so-called "virginity tests."
"Our bodies don’t come with built-in tests for virginity," Idowu says. "In fact, we should call 'virginity tests' what they really are — sexual assault. ... Equating a woman’s worth with her sexuality and virginity is not only wrong, it can actually be dangerous."
As Idowu explains, in some communities and cultures, if a woman can't pass this so-called virginity test, she "can be imprisoned, denied jobs, tortured, and even murdered." Too much emphasis is put on something that clearly holds no water, and that's a huge problem.
As Jacobson explains, when a person with a vulva becomes sexually active, a doctor’s priority is to make sure their patient is aware of risks, like STIs and pregnancy, and how to prevent these things — the latter, pregnancy, until they’re ready. Another priority is making sure their patient has the necessary knowledge about all things health-related in regard to their body, as well as emotional support should something arise.
Why The Obsession With The Hymen Equaling Virginity Must Come To An End
What T.I., and apparently his doctor, too, don’t seem to understand is that they’re feeding into a very harmful concept about virginity that has no place in this century — or any other century, for that matter. Deyjah is an 18-year-old woman and her body is hers and hers alone. Her father has no say in it, nor does he have any right to be privy to what she chooses to do with it.
"This obsession with the hymen as a symbol of virginity is especially disturbing when we consider that, in contrast, men are not held to the same standard by society," Idowu says. "The medical community, and the public in general, must change the conversation surrounding female sexual health."
As Idowu explains, a person with a vulva hasn't "lost" their virginity just because they don't have an intact hymen. The theory is, for lack of a better word, BS.
"The sooner we put this issue to rest, the sooner we can focus our efforts on combating the myriad of health and wellness disparities facing women today," Idowu says.
While there will always be cultures that will hang onto the belief that the hymen symbolizes virginity, the reality is that it simply doesn’t. What this belief does do is hold women to a certain moral standard while not doing the same for men, further putting female sexuality in a box. This thinking is taking a giant step backward in regard to understanding female sexuality and giving all people with a vulva the sexual freedom they deserve.
Dr. Amy Baxter, M.D., FAAP, FACEP, a clinical associate professor at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University
Dr. Nina Carroll, M.D., of Your Doctors Online
Dr. Dennis Idowu, M.D., FACOG, medical director and cofounder of Femme
Brittany McBride, senior program manager for sexuality education at Advocates for Youth