Women have been told for years that the hymen is an integral part of sex, especially when it comes to ‘losing your virginity’. Nurse and educator Kathy Lowe says that’s all a lie.
The concept of virginity has been around for thousands of years. Rooted in cultural and religious beliefs, virginity has historically dictated whether women are ‘pure’ enough for marriage, and there’s one little piece of skin in the middle of all this: the hymen.
It’s the ‘cherry’ that gets ‘popped’ when a woman has vaginal intercourse for the first time; the ‘seal’ that gets ‘broken’. But these common ideas of the physical impact of intercourse on the female body are myths, and they’re perpetuating a dangerous idea about female sexuality.
Kathy Lowe is a medical health nurse who works in Rape Prevention Education and has almost 30 years’ experience working with family violence victims. She’s also passionate about educating people on the hymen and virginity, and says there are some myths that are well overdue a good busting.
“The myths have come up a lot from religion and from people not knowing. It’s still perpetuated by men to control and manipulate women’s sexuality.”
For a large majority of women, the hymen doesn’t seal the entire opening of the vagina. It’s not like the foil on top of a peanut butter jar, waiting to be broken. Lowe thinks of it more like a scrunchie.
“If I held up a hair scrunchie and bunched it all together, it would look like there was no hole in the middle of it or no opening on it at all. But actually when you open a hair scrunchie it has a big hole in the middle and it’s elasticated and stretchy and moves to accommodate whatever you want to put into it. It’s the same with a hymen. It looks like it’s all closed up but it’s actually stretchy and it opens up to accommodate tampons, penises, and of course when a baby’s head comes out it stretches massively.”
The hymen’s actual purpose dates back to a very long time ago, before humans moved around upright. Lowe compares it to the appendix, which was useful when humans ate a lot more greens, but is now just a useless evolutionary leftover.
“When you look at a cow hymen or a horse hymen it’s a very thick and fleshy structure… that basically performs the function of a floppy seal to stop bugs and things getting into the vagina. In humans, as we’ve gone to walking on two legs, our hymen has shrunk away to be a piece of tissue that really has no use at all.”
So what is all the fuss about the hymen when it comes to sex and virginity? A lot of it has to do with blood, which in certain cultures is a sign that a person has stayed a virgin until their wedding night. It’s widely believed that a virgin will bleed during their first vaginal intercourse as the hymen will ‘break’.
“I’ve done some work for the UN in the Pacific where virginity is perhaps a bigger issue than it is in New Zealand and there’s a lot about bleeding and culture. In Tonga some people hang out a sheet the next day to show everybody it’s got blood on it,” explains Lowe.
But vaginal bleeding is not an accurate way to tell whether it’s someone’s first time or not. In fact, around half of all people with vaginas won’t bleed during their first vaginal sex experience.
“What happens is that 50% of those people, their hymen will stretch like it’s supposed to and maybe they’re a bit more relaxed and maybe they’re a bit more lubricated and the penis will go in and there’s no damage to the hymen at all. The 50% who do bleed, maybe they’re a little bit tense, maybe not so lubricated, their hymen can stretch and maybe it can develop a tear on the side, and that’s where the blood is coming from, that tear on the side, not from something being ruptured.”
Recently, American rapper T.I. said in an interview that he takes his 18-year-old daughter for annual “virginity checks” where he gets a doctor to assure him that her hymen is “still intact”. Apart from being criticised for this disgusting invasion of privacy and hugely toxic display of ownership, there were also criticisms of the validity of these ‘checks’.
“We talk about losing your virginity, when in fact virginity has got nothing to do with physical qualities. We cannot tell by looking at someone’s hymen whether they’ve had sex or not. You cannot tell whether something has gone through that opening or not, in the majority of cases. Of course there are a few cases when you can for a variety of reasons, but you can’t lose [your virginity] because it’s not a physical thing that we can see a change in,” says Lowe.
The myths about the hymen being a symbol of virginity don’t have an equivalent for male virginity. Lowe says this shows how the stories we’re told have been formulated to ensure female sexuality is stifled.
“For hundreds of thousands of years we’ve known that you can’t tell if a boy is a virgin by looking at his penis, but we’ve kept the myth going that you can tell if a girl is [by examining her hymen]. In fact, you can’t tell by either… It’s about male control over female sexuality.”
The concept of virginity can also be damaging for people who’ve been through sexual abuse. Her work in family violence has meant Lowe has met a lot of young people who feel as though their virginity has been stolen from them.
“I’ve worked in child sexual abuse at Auckland Hospital for 26 years now, and you see young people who come in who have been abused and they think that their ‘seal has been broken’ and that when they do have sex with someone of their choice that the other person will know what happened to them. Then they realise that they’re not damaged goods, that they’re the same down below as someone who hasn’t been sexually abused. They get to choose when they share their virginity. It’s not in the control of the abuser, it’s in their control.
“Virginity is a quality that we own and we carry it in our heart and our head. We can’t lose it and nobody can take it off us.”
The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.
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