Hymen is as hymen does

Throughout history, the purity of a woman has often been determined by the results of a singular honeymooning act. If a bloodied sheet was beneath two lovers by the end of intercourse, she had passed the test — she was loyal and saved her virginity until that night. Those who failed and walked away unstained were often labeled liars and whores.

This test has shaped the way many people think about the social construct of virginity. The prevalence of correlating the hymen’s physical state with sexual purity has affected sex education and the social behavioral norms that arise from that education.

The hymen is a thin membrane partially covering the entrance to the vagina. The hymen is thick with a small opening to the vagina during early years. Over time, it becomes thin and translucent with a larger perforation.

However, not all hymens have this perforation from birth, which means the vagina is completely covered. As the hymen thins with age, a hole can sometimes develop. But if the vagina remains covered when puberty hits, minor surgery is often necessary to allow menstrual blood to pass through.

On the other end of the spectrum, some hymens have naturally large perforations. Many people leave high school unaware that the hymen is not something that can be popped. It is not something that must bleed during the first experience of intercourse. It is not something that can indicate with fair accuracy if intercourse has ever happened at all.

This is because a naturally large hymen perforation means the membrane doesn’t have to stretch at all during intercourse.

The hymen is not elastic, and the “stretching” process is often a series of small tears that widens the perforation over time. Activities like gymnastics, horseback riding, tampon insertion and masturbatory penetration stretch the hymen bit by bit, and inactivity cannot reverse any stretching that has been done.

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Reversal can only be achieved through a surgical procedure called “hymenorrhaphy.” The prevalence of hymenorrhapy is significant because it suggests many things about modern misconceptions regarding virginity, which shape perceptions of sexual purity and work to police the lifestyles of many women. People are taught in school and at home that “true” virgins will bleed from the first penile penetration.

Those who have been victimized by sexual assault or have chosen to have premarital sex are often compelled to consider hymenorrhapy under the false impression that the state of their hymen will suggest something considered socially negative about their character or actions.

By the time of first intercourse, the hymen could have a large or small perforation for any reason, and every perforation size is natural. In fact, it is difficult or nearly impossible to gauge “sexual purity” or estimate the pain involved with the first experience of intercourse, since every hymen is different. The presence of blood or pain is not at all necessary to lose virginity.

Bleeding and pain during one’s first time can be reduced or eliminated altogether, even for those with smaller perforations. This is possible through an easygoing buildup to intercourse, as opposed to jumping straight into penetration. Slowly stretching the hymen, especially with adequate amounts of lubricant, will reduce the chance of large tears appearing along the vaginal opening, which is often the cause of bleeding.

A bloody sheet does not make a virgin. Even the newest of beginners don’t have to bleed or experience acute discomfort during the first time. Beyond that, the very definition of “virginity” varies between individuals. Some consider virginity to mean penile penetration of the vagina. Others extend the definition of sex to encompass anal and oral sex.

Whatever you think “virginity” means, one thing remains true: Virginity isn’t something that can be physically determined and is often personally defined — but only you can set limits and establish comfortable boundaries in a relationship until both partners are ready for whatever next step may come.