November 20, 2015

Feminist Friday: Piercing the Veil of Hymen Myths

You guys know that speaking out against purity culture is one of my THINGS. To me, purity culture represents a damaging vilification of normal sexual urges and desires. It robs young people of the ability to make the best decisions for themselves.

Purity culture isn't just a monotheistic thing. Throughout our history, there has been a presumption in many cultures that women should be "pure" at marriage. This assumption served men well; a woman who had never had intercourse was unlikely to already be pregnant with offspring of another male that her husband would be expected to provide for. It lent an air of authority to the assumption that offspring produced within the union were the husband's get.

Much of the "evidence" surrounding this in our modern age deals with the hymen, described like so:

For reasons that remain unclear, female babies are born with membranes surrounding their vaginal openings. Most hymens are doughnut shaped and open in the center. Newborns' hymens tend to be prominent and thick. But as the years pass, most hymenal tissue thins and the opening widens. During childhood most hymenal tissue wears away as a result of washing, walking, athletics, self-exploration, and masturbation, though little bits may remain around the vaginal opening, particularly in the area closest to the anus (hymenal tags). 
The intact hymen almost never covers the entire vagina. If it did, virgin girls could not menstruate. However, the opening may not look like a doughnut hole. In some women, it has a ladder-like appearance with bands of tissue extending from one side to the other. In others, it resembles a honeycomb with multiple small openings. And in rare cases, an estimated one in 200, the hymen's single opening is so small that fingers, tampons, and erections may not be able to enter comfortably or at all (imperforate hymen). For women with imperforate hymens, a simple surgical procedure snips away the excess tissue. But in most women, by adolescence, any remaining hymenal tissue offers no significant impediment to using tampons or enjoying pain-free intercourse.

And yet, despite the anatomical reality that we now understand, myths about the hymen persist, and with these myths, truly damaging aspects of sexuality come into play. Let's take the time to dispel some of these today.

Myth: Your first time is going to bleed and hurt.

This is a persistent one. Most folks would say, "The hymen tears, and that's why you bleed. That's why it hurts."

It's not true.


Fewer than half of all women bleed during the first time they have sex. Experiences vary from individual to individual and depend on factors like lubrication and arousal.

If you bleed during penetrative intercourse, it's more likely to be a vaginal tear than a hymenal tear--and if you're experiencing vaginal tears, it's probably a sign that your technique (and your partner's) could use a little fine-tuning...which is pretty likely, if it's your first time. Sex is a skill, not a talent. It takes work and practice to get it right.

If I had to venture a guess, I would guess that the persistence of this myth is related to social control, not biological fact. We know how to make sex more pleasurable, with less or no pain and bleeding, even from the first time--foreplay, waiting until both partners are ready, etc. And yet, we continue to spread the idea that, no matter what, it's going to hurt and bleed. Why would we do that unless it's not about conveying an objective truth so much as scaring young women away from having sex...or even thinking about it?

Myth: If you are a virgin, you have a hymen.

Not so! Lori Adelman of the International Women's Health Coalition explains:

There is no one physical trait that indicates virginity or sexual activity- not even the presence of a “hymen.” I put hymen in quotes because I’ve come to learn that it is really a nebulous entity. At yesterday’s conference, Professor Kathleen Kelly of Northeastern University discussed the history of the hymen and highlighted the way our understanding of the hymen has become misinformed. As she puts it: 
“What we recognize as the hymen today was not always considered as such….If we trace the etymology of the word hymen from Greek through Latin to English, we can observe how the word progressively narrows in meaning, first denoting any sort of bodily membrane, then referring to the womb, and finally coming to mean almost exclusively “virginal membrane” in the early modern period. ..The hymen is an overdetermined, widely misunderstood sign precisely because it has never been a fixed part of anatomy…the hymen is both an anatomical part and a metonym.”

Even the definition didn't always exist, y'all! ;)

Myth: Virginity exists as an objective truth.

The concept of virginity is cultural. Entirely. There is no medical definition of virginity at all.

The most common obstacle to defining virginity is that its definition will vary according to the individual defining it:

Despite its long history, virginity has never had a precise definition. Many associate the word with penile-vaginal intercourse between cisgender men and women, but that's not the only way two people can be sexually active together, and that definition also excludes LGBTQ people. What constitutes the idea of purity, it turns out, is surprisingly messy.

When do you stop being a virgin? With the P in the V? Are lesbians always virgins? Does someone having anal sex still get to claim the title virgin so long as they haven't had vaginal penetrative intercourse? What about gay men--are they also always virgins or does anal sex count for them? What about oral sex?

Indeed, for some people, maintaining purity (a concept closely related but not necessarily identical to virginity) is even MORE complicated--kissing, holding hands, and hugs can all lead one into a temptation that violates the idea of purity, a la the Duggars.

Myth: Virginity protects and values women.

This is insidious and untrue.

I once had a younger cousin ask me--as someone who clearly had sex out of marriage, as I had two children before my spouse and I tied the knot--if my spouse respected me less. This is a common theme in purity culture, and I don't blame this person for asking. And my answer then was honest and heartfelt, and I will continue to shout it from the rooftops: "If a partner will value you less because they are not the first, then they are not worth your time."

Lori Adelman puts it like this:

In fact, valuing virginity puts girls and women at risk of violence, abuse, and assault by members of a society that believes a woman’s worth lies in her sexual behavior. As I discussed on my panel, “Virginity: A Historical and Cultural Primter,” violations of girls’ and women’s sexual and reproductive rights and health occur every day in the name of preserving and protecting girls’ virginity, delaying sexual activity, or controlling the circumstances under which girls and women lose their virginity. From forced child marriage, female genital cutting, and breast ironing to slut-shaming to the deliberate withholding of information on reproductive and sexual health, the emphasis on preserving virginity has pernicious consequences for girls in the West and beyond. I can do without that kind of “protection” thanks very much.

That's a long list of "side effects" if you will for what's essentially a placebo meant to soothe fragile male egos...

Myth: You can lose your virginity at all.

We often joke around that virginity is the idea that a man's penis is so gosh darned amazing that just having it inside you is transformative.

And it's not.

Says the International Women's Health Coalition:

First of all, the term “losing your virginity” is problematic, as it suggests that something is inherently  lost as a result of sex and therefore engages in slut shaming. 

Your first sexual experience is as meaningful and special and important as you want it to be. For some people, that's going to mean waiting until marriage. For other people, it's more casual. Personally, I'd venture a guess that this is determined more by your own personality, sex drive, and cultural ties than anything biological or physical about sex itself.

Because we don't educate people from the perspective that sex should be fun and feel good, we don't talk about this though. We don't talk about the fact that abstinence may be right for this person but not for that person...and that's really sad. Sexuality is an amazing prism that reveals a wide range of "normal" human behaviors, and we should celebrate that.

Myth: Accepting that the concept of virginity and the hymen itself are harmful means you have to accept that abstinence can't be sex-positive.

I've actually touched on this topic before, in a post titled "Feminism 101: Feminists can believe in abstinence too....or a misguided attempt to educate Fox News".

I strongly believe that abstinence is a valid choice for young people--or any people--who make it for themselves. What I disagree with--now and forever, until the day that I die--is bullying them with scare tactics designed to make sex frightening.

Consensual informed sex isn't frightening. Sex that is freely chosen and entered into by all parties is fun and exciting. It has to be; that's how evolution programmed us. We can see this when we look at our close evolutionary cousins like the bonobos. It's fun. It helps us bond with each other in many ways, not just as solely primary partners.

Back to Adelman of the International Women's Health Coalition:

This myth is sometimes even found in feminist circles when people assume that abstinence can’t be taught as part of a comprehensive sexuality curriculum. This is false. When included as part of a comprehensive and factually accurate program, abstinence can and should be taught as an excellent method of birth control and STI prevention, as well as a valid and legitimate choice for sexual beings of any age. In fact, this is a crucial part of any sex positive curriculum.The unfortunate prevalence of this myth is indicative of a much greater need for inclusivity and sex positivity in sexuality education: now that we know that our ideas and experiences about sex and virginity aren’t as simple as they seem, sexuality education programs really need to catch up and become more inclusive of a fluid range of experiences, sexualities, and attitudes about sex.

Reality: These myths put women with vaginas at risk.

These myths are harmful in more than just psychological ways. When men--and women--believe that there should be pain and bleeding during sex, the absence thereof, even though it is biologically normal, can lead to violence.

On November 26, 2004, this happened to a young woman:

A mother forced her 12-year-old daughter to drink bleach for having sex and sat on her until the child died, a police detective said, adding that a 9-year-old brother was forced to watch the attack.

This was not some far off land; it was here, in the United States, in Alabama. And yes, the mother specifically justified it by saying her daughter wasn't a virgin.

This is just one example. The idea of "honor killings" is also one that comes to mind that's been in the media quite a bit, and those killings also center around the idea of virginity.

Furthermore, a male that expects virginity can become upset over the lack of physical evidence of it, as it can reduce the value of his partner in his eyes. This could result in physical or emotional abuse--indeed, Mark Driscoll, a popular pastor, is borderline emotionally abusive to his wife when he describes her "sexual sins". Because she didn't wait until marriage to him.

Partners' expectations--or the fear of it--can lead to issues when women with vaginas take preventative measures too:

Male partners' expectations of blood in particular sometimes leads women to take drastic, unhealthy measures: In How to Lose Your Virginity, Shechter reports on women who sewed stitches into their vaginas to make sure they bled. Artificial hymens that can be inserted into the vagina and "bleed" red dyes can be bought online cheaply and have been trendy in China, but have also been known to cause infections. Green says she's even heard from women who said their boyfriends became verbally abusive when there wasn’t any blood or pain following their first time having sex. “People told me they show their boyfriends my video and explain why there wasn’t any bleeding," Green says. "It’s kind of bizarre when you have these kids getting angry at each other because there wasn’t enough blood.”

Reality: These myths actively harm women with vaginas.

When you believe that sex is meant to hurt you, it's meant to bleed, it's meant to be negative, you don't look for positive affirmation in it. This leaves women with vaginas open to a wide variety of negative consequences, including coercive or exploitative sex:

According to the National Health and Social Life Survey (1994), about one-third of women recall not wanting sex their first time or recall being forced into it during incest, sexual assault, or other coercion or exploitation. Exploitive or assaultive sex can cause tremendous anxiety and produce or aggravate pain.

The idea of losing your virginity, as it is culturally presented, is scary. It makes sex into something fearful, which can lead to conflicting feelings and, perhaps counterintuitively, sex before people are ready:

The unpleasantness may also have to do with girls not feeling ready and willing to have sex for the first time. A 2010 study from the Guttmacher Institute found, somewhat unsurprisingly, that girls are less eager than boys to engage in sexual intercourse at the average age of 16. Combine that with public sex education curriculum that solely arms kids against pregnancy and STDs, rather than preparing them for any pleasure, and young women probably don't expect to have much fun doing something most commonly associated with blood and babies. Given the extent of this persistent hymen hype, it's incredible that we lose only our virginity and not our minds as well in the process.

It  can be difficult to distinguish between the fear over the way that sex is presented and you, personally, not being ready to have sex--and that alone should be enough of a reason to dismantle this system and empower young people to make the best decisions for their selves.

The concept of virginity can negatively impact rape victims. Elizabeth Smart has spoken so beautifully and tragically about how she felt after being raped in captivity:

Smart spoke candidly Wednesday about how the lessons of her conservative Mormon upbringing left her feeling “dirty and filthy” and of no value to society after she was raped at the hands of her captors as a 14-year-old. 
“I’ll never forget how I felt lying there on the ground,” Smart said at a human trafficking and sexual violence conference at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore last week. “I felt like my soul had been crushed. I felt like I wasn’t even human anymore. How could anybody love me, or want me or care about me? I felt like life had no more meaning to it, and that was only the beginning of my nine months of captivity.”

Can you imagine being a fourteen year old girl, pulled from your bed at knifepoint in the dark of night, raped on the ground...and feeling like you were worthless because you wouldn't be able to give your future spouse your virginity? That's the damage that virginity is wreaking on women, right here, in one of the greatest nations in the world.

These myths don't empower people; they disempower them, boldly and without any apology:

Myths about virginity cast a shadow of negativity over young people’s attitudes toward sex. They keep can people from taking ownership of their sexualities and bodies through informed decision-making. They can turn what could be a pleasurable and fun experience into an event that’s scary, stressful, and needlessly traumatic. 


Wrapping my head around the idea that virginity doesn't exist was really, really hard. I was raised in a Judeo-Christian background that heavily valued purity. My own mother shared with me her regrets over relationships she'd had before my dad.

And while I was a devoted adherent, I did feel badly about the sex that I'd had before I met my spouse...or even after I met him and we started dating. I carried a lot of guilt over that, and no amount of praying seemed to take it away. I felt like my inner character must be irreparably damaged in order for me to do this.

Unsurprisingly for most of you who've either left religion or moved from fundamentalism to a more accepting progressive branch, when I left my faith behind, I felt better. This is the part where people will chime in and say, "Oh, you just wanted to sin, that's why you're an atheist," and I'll remind them that I was happily married and only fucking my spouse when I left my faith.

What did happen was that feminism and atheism opened my eyes to the oppressive nature of the concept of purity, and doing my own reading on the history of the concept of virginity, it became clear to me that it didn't exist. That was counterintuitive to acknowledge that when I'd been taught differently for so long, but the evidence was to me overwhelming.

I believe that we have to change the discussions we have about sex. We have some of the highest rates of teen pregnancy and STDs in the developed world. Our teen pregnancy rate only began falling after widespread internet access became available, giving kids the ability to find medically accurate, unbiased information about sex.

The idea that kids can't resist sex and that if we approach it from the idea that sex should be fun and pleasurable they will not be able to make good decisions is a patently religious one. It comes from the idea that humans are corrupt and incapable of being moral without guidance. In truth, the research shows that when we empower teenagers with accurate information on sex, they often do delay sexual intercourse--not because they are afraid, but because they are informed. Such knowledge empowers them to make the best decisions for themselves.

And isn't that what we really want anyway?

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