The myth of the hymen
Let us start with the hymen. The hymen is a membrane in the vaginal canal. Doctors are still in disagreement on its function. Many believe that it has simply no particular use to the woman’s body.
If the use of this membrane is considered a mystery, the shape of its virgin state is one of the biggest medical myths around. Many are under the impression that a virgin hymen resembles either one of these two things: a balloon-like membrane covering the vaginal canal, or a ring-like flesh with a smooth edge.
Some people think that riding a bicycle can result in tearing of the hymen. My Good Images / Shutterstock
Some believe that any disturbance to the hymen will result in its tearing. Hence it is not uncommon for girls to be advised to be careful when riding a bicycle or for young women to avoid using a tampon for fear that they can break their hymen.
In reality the hymen looks more like — using the words of a doctor who frequently performs hymen reconstruction — the petals of a flower. It has notches, folds and clefts, even in its virgin state. It is flexible with different densities. Some hymens are thin and some are thicker than others.
In the event of a penetration, the hymen might be scarred. Yet, quite often, the hymen stretches and is left undamaged.
It is then inaccurate to think that a sexual act will always result in changes to the hymen. There have been many cases that show women who are in possession of an annular smooth-edged hymen can in fact have been sexually active for years.
The opposite is also true. A virgin woman’s hymen might have a big opening and several clefts here and there; this is the type of hymen that many incorrectly believe to signify that a woman has experienced sexual penetrations.
This is why sexologists, gynaecologists and general practitioners alike are often reluctant to be asked for their opinion on whether or not a woman is a virgin based on the condition of her hymen. Doctors in the Netherlands resort to using the following form of words when subjected to such request:
There are no indications to suggest that the woman in question is no longer a virgin.
Trauma to the hymen is not easy to determine – so much so there have been studies to show that forensic experts on cases of child sexual abuse often are not able to discern the signs of maltreatment on the hymen of a female child. This is especially true in cases when the child was taken to the hospital some time after her mistreatment.