Nobody knows for sure where the euphemism “popping your cherry” comes from exactly. But that does not stop it from carrying significant meaning in the milestones of sexuality.
We all know the same old, hackneyed story.
Girl is virgin. Girl has intact hymen. Girl has penetrative sex for first time. Girl’s hymen is broken. Girl bleeds. Girl is no longer a virgin.
This tall-tale assumes the illusion of the “hymen”, now called the corona, as a taut piece of skin that breaks when punctured, sort of like poking a knife through a piece of cellophane. If that were true, there would be no natural outlet for menstrual blood and other fluids to flow from the vulva– that is unless penetrative sex had occurred to “pop” the barrier. So, that rules out the hymen-as-a-membrane theory. An impermeable hymen is actually a condition called Imperforate Hymen, which only occurs in 0.1% of infants born. A membrane-like hymen is the exception, not the rule.
Rather, most of the time, nothing gets broken, snapped, crackled or popped. Just like every other part of the human body, hymens vary from person to person. They come elastic, rigid, thin, thick, honeycomb-like, ladder-like, narrow, stretched, small and large. It’s size and sensitivity is closely related to levels of estrogen receptivity, which vary from body to body over time. The way a hymen looks today, can look different tomorrow simply based on changing hormone levels, especially around puberty. The hymen differs so much in appearance, that most healthcare providers cannot tell the difference between a “virgin” and “non-virgin” hymen. Yes, you can even be pregnant from penetrative sex without evidencing a “popped cherry.”
“I like to think of the hymen as a door frame mounted in a doorway that stands on the spot where “external” stops and “internal” starts. You can’t go in or out of that doorway without passing through the door frame. The hymen is exactly the same. It is part of the entrance to the vagina. Nothing can enter or exit the vagina without going through it.”
So then, why you may wonder, do some folks bleed during first-time penetrative sex? Any uncomfortable, non-sensual or anxiety-ridden penetrative sexual experience can result in bleeding (this goes for anal and manual sex, too.) The body’s internal tissue is sensitive and any abrasions can easily turn into the release of blood, especially when poorly lubricated either naturally or artificially.
“The normalization of female bleeding during intercourse has little scientific evidence. Perhaps it is more an indicator of what went wrong, rather than what went right.” - Our Bodies Our Blog
In cases of non-consensual penetration or rough sex, there may be evidence of tearing and inflammation inside of the vulva, but that has little to do with the hymen itself. Hymen, after abuse, can look “perfectly normal.” Cop shows about inspecting the state of the hymen during a rape case play upon the hymen/virginity myth all the time. There is no way to draw upon knowledge of exactly how the hymen looked before sex and, therefore, impossible to measure changes, or small tears, that may have occurred.
The idea of the hymen being punctured during penetrative sex is more metaphorical than grounded in medical reality. The pain associated with “cherry-popping” propagates the idea that women do, and should, experience pain during penetrative sex.
In some cultures, in which female brides are held to a standard of virginity, blood on the marriage bed sheets represents honor. The New York Times reports that there is shame associated with not bleeding the first time, which leads to suspicion that the woman is of dishonorable character. This has gotten so extreme that there are entire industries making money off of this medical myth. Some women are inserting fake hymens or receiving hymen reconstruction surgery in order to have that blood-on-the-sheets experience. These and other instances fail to grasp how the hymen, too, can “break” through other activities – even something as nonsexual as equestrian horseback riding.
“No blood on the sheets deeply dishonored the bride’s family and might even bring charges of marital fraud. Many brides have taken no chances. Often under their mothers’ direction, they have filed a fingernail to a sharp point and on their wedding night, cut themselves on the thigh, producing enough blood to stain the sheets and satisfy tradition–and the mythology surrounding the hymen.” -All About Sex, Michael Castleman
The hymen is just one part of vaginal anatomy that we know little about. Unfortunately, it is mostly studied in cases of abuse and rape instead of in happy, healthy relationships. The medical purpose of it remains unclear, other than to act as a barrier between the external and internal body.
The Greek root of “hymen” is “membrane” which does not accurately describe the body part. The RSFU of Sweden has proposed a new words for “hymen” in multiple languages. The new name? The vaginal corona – a permanent part of the vulva. (You can download their informational booklet here for further reading.)