Nobody knows for sure where the euphemism “popping your cherry” comes from. But that does not stop it from carrying significant weight in how we’re told to measure 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.
The first issue I take with this story it that it conflates anatomy with gender. All girls do not have vulvas and all people who have vulvas are not girls. Next, this narrative enforces the existence of the “hymen” as a taut piece of skin that breaks when punctured, sort of like poking a finger 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. However, impermeable hymens do exist in 0.1% of infants with a condition called Imperforate Hymen. 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. The way one hymen looks today can look different tomorrow. Its size and sensitivity is closely related to levels of estrogen receptivity, which vary in the body over a lifetime as well as from person to person.
Hymens come in such a variety that most healthcare providers cannot tell the difference between a “virgin” and “non-virgin” hymen. Pregnancy from penetrative sex can occur without any evidence of a “popped cherry.”
The Greek root for hymen is membrane which does not do justice to the body part’s form and function. The Swedish National Association for Sexuality Education (RSFU) has proposed new words for hymen in multiple languages. In English the hymen is the “vaginal corona” — a permanent part of the vulva.
“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.” – Hanne Blank from Scarleteen
So then, why 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.
The idea of the hymen being punctured during penetrative sex is thus more metaphorical than grounded in medical fact. The visceral imagery associated with “cherry-popping” propagates the idea that women do, and should, experience pain during penetrative sex.
“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 this has little to do with the hymen itself. Hymen, even after abuse, can look “perfectly normal.” Reality TV Cop shows sensationalize the inspection of a woman’s hymen in the event of an alleged sexual assault, thus normalizing the hymen/virginity myth. There is no way for them to conclude how the hymen looked before sex and, therefore, impossible for them to assess any changes that may have occurred.
In some arrangements, female brides are held to a standard of virgin purity before marriage. Evidence of blood on the martial sheets symbolizes the loss of virginity. Sometimes women experience shame if they fail to bleed the first time.
“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
Medical industries profit from these inaccurate conceptions of the hymen, and in fact rely on insecurities related to virginity to legitimize surgery. There are ways to insert a fake hymen or receive hymen reconstruction surgery with the goal of having that blood-on-the-sheets experience. These and other instances undermine the fact that a hymen may also stretch or bleed from nonsexual activities such as riding a bike.
While the true biological purpose of the hymen is to be a simple barrier between the external and internal body, it remains generally ill-understood and a salient symbol in our lives.
You can learn more by downloading the RSFU informational booklet here or check out this vulva coloring book by Maria Fernanda.