The Myth of the Hymen

Illustration by Andrew Beers

It is easy to envy Cinderella. On Sunday mornings in 1999, I would nestle into my regular couch spot and find love on VHS. I wanted glass shoes, singing mice, and a happily ever after. Most of all, I wanted the magic that made it happen, a fairy-godmother to watch over and protect me in a dangerous and unfair world.

I waited for her to show up for years. But by 7th grade it was common knowledge that fairies weren’t real. I had never been kissed, but Clara Hendrickson told me it was more saliva than sparkle. We watched “The Miracle of Life” in Health Ed. I saw for myself that kissing becomes sex becomes childbirth. It looked sticky.

I wanted something like a fairy godmother more than ever. Health Ed. gave me a new myth to replace the old one. The hymen, explained Mr. Pastor, was a force field separating the good within me from the bad outside. The thin membrane of skin covering my vaginal canal was a hermetic seal; as long as I had it, it would steer me away from less happy endings.

But like all good fairytales, my hymen came with a catch: it could only protect me as long as I protected it. If I stayed out past midnight, the charm might wear off. If I put my hymen in jeopardy I would bleed and probably cry.

This is a good story. It is so popular that both the Mahabharat and the Old Testament link bloodstained sheets with dishonor. But the danger of a good story is that sometimes we forget that’s all it is: a myth.

It turns out you can’t break your hymen. The hymen exists, but contrary to the myth, it doesn’t cover the entire vaginal canal. If it did, menstruation would be impossible. Blood would stay trapped inside us and tampons would be pointless cotton batons.

At birth, the hymen is a donut-shaped fringe of membrane. It’s a decorative accent at the opening of the vagina whose purpose is a scientific mystery. As girls grow up, they walk their dogs, run at soccer practice, and shower routinely. These friction-based activities all wear the hymen away. By puberty, it’s all but erased.

When it came time for my First Time I should have been worrying about logistics, not about my hymen. Was my cute underwear clean? Should I keep the lights on or off? Was Mom out for the night or would we have to sneak into the basement?

Nonetheless, my hymen was my biggest source of anxiety. I knew to expect pain. I knew I was supposed to bleed. What I didn’t know was that bleeding is a symptom of poor technique, not of virginity.

It should come as no surprise that most first-time lovers are inexperienced. Haste leads to poor angling and a lack of lubrication. This lead to micro-tears in the vaginal wall which, you guessed it, lead to pain and blood. The hymen plays no role in the equation. In fact the difference in width between the hymen of a woman who has had sex and a woman who has not is 1/50th of an inch. Pain and blood are common to First Time intercourse, but only because we have been so duped by the myth of the hymen that we accept our discomfort without requesting adjustments from our partners. Foreplay, lubrication, patience, and communication are the keys to sidestepping vaginal discomfort.

As early as middle school we learn the truth about sound waves and electricity, science that we can’t see. But we are kept in the dark about our own simple anatomy. How many bodies and bed-sheets could have benefited from this relevant bit of science? How many young women might have embraced the prospect of intimacy if they hadn’t been taught to fear a fiction?

The First Time does not have to be painful. It’s time we expose our conventional hymen wisdom for what it is— a myth. So party on, Cinderella.

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