The hymen. Up until just a few years ago, simply thinking about the hymen's role in sex made me nauseous. See, I grew up believing the all too common sex myth that a woman's hymen was her own personal virginity detector.
It's actually a pretty solid myth in America. Most girls grow up hearing that our hymens must be broken in order to have sex for the first time. "Popping our cherry" meant two things:
1. Women who are virgins bleed when they first have vaginal intercourse, and
2. A woman's first time is supposed to be painful.
Sigh. We just can't seem to do the female body justice. These ideas about the hymen are repeated in the news and entertainment media, by well-meaning parents, and even physicians who should honestly know better. Girls are warned that they might break their hymens sitting down too hard on a banana bicycle seat!
Far too many health classes reinforce the idea that women need to have a piece of their genitalia torn in order to accommodate the penis. That we girls must grit our teeth, grin and bear our breaking flesh, and eventually sex will feel... better.
That simply isn't true. There are no virginity detectors on any body, and first-time sex doesn't need to hurt a woman at all. Yet the myth of the broken hymen is so pervasive that in cultures which demand female virginity, some women go through a medical procedure called a hymenoplasty.
That's right--hymen restoration to imply virginity.
But here's the thing about hymens--they aren't even made to be broken, because they aren't some solid sheet of membrane covering the vagina. Rather, we're talking about a bit of folded membrane that sits around the opening of the vagina. Kind of like a rubber washer.
So... the hymen is actually an opening itself.
Every woman's genitalia is slightly different, so hymens do come in different shapes and sizes, but it's very rare to require surgical perforation. Instead, hymens simply need to be stretched to accommodate a penis. If a woman bleeds during sex, it can mean that the hymen has been torn.
And that's okay, because the membrane is quite thin and will heal, but it's also unnecessary and may mean the sex was much more rough than the woman would have liked.
Some women have smaller openings within the folds of their hymen, which makes it difficult to even comfortably wear a tampon. That's how I was, but since I lacked a basic knowledge about my anatomy, I thought something was wrong with me. I became so squeamish about the pain, that I developed vaginismus and couldn't consummate my marriage due to the pain.
Why is the broken hymen myth so problematic?
So many reasons. Like vaginismus, for one thing. For another, women deserve to know the truth about their bodies and sex.
Accepting the broken hymen myth takes power away from the woman and gives it to the man. Women who are educated about their own bodies can gradually stretch their own hymens without the pain of tearing, and men could quit thinking of the first time as a violent act. More men would (hopefully) be more kind and gentle with a virgin partner.
Since the beginning of patriarchy, women have been lied to about sex. Around the world, we have been taught that sex is our painful or boorish burden, and that pleasure belongs to men. Perpetuating such myths about female anatomy is just another method of sexual repression. It encourages the idea that women are not designed to enjoy sex.
It's no wonder that women steeped in religion and purity culture would struggle greatly with sexual intimacy. It happens here in America and all around the world even today.
Were men and women properly educated about female anatomy, we could finally throw away barbaric virginity tests which can ruin--or even cost a woman her life.
Men, women, and everyone in between has a fundamental right to sexual pleasure. But we can't own our sexuality without proper knowledge of our anatomy. The broken hymen myth isn't the only piece of false information that impacts the way we look at sex. We're still fighting to get folks to refer to female genitalia correctly. But the hymen myth is something we all need to quit propagating for the sake of our sexual, emotional, and mental health.
Nobody's cherry needs popping, and women don't have built-in virginity detectors.