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The Hymen & Virginity Myths

Dr. Lisa Lawless

Dr. Lisa Lawless, CEO of Holistic Wisdom
Clinical Psychotherapist: Relationship & Sexual Health Expert

Couple, Finger Puppets, Sexism, Female Sexual Stereotypes

Where It Originates

In looking at the discrimination surrounding female sexuality, it is essential to understand where it begins, which is with the dated and harmful construct of virginity. It is time to acknowledge that virginity is not a physical, tangible thing. It also causes discrimination and shame against women (hetero, cis) and harms men (hetero, cis), LGBT+, and disabled people.

What Is The Purpose Of The Hymen?

It has been theorized that the purpose of the hymen is to keep fecal matter (poop) out of the vagina in infants and toddlers because they are incontinent and cannot control their urination until they are older. Wiping away feces and urine before and during potty training can put them at significant risk for harmful fecal bacteria to move into the vagina canal, and the hymen can help keep it out.

Virgin & Virginity Are Derogatory Terms

The idea that a woman's vagina is somehow not as pure once penetrated by a penis is a construct created out of misogyny and based on a great deal of misinformation. Purity culture often refers to women who have had premarital sex, sex with multiple partners, or frequent sex as damaged goods, used up, slutty. It teaches women that their body is not their own and their sexual pleasure doesn't matter; that only heterosexual, cis men's pleasure and reproduction matters.

These concepts also unfairly target boys, who often feel pressured to have sex to be seen as having worth and virility. Furthermore, it creates incredible shame and insecurities around sexual performance and penis size, not to mention an invalidation for the sexuality of disabled people as well as the LGBT+ community.

Scare tactics by religious youth leaders often indicate that a female would disappoint God, cheat on their future spouse by having premarital sex, and be impure. However, these beliefs are often based on the fragility and insecurities of men who worry about the comparison of other lovers.

Virginity Is A Social Construct

Virginity is not a physical thing; it is a social construct. Below are some examples of why:

  • The idea that the hymen is intact before sexual penetration is medically inaccurate.

  • Virginity is based on patriarchal concepts.

  • It perpetuates sexual shame.

  • It creates the idea that penetrative sexual intercourse of the vagina and penis is the only valid type of sex.

  • It discriminates against LGBT+ and disabled people and discriminating against women and men.

  • The idea that "virginity" is supposed to be saved for someone else robs one of bodily autonomy.

Measuring Virginity & Sexual Consent

There are a variety of "virginity" tests and even sexual consent tests that surround the myth of virginity. These are often done against a woman's will. In some cases, a virginity certificate is issued to verify something that cannot even be medically determined.

Many cultures have doctors who perform virginity tests, but in some cases will be done by trusted, older women who will search for a hymen. There are also two-finger tests where a doctor performs the test by inserting a finger into the female's vagina to check the level of vaginal laxity. In addition, suturing of the labia majora, which is called infibulation, is performed to prevent "virginity" from being "lost."

In Indonesia, virginity tests were part of the job application process, while in the United Kingdom, prior to the 1980s, virginity testing was performed on women who wished to immigrate for marriage. In India, sheets are checked for blood, and if it is detected, a woman is declared as 'Maal Khara hai' (goods are pure), and if there is no blood, then the Panchayat council will declare that 'Maal khota hai' (good are spoiled). The idea that one's body is referred to as "goods" still infers property ownership.

Such tests have gone beyond measuring virginity; in some cases, it measures consent concerning rape or sexual assault. For example, it was not until 2013 that India's Supreme Court ruled out the two-finger test. This was based on if a doctor could fit two fingers inside a rape victim, which meant she'd consented to sex. The need for feminist ideals that promote equality is more than overdue.

Where Do Virginity Tests Occur?

In 2018 The World Health Organization (WHO) released a document called: "Eliminating Virginity Testing: An Interagency Statement," showing that virginity tests have no scientific merit or clinical indication. However, it is still legal for doctors in the United States to perform them. In a 2016 survey of 300 gynecologists, it was found that 10.1 percent had received a request for a virginity test in the previous year, and 3.5 percent had performed such a test. The participation of doctors gives the procedure an indication that this is somehow a legitimate practice.

Other countries where virginity testing has been documented include Afghanistan, Brazil, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jamaica, Jordan, Libya, Malawi, Morocco, Palestinian Territories, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Swaziland, Turkey, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Zimbabwe Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden. There are also surgeries for women to have a hymenoplasty to prove their virginity physically. There are even virginity auctions.

These Beliefs Put Women At Risk

There are still cultures that insist a woman must be a virgin to be married and "proof" must be obtained. We slut-shame women even in modern societies by saying things such as, "She's not the kind of girl you bring home to meet your parents." Thus insinuating that she is not marriage worthy but still worthy of having sex because she is less valuable.

These harmful concepts fetishize young girls and contribute to sexual abuse and human trafficking. Furthermore, with rape or sexual assault occurring in 1 out of every 6 women, it is interesting to note that these occur at very young ages:

  • Four out of every five women who are raped before age 25.
  • Two in every five were assaulted before age 18.

This means that it is not uncommon for a woman to have her first sexual intercourse due to rape. Even when it occurs against a female's will, through sexual assault and rape, the message that they're dirty or spoiled remains the same. Sexual perpetrators thrive on this because it encourages females to stay silent about the assault for fear that they will be considered less valuable, a slut or whore.

Eracing LGBT+ & Disabled People's Experiences

The concept of virginity does not hold space for how many people have sex, whether oral, anal, fingers, sex toys, etc. It neglects those who are LGBT+ and those who have disabilities that would make first-time sexual encounters not qualify as sex. It makes sexual intercourse of the vagina and penis the only valid form of sex which is incredibly discriminating even to heterosexual, cis men with erectile dysfunction (ED) and other sexual dysfunction.

Penis Focused

Sex education is typically focused on heterosexual, cis male pleasure and reproduction. Clitoral stimulation, which is not only crucial for orgasms but also aids in reproduction through orgasmic contractions that pull sperm to the egg, is often discarded. The patriarchal idea that the male orgasm reigns supreme is a disservice to even those perpetuating it, leaving no room for healthy sexual education.

Virginity Beliefs Hurts Kids

The concept of virginity creates nothing but shame-based fears regarding sex. Kids should be taught positive, responsible, shame-free sexuality to develop healthy relationships with their bodies, sexuality, masturbation, sex, sexual orientation. Every child should be taught that their body belongs to them and their sexuality is for them.

There Is No Physical Marker For Virginity

Some people think that a woman is no longer "pure" or a "virgin" once the hymen is broken (popping her cherry). However, vaginal laxity and the hymen is not an indicator of virginity.

The Hymen

Most people refer to this when they say "popping her cherry." They mean breaking the hymen, a thin layer of skin covering the vaginal opening. It is referred to as "cherry," as it often bleeds when broken, but not necessarily in all cases. Because of this saying, 'cherry' usually means in pristine condition or pure.

The hymen can often tear naturally during childhood from trauma to the area such as horseback riding, ballet exercises, falling on a bike, fence, or even using a tampon. Some women are born without hymen. The hymen can cover the vaginal opening a little or a lot and have multiple openings.

types of hymensSometimes, the hymen can be completely closed. This is called an imperforate hymen. When this occurs, it is essential to have a Gynecologist help open the hymen to allow menstrual blood to drain correctly. Signs that a hymen is closed are severe menstrual cramping without any signs of menstrual bleeding and not being able to insert a finger or tampon into the vagina. If this is the problem, a Gynecologist can perform a straightforward surgery by making an incision to open up the hymen.

Desperate women who live in areas with high sexual ignorance have had surgeries to restore the hymen, which is called hymnography. If there is no hymen left or there never was one, then surgery can be performed to take part of the vaginal wall to create one. In some cases, doctors have even surgically inserted a fake blood capsule to simulate the breaking of the hymen.

It is a painful, dangerous and unnecessary procedure. We highly encourage people to be better educated about the hymen rather than believing in the myth that it must be intact to mean anything. We also hope doctors will become better educated as even to this day, some doctors refuse to perform transvaginal ultrasounds on "virgins" because they are concerned about breaking the hymen. See How to Talk To Your Doctor About Sex Guide for further assistance with this issue.

What Is The Point?

The sociological aspect of calling a woman "damaged goods" for having sex is simple. It's to control women. Women are often shamed into saving themselves for marriage and encouraged to be prudes during sex to be more easily controlled and dominated.

Women often fear that they will be a social outcast for enjoying their sexuality and thus deny it. Women are so fearful of the social stigmas out there about sexuality they forget about their feelings on the matter and therefore ignore what the right choice is for them and focus more on what they think the right choice is based on what others think.

Why Do People Say & Think This?

People are inherently good, but we all suffer from the ego's weakness from time to time. At some time or another, we all struggle with the need to soothe our insecurities by putting others down in some way. Beyond religious or patriarchal ideals, this often occurs with men when they are threatened by women's sexuality and fear vulnerability regarding their overall worth, virility, penis size. While it often happens with women when they are insecure about their self-worth or are being competitive because they are threatened in some way by another woman.

Perhaps in better understanding why we cling to these unhealthy belief systems, we will be better prepared to break our need to perpetuate a harmful belief system. Women, just as men, are deserving of respect no matter what their sexual status.

Rename Virginity: Sexual Firsts

Using the term losing your virginity should be replaced by terms such as sexual firsts or experiencing intimate relationships for a more empowering and positive message around sexuality. After all, nothing is lost or taken when we have a consensual sexual experience.

Losing dated constructs such as virginity will empower sexual trauma victims, LGBT+ and disabled persons so that they may also have their first sexual experiences be celebrated as an act of consent, empowerment, intimacy, and autonomy. After all, everyone's first sexual experience should be able to feel special.

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