When I write the word “virginity,” you won’t reach for the dictionary in confusion. The word is well-known, and most people assume they know what a virgin is: one who has not had sex.
And for many, the proof of one’s virginity lies in an intact hymen.
This assumption raises a myriad of issues. For one, it places the importance of virginity solely on the woman, the keeper of this mysterious membrane. In many societies, women are expected to retain their virginity until marriage. For men, on the other hand, this expectation is far less extreme.
The importance of an intact hymen also objectifies women who are to be married, like checking a horse’s teeth before buying it. In this case, a woman’s worth is only as good as her ability to prove that she is “pure.”
Defining virginity with the hymen also creates a very narrow (and very heteronormative) definition of sex. Many people, especially in our generation, hold the view that oral sex does not “count” in regards to virginity. But what about oral sex between two women? It seems silly to define all lesbians as virgins just because a penis isn’t involved.
Is “sex” defined as an act that induces orgasm? In this case, does one lose their virginity when they masturbate to completion? Most of the gay men I know count their virginity as “lost” when they have anal sex for the first time — but does anal sex in a heterosexual couple have the same meaning? Hardly, if the hymen remains untouched.
Virginity is a social construct, not a physical state.
But perhaps the biggest issue I have with this cultural obsession is the myth surrounding the hymen itself.
Arguably the most popular euphemism when discussing virginity is the act of “popping the cherry,” or “breaking” through the hymen. Personally, this kind of language makes me imagine stabbing through the film of a microwavable meal, or dropping an anvil on a trampoline. It’s violent, it’s nerve-wracking and it’s definite. This sort of thinking facilitates the distinction between “virgins” and “non-virgins,” erasing the gray areas I described above.
In reality, the hymen cannot be “popped” or “broken.” Hymens come in all shapes and sizes, but the most common are circular (hollow loop) and annular (half-moon shaped) membranes on the fringe of the vaginal opening. Come puberty, the increased estrogen in a woman’s body prepares her vagina for penetration by making the hymenal tissue (which has estrogen receptors) more elastic.
For the most part, penetrative sex does not break or puncture these types of hymens; instead, they stretch. Most of the anecdotal discomfort is a result of nervousness or inexperience, like rushing or not being relaxed enough to be fully turned on (which would provide more natural swelling and lubrication). In these cases, sometimes tiny tears can form in the hymen, which would cause the tell-tale bleeding.
Other, less common types of hymens can also result in more discomfort than normal. For example, some women have microperforate hymens (with only a pinhole-like opening), while select others have cribriform hymens (which have many small holes, but extend across the vaginal opening).
Even after a hymen has been stretched or torn slightly by penetration (or horseback riding, or gymnastics, or traumatic fence-jumping incidents), over time the hymenal tissue can re-form if it is left alone. Some women are even born without hymens.
In many cultures, not having hymenal “proof” of one’s virginity can be life-threatening. This has led to websites like hymenshop.com (which sells artificial hymens which leak red fluid when broken) and surgical procedures like hymenoplasty (in which the hymen is reconstructed with dissolving stitches, often advertised to “restore virginity”). Though we may not think it, U.S. culture is not immune to the hymen myth. In fact, most orders from the Hymen Shop come from the U.S.
In short, there is no definitive way to “prove” one’s virginity. This is especially true as we come to understand that it is not only our traditional understanding of sex that is antiquated, but our understanding of the hymen as well.
MARISA MASSARA wants to know your personal definition of virginity. She can be reached at email@example.com.