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What Is the Hymen?

Women's hymens have traditionally, if erroneously, been linked to their virginity.
Horseback riding is thought to break the hymen.
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  • Written By: Alan Rankin
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 29 July 2014
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The hymen is a thin layer of tissue appearing in the vagina of many female mammals, including humans. In women, this tissue is usually present in childhood and early adolescence, but can be torn away by various activities, including sexual intercourse. For this reason, many cultures associate this vaginal barrier with virginity, sexual activity, and the passage to womanhood. Like many aspects of female sexuality, however, this tissue has often been poorly understood throughout history.

Like fingerprints or ear shape, the hymen can vary greatly from person to person. In general, it forms a partial barrier across the opening of the vagina, but it's biological purpose is not known. Vaginal penetration can remove this barrier, and it is usually accompanied by minor discomfort and blood loss. In some women, however, the tissue can remain intact even after childbirth.

Historically, the presence of the hymen has often been used as proof of a woman’s virginity. This is particularly true in cultures that link a woman’s virginity with her worth as a person, her moral standing, or her suitability for marriage. Conversely, its absence has been seen as proof of sexual activity and even as legal evidence in cases of sexual abuse or rape. In reality, there are a number of activities that can remove this layer of tissue, including tampon use, medical examination, and masturbation. Strenuous activities, such as horseback riding, may also break it, although the Kinsey Institute states there is no research to confirm this.

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Nevertheless, the tissue continues to be linked with the loss of virginity and the onset of sexual activity, even in the 21st century. An archaic English euphemism for the structure is the maidenhead, as its presence was believed to confirm a woman was a maiden, or a virgin. In modern times, the blood resulting from the breaking of the hymen led to another nickname, the cherry. Once considered vulgar, the word has passed into common usage as a term for both the structure and the state of virginity itself.

Some women may be born without this vaginal barrier, and in others, it may be so large that it effectively blocks off the vaginal entrance. These women may require its surgical removal to allow menstrual flow and normal vaginal health. The 2004 film Kinsey, about the life of the famed sex researcher, reveals that his wife initially suffered from this condition. According to the film, this discovery was one of the events that inspired Dr. Kinsey’s groundbreaking research into sexuality.

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Discuss this Article

anon320437
Post 5

I never have read or seen the why of this. What purpose does the girl's hymen serve? Why are girls born with a hymen?

tigers88
Post 4

Ok, this is kind of gross but I have always wondered about this and am hoping that you guys can give me an answer. I have heard that you can break you hymen while riding a bicycle? Is this true or is it just some kind of silly urban legend?

Mae82
Post 3

@manykitties2 - There are still a lot of religions today that believe the hymenal tissue is a sign of purity and while I feel that the anatomy of the vagina should have nothing to do with religion, it's a sad fact that many people still believe this. I suppose like with anything, there are always some beliefs that will hang on no matter what.

What makes me really mad is those religious folks that persecute women because they don't have a hymen. I think that is very much dark ages thinking and with so many types of hymens, it really is a personal matter.

manykitties2
Post 2

When I was a teenager I remember there was a lot of controversy in the church about the use of tampons because the idea of hymens breaking due to their use didn't set right with a lot of Christians. I honestly don't see the hymen as a sign of virginity because it isn't universal, and it isn't like just inserting something can be the only way to break it.

It's really sad to me that so many people are poorly informed about the different types of hymens and think that it is a simple biological way to tell you about a woman's virginity. Whatever happened to just asking a person, and why does anyone need to confirm this anyway nowadays?

SailorJerry
Post 1

The idea of living in a world where intact hymens can make the difference between life and death makes me shudder. Sometimes I sure am glad to be an American!

I think it's interesting that the hymen is named after a Greek god of marriage. He was usually portrayed as a young man wearing a garland of flowers, and he was supposed to "attend" every wedding. He appears, for instance, at the end of Shakespeare's play As You Like It to get all the couples happily married off to each other.

I'm just not sure how the name of a god who was central to the whole process of marriage got applied to a tiny little piece of tissue that was always just a small part.

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