An important part of women's sexual health is understanding her body. Society has often dictated how a women thinks about her own sexual health, and sometimes even topics like virginity or biological terms like the hymen or vagina can be pretty scary to a young woman. This article addresses the clinical definition of the hymen, as well as its role in women's sexual health and why it is often associated with a woman's virginity.

A hymen is the thin piece of tissue that partially blocks the entrance to the vagina. It is sometimes called the maidenhead or cherry. It is named after the Greek god of marriage and has no known biological function.

Although some women are born without a hymen, most have one, and the hymen varies in size and shape from woman to woman. The hymen usually does not cover the entire vaginal opening, since there must be some way for the menstrual fluid, or period, to leave the body.

Hymen - A Marker of Virginity?

The hymen has historically been a marker of a woman's virginity. The belief that since the hymen blocked the vaginal opening, it should remain intact as long as a woman did not have sexual intercourse was widely propagated, especially in cultures where a woman's virginity was highly valued.

If an unmarried woman's hymen was found to be separated, grave consequences could result, depending on each culture's customs. In some Australian tribes it is the custom for a specially appointed older woman to perforate the hymen of a bride one week before her marriage. If it is found that the hymen has already separated from the vaginal walls prior to this ritual, the woman is subject to public humiliation, torture, and sometimes death.

But it is scientific fact that the hymen can be separated for reasons quite unconnected to sexual intercourse. It can separate when the body is stretched strenuously, as in athletics; it can be separated by inserting a tampon during menstruation or through masturbation; and sometimes it is separated for no apparent reason.

A separated hymen is not an indication of having had intercourse, nor can it prove a loss of virginity. In fact, some women must have their hymen surgically removed before the birth of their first child because it is so flexible or small that it remains intact during intercourse.

When the hymen is separated, whether during first intercourse or at some other time, there may be some slight bleeding and a little pain. Both the bleeding and the pain are quite normal and both usually stop after a short time. Some women experience no discomfort at all during this process that is commonly referred to as "losing your cherry".

It is important to remember that a woman can become pregnant even if her hymen is intact and no penis has entered her vagina. If sperm comes in contact with the labia or general vaginal area, it can move through the opening in the vagina and possibly lead to a pregnancy. An intact hymen should not be considered a form of birth control.

Know the Facts About the Hymen: Normalize Fears

As with most information on sexuality, a woman learns about her hymen in many ways, but rarely from parents, physicians or informed adults in a supportive and sensitive manner. Rather, it seems that women learn about the hymen in ways that promote anxiety and uncertainty about their own bodies and behaviors.

Knowing the facts about the hymen can help women dispel the myth that it proves virginity, freeing them from the negative effects of popular mythology. Having accurate information about the hymen can assist in normalizing a woman's fears about her body and help promote greater self-acceptance.

Copyright 2002 Sinclair Intimacy Institute

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