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.