Everyone born with a vagina has a hymen, a collar of tissue at the entrance to your vagina. Just as all bodies are different, hymens are also different. Looking at a hymen does not tell you anything about virginity.
- There is a lot of misinformation about the hymen and how it relates to virginity.
- We are not sure of the exact biological role of the hymen.
- Hymens are not commonly damaged by sexual activity or sports.
- Hymens change throughout life in response to hormone levels (primarily oestrogens).
- Virginity is not a physical thing, but a quality that you can choose to share with someone – it cannot be taken away or lost.
- It is common not to bleed the first time you have sex – bleeding (or not) doesn’t say anything about virginity.
Hymens through history
Throughout history, patriarchal cultures have used the sexual history of girls and women to determine their status and value, as well as the status of their families and communities.
It is wrongly assumed that by looking at the hymen you can prove whether a woman is a virgin. Although this ‘virginity-testing’ has been condemned as a violation of human rights, it still continues in many parts of the world today and can be a controversial issue across different cultures and religions.
What is a normal hymen?
The hymen is a stretchy collar of tissue at the entrance to your vagina. It is protected by your labia. It can be compared to a scrunchie (hair tie) – with bunched-up tissue that expands when stretched (eg, during sex or using tampons) then returns to its bunched-up shape afterwards.
Hymens come in many different shapes and sizes. They may have a ring shape, half-moon shape or squiggly edges with notches – all of these are normal. The size of the opening in your hymen also varies in size and shape.
Image credit: Nationwide Children's Hospital
What is an imperforate hymen?
Imperforate hymen is a medical condition where there is no opening (or a very small one) in your hymen. This becomes a problem with menstruation (periods) as blood cannot come out, causing pain. It may also cause problems with passing urine (peeing) or bowel motions (pooing).
You may also have difficulty with inserting tampons or having sex. This is an uncommon problem (around 1 in every 2000 girls) and requires surgery under anaesthetic to give the hymen an opening to allow blood to flow.
How does the hymen change?
Your hymen changes throughout your life.
- Before puberty, your hymen is thin and may be sensitive.
- During puberty, increased hormones (oestrogen) cause your hymen and other vaginal tissues to become thicker and stretchier.
- During pregnancy, increased hormones cause your vaginal tissues to become even stretchier to allow for childbirth.
- Childbirth may also change the shape of your hymen and your vaginal tissues.
- With menopause and aging, your hymen and other vaginal tissues become thinner again (as oestrogen decreases).
What is virginity?
Virginity is a quality that we all have – it is not a physical thing. It is your choice to share your virginity and experience sexual intimacy with another person – without pressure or impairment (eg, from drugs or alcohol). It cannot be lost or taken by someone else. This is really important to understand, because you are in charge of your body and of your sexuality.
Can you tell if someone is a virgin based on whether they bleed when they have sex?
You cannot tell if someone is a virgin or not based on whether they bleed the first time they have sex. About half of women bleed when they first have sex, and half of women don’t bleed. Both are completely normal.
Bleeding may come from small splits in your hymen or your vagina itself. The bleeding should be lighter than a period and shouldn’t last for more than a couple of days as these tears heal quickly because there is a good blood supply.
Some hymens are stretchier than others and will never split or bleed. It is impossible to tell by looking at a hymen whether you have had sexual intercourse or not.
Other factors such as vaginal dryness, not being aroused (turned on), skin conditions (infection or inflammation) and rough sexual contact can also cause bleeding.
There are other causes of bleeding after sex.
Quick facts about hymens
- Your hymen does not completely cover your vaginal opening – a hole is normal.
- When you have sex, your hymen does not 'break or pop' – it stretches, which may cause a small tear.
- You cannot tell by looking at a hymen whether sex has occurred (consensual or non-consensual).
- The size of the opening in your hymen is irrelevant, unless it is so small and causes blood flow obstruction and pain (then you need to see a doctor).
- Using tampons, bike-riding, doing gymnastics and horse riding are very unlikely to damage your hymen.
- Straddle injuries (falling onto a solid object with your legs open) may cause damage to your hymen and other tissues – see your doctor if this happens.
Virginity and the hymen myth Just The Facts, NZ
It’s not a cherry and it can’t be popped – exploding the hymen myth The Spinoff, NZ, 2020
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- Evaluation of sexual abuse in children and adolescents UpToDate, 2020
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