A hymen is a small piece of skin that covers the entrance of the vagina. It is a part of/remnant of the development of the vagina. It is a thin membrane that is quite close to the vaginal entrance, contrary to popular belief. You can usually feel it or see it with a mirror.
It is normal for a hymen to be torn/stretched from penetration of the vagina (including with fingers, penises, toys or tampons) for the first time, but it can also be stretched or split by a thousand other things: bike riding, horse riding, exercise or an accident. The chances of your hymen still being completely intact by your teenage years varies considerably.
The hymen at birth
Every girl is born with a thin, flimsy hymen, but as oestrogen kicks in at adolescence, the hymen becomes thicker and more elastic (it contains oestrogen receptors).
The hymen has the capacity to heal itself somewhat (as it has a blood supply like other skin), but once it is stretched open, it is pretty much gone for good.
This being said, some pregnant women have been found with intact hymens, which brings into question many of our ideas about hymens being gone for good once they’re gone.
Some may not be stretched adequately to ‘disappear’, but in fact may develop after only being partially stretched.
Finding your hymen
If you want to know if your hymen still exists, you should in fact be able to see it if you get a hand mirror and a torch, or even better, take a photo so you can really inspect it.
If your hymen exists, you will see it; if it doesn’t, you will only see the entrance to your vagina. A good test is if you can put a well-lubricated finger inside your vagina up to your palm without any pain.
Remember, your hymen may be fibrous, thick, thin, or partially stretched or open. If you can’t find it, but you are having trouble using tampons or putting anything into your vagina, it can pay to see your family doctor who – completely privately – can tell you what they can see.
The mythical virgin
The hymen is a flap of flesh that supposedly proves a girl’s ‘virginity’ (also an arbitrary concept) if it exists, and ‘shows sexual activity’ if it doesn’t. This is just not true at all.
This idea of virginity is medically incorrect, because the hymen can very easily disappear (as it is supposed to) for lots of reasons, some sexual – like masturbating – and some non-sexual, like doing gymnastics or riding a bike.
If a doctor can’t find your hymen, it does not mean you have had penetrative sex. It would be normal for it to no longer exist past puberty, and even more so past age 20, but if you don’t use your vagina much and have never tried to put anything inside of it, it is entirely possible you could still have a hymen at age 20.
First sex and all that blood
The movies show the old-fashioned idea of the first sexual experience of the woman being one containing towels, a lot of blood, and pain. This simply isn’t the case most of the time.
There are a million reasons why your first sexual experience is going to suck, but your hymen busting probably isn’t necessarily going to be one of them. Stretching out your hymen before you try to put anything into your vagina is a great idea.
To do hymen stretches, put a wet/lubed finger into your vagina and push gently on your vaginal entrance, with a downward motion, towards the anus.
Do this for a few minutes at a time, every day once or twice, increasing the pressure as you go on, and using two fingers when it feels ready, pushing out to the sides all around your vagina entrance.
Don’t hurt yourself, but be firm, gentle, and persistent. You’ll get there. Don’t understand if you are still a virgin? Read about virginity here.
Types of hymens
There are several types of hymen, all of them in various states of existence.
- A normal hymen means it is still intact, no longer exists, or it remains simply as a piece of extra skin that you would probably never notice.
- The imperforate hymen completely covers the vaginal opening, and is not discovered until menstruation occurs and the blood can’t escape, instead building up inside causing abdominal pain and distention.
- The microperforate hymen almost completely closes off the vagina, but blood is able to flow out. Tampon use is difficult or impossible.
- A septate hymen is split into two openings across the vagina, and although it won’t stop menstrual blood, it can stop the insertion of a tampon.
There are two types of surgery for hymens: the hymenoplasty which actually ‘repairs’ the hymen surgically, so that after sex, the hymen splits and bleeds – while this may seem strange, it can be used for several reasons including after sexual abuse to ‘heal’ or for religious reasons.
Some cultures prize this ‘hymen popping’ (‘virginity’) of young women so much that violence may be the consequence of a hymen that no longer exists.
The second type of hymen surgery is the hymenectomy, whereby anyone with an imperforate, microperforate or septate hymen can have it cut open with a very tiny cut by a doctor, allowing for sex, tampon use and easy flow of menstrual blood.