“I’m a virgin?” asked a stranger on the internet, straight to the point, in an email received by Abir Sarras. Sarras wasn’t sure how to respond. It was the first time she had received what he describes as a “vagina selfie.”
At the time, Sarras was an administrator for the “Love Matters Arabic” Facebook page, which offers sex and relationships education in Arabic on social media.
“She said she had been in a relationship and was now getting engaged and wanted to make sure she was a virgin,” explains Sarras. And he pauses and grimaces: “I hate that word: maftuuha —she asked if it was, she asked if it was ‘open’.”
What the stranger was really asking was whether Sarras could see her hymen in the photo — and say whether it was “intact” —, a consequence of the pressure in her community for women to marry virgins, and for her husband to prove, in form of blood.
This belief that the hymen provides physical “proof” of sexual history is the premise of virginity testing, a practice condemned by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2018 as a human rights violation.
Such tests are done in different ways; from physical exams measuring a hymen or vaginal laxity to wedding night rituals where a bloody sheet is expected to appear and even shown to the families of the bride and groom.
Despite there being no scientific basis — and despite virginity itself being a social construct with no biological reality — millions around the world continue to believe that a woman’s sexual history is somehow written into her anatomy, and that all cisgender women bleed when having sex for the first time. Neither, of course, is true, but such beliefs are found in languages, religions, and communities around the world.
In my book “Losing It,” I attempted to construct a kind of cartography of the myth of the hymen — mapping the questions that people like Sarras ask about it, where and by whom these beliefs are endorsed, and whether what lies behind its persistent power is a shortage of scientific research.
I found a lot of scientific research dispelling the myth. But I also discovered a world in which doctors endorse the idea, various legislative bodies validate it, and where there is often a complete lack of interest in accurate sexual education about the hymen around the world.
The hymen is a small, membranous tissue that can be found near the opening of the vagina. It’s truly incredible that a small, seemingly functionless piece of fabric was connected to such an imprecise purpose.
There is some debate among the scientific community as to why the hymen exists in the first place. Could it be a leftover from when our prehistoric mammalian forms went from water to land? Could it be there to prevent fecal bacteria from slipping into the vagina in childhood? Nobody knows.
The tissue seems to make more sense in other species — guinea pig hymens dissolve when the female is of reproductive age and then grow back, for example. Something ours don’t do.
For those of us with vaginas, hymens can vary greatly. Few of us will have grown up having seen this kind of diagram, which shows what they might look like.
Many people mistakenly believe that the hymen seals the vagina, not realizing that this would mean a woman would not be able to menstruate (a minority actually have this condition and it is possible to have a hymenectomy to help open the canal).
Instead, most hymens have an annular or crescent shape and can take on a variety of thicknesses. Few of us would have been told that it can change with age, that some of us are not born with one, or that it can disappear entirely when we enter sexual maturity anyway. Or that a wide variety of activities can stretch or tear it, from exercise to masturbation and, yes, penetrative sex.
But that doesn’t mean the idea that you can check for sexual activity with a hymen exam is valid. A small study of 36 pregnant teenagers published in 2004, for example, found that medical staff were only able to make “definitive findings of penetration” in two cases.
Another 2004 study found that 52% of sexually active teenage girls interviewed had “no identifiable changes in hymenal tissue.” So a binary idea that either we are sexually active and have no visible hymen, or we are not sexually active and have one, is simply not accurate.
Blood on the sheet, a type of virginity test used around the world, is also based on falsehoods. Some hymens may bleed when first stretched if the act is abrupt or if you are not relaxed, but any blood is actually much more likely to come from tears in the vaginal wall due to force or lack of lubrication.
Bleeding during the first sexual intercourse may or may not happen, just as bleeding after sex after the first time may or may not happen.
Reasons for bleeding during sex include anxiety, not being fully aroused, or experiencing a worsening of, for example, an infection. When an obstetrician surveyed 41 of her colleagues, asking whether they bled the first time they had sex or not, 63% of them said no.
But in countries that continue to value virginity and police female sexuality, there is little room for this biological nuance. A 2011 study at Dicle University in Turkey found that 72.1% of female students and 74.2% of men believed that the hymen symbolized virginity; and 30.1% of men stated that “the blood-stained sheet” should be shown to the family on the wedding day.
This can have a profound impact on women’s ability to access positive sexual health, preventing them from exploring their sexual identity and generating anxiety around sex.
A social study in Giza, Egypt, found that the majority of women interviewed felt anxiety and fear before their wedding night and pain and panic during and after, because of ideas surrounding virginity and the hymen.
In a 2013 Lebanese survey of female college students, nearly 43% of women interviewed said they would not have sex before marriage for fear of not bleeding on their wedding night.
Another study from Lebanon, this one from 2017, found that of 416 women interviewed, about 40% of them reported having had anal or oral sex to preserve their hymen for marriage.
In my research, I found countless posts online from women terrified that masturbation had caused them to lose their hymens — or were clearly so afraid of touching themselves that they had simply never done so.
The hymen myth doesn’t just affect women’s sexual well-being and, indeed, equality — it can impede their access to justice. Pakistan only recently banned virginity testing of rape survivors for prosecution; several countries, especially in Asia, the Middle East and northern and southern Africa, still perform them.
And many doctors around the world offer highly lucrative hymen repair surgery to women who have had premarital sex and fear the consequences if discovered.
When I was writing my book — a year before politicians decided to ban the procedure in the UK in January 2022 — I emailed a surgeon in London about virginity testing.
His assistant told me that I would be able to obtain a doctor’s note confirming that I had an intact hymen after a £300 ($390) consultation, if I had one. If I hadn’t, a £5,400 ($7,000) hymen repair surgery awaited me – after which I would receive the same doctor’s note.
While the law that will ban hymen repairs in the UK makes its way through Parliament, it is clear that some surgeons are taking advantage of the last moment to offer their services in the UK. A London surgeon goes on to say online that hymen repair can be “beneficial for women who may have suffered vaginal damage due to sexual intercourse or strenuous physical activity.” (But if a hymen serves no biological purpose, what is beneficial about invasive surgery in the area?)
Lies also flourish on clinic websites around the world. “Hymenoplasty is performed to restore a patient’s virginity,” says a Lebanese surgeon. “Hymenoplasty is the restoration of the hymen to its original ‘virgin’ state,” says another in New York.
So, how do you put an end to the hymen myth? Bringing attention to some of this research would be a start, as would changing legal practices that endorse virginity testing and stopping health care professionals from deceiving people.
The point is that many of these ideas are not just introduced across generations; they are supported by ideas that do not necessarily recognize or need support in what science says. If you believe in virginity culture and support the gender inequality behind it, a seismic social change may have to occur to make you think differently.
Some believe that one way to put an end to the myth once and for all is to completely change the name of the hymen. Given that so many languages literally name it the “membrane of virginity”—including Arabic and Czech—this seems like a good idea.
In fact, research has found that renaming the hymen can actually work in changing perceptions. In 2009, the Swedish Sex Education Association decided to transform the word mödomshinna, “virginity membrane”, into mödomshinna, “vaginal crown”. They started using it everywhere: pamphlets for sexual health services, newspapers, Sweden’s official language planning body, and in all future association communications.
Nearly ten years later, researcher Karin Milles found that 86% of healthcare professionals surveyed used the word “vaginal crown” in their clinics and visits. And while only 22% of young people had even heard of it, a smaller number of them showed signs of viewing the hymen in a traditionally patriarchal way.
Many who didn’t necessarily use the new word were still repeating the sex-positive phraseology from the association’s pamphlets. Among the few who knew the new word, most described mödomshinna as “a myth”. Others simply said “it doesn’t exist.” And many pointed out that the idea was old or something they believed in before, in childhood or until someone said it was a lie.
A change in language doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s a start. In English-speaking countries, there are many sex educators who believe that we should adopt vaginal crowns as well. Our word comes from the ancient Greek god Hymen—who, not surprisingly, was the God of marriage—and the myths surrounding membrane have indelibly stained the very word we use for it.
But the Swedes’ success lies in not only changing the word, but also explaining, to young people and medical professionals, why they did it.
As governments around the world appear to have a growing interest in banning practices such as virginity testing and hymen repair, they would be wise to consider bringing the reasons behind the bans into classrooms and lecture halls. This way, we can never let these dangerous myths surface again.
The original text can be read here.