You might have heard your friends whisper about about “popping your cherry” at the back of the classroom during sex education classes. And for many of us, that’s pretty much our only introduction to the idea of a hymen. But if you’re not totally sure what your hymen looks like or what it actually does, then you’re not the only one.
Despite the fact that your hymen is small, its reputation is mighty. Lots of myths have been attached to the thin layer of tissue found at the opening of your vagina. One of the biggest misunderstandings is that your hymen will only “break” the first time you have sex. In fact, it could tear a long time before that, but more on that later.
To bust these misconceptions once and for all, two Flo medical experts explain what a hymen is, where you can find it, and why it might change as you get older.
What is a hymen?
Put simply, the hymen is a thin piece of fleshy, elastic tissue shaped like an O around the opening of the vagina (your vagina is the internal muscular tube that connects your vulva to your cervix). “[It] looks almost like a thin ring of tissue surrounding the vaginal opening,” Dr. Sara Twogood, obstetrician and gynecologist, Los Angeles, US, explains. “It can be irregular in shape and size — so it’s not a perfect circle.”
The term “popping your cherry” suggests that the hymen fully covers your vaginal opening before being broken, but that isn’t the case for most of us. It’s actually incredibly rare to be born with a hymen that doesn’t have an opening.
Even if you’ve taken a moment with a mirror to get familiar with what your vulva and vaginal passage look like, you still might not have seen your hymen. If you’d like to know more about how your body changes during puberty and what the real names for your anatomy are, then apps like Flo can be a great help.
What is the purpose of a hymen?
Now that you know where the hymen is, you might be wondering why it’s even there.
While other parts of your vulva anatomy have a pretty clear job, Dr. Beth Schwartz, assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and pediatrics, Philadelphia, US, explains that there isn’t a known purpose for the hymen. “It’s just something that’s left over from development [when you’re in the uterus].”
Some research has suggested that your hymen might help keep bacteria out of your vagina. As doctors continue to research bodies, they may uncover another reason for the hymen.
What does a hymen look like?
Getting to know what’s typical for you as your body changes and your period starts can be tough. Speaking to your friends about what’s going on with you can be comforting. But most of the time, you don’t have anything to compare yourself to.
It’s really important to remember that your vulva is unique to you, and there’s no such thing as ideal or perfect so long as you’re happy and healthy. And your hymen is no exception.
There’s no one type of hymen: it’s different for different people. And they can be split into different types. They include...
Annular or crescent-shaped hymen
The annular or crescent-shaped hymen is considered to be the most common shape of hymen. The hymen surrounds your vaginal opening like a ring or donut, and then, as it tears or stretches, it appears more like a crescent.
If you have an annular or crescent-shaped hymen, it might look slightly different depending on the way your hymen has stretched or torn.
Imperforate hymens are very rare. This is when your hymen completely covers the opening of your vagina (like a seal). This stops your period blood from flowing out of the vagina and can cause pain in your abdomen and pelvis because the blood is trapped there.
Research into how many people have an imperforate hymen varies massively. It’s estimated that between 1 in 1,000 people to 1 in 10,000 people have a hymen like this. Keep reading to learn how your health care provider might help if you have an imperforate hymen.
This is when the hymen covers the whole vaginal opening like a seal, except for a tiny hole. Although period blood can exit the vagina, it can be more difficult, and because of this you may have longer periods. It might also be tricky and painful to insert a tampon or other items.
Septate hymens have tissue running around the edge of the vaginal opening and an extra piece of tissue running down the middle of it — almost like a piece of string — creating two smaller vaginal openings instead of one. Again, people with this kind of hymen can have issues inserting or removing a tampon. Having penetrative sex may tear this extra tissue away.
This is where the hymen has lots of small holes in it, which may mean it’s difficult to insert a tampon. It may also mean that it takes longer for your menstrual blood to leave your body, leading to longer periods.
How might your hymen change?
When you’re born, your health care provider may check your hymen to see if you might need surgery to remove tissue. However, it isn’t always easy to see if you have an imperforate, microperforated, cribriform, or septate hymen when you’re so young. You might receive a diagnosis much later, during puberty, once your period has started and you’ve struggled to insert a tampon or your periods are particularly long or painful.
The surgery is called a hymenectomy. Your health care provider might recommend this if you struggle to insert a tampon or if the shape of your hymen means it’s hard for period blood to leave your body.
However, most people will never even know their hymen is there. And It doesn’t stay the same, either. Your hymen actually changes as you grow up:
- Your hymen when you’re born: When you’re born, your hymen might appear thicker and more fleshy. It can be more rigid and sensitive. Once you start puberty, your ovaries start to produce the hormone estrogen. This can trigger your hymen tissue to become stretchier.
- Your hymen and virginity loss: The big question. Does your hymen break when you have penetrative sex for the first time? It’s true that for some, the hymen can stretch or tear when you first start having penetrative sex. But this isn’t the case for everyone. The hymen can tear or stretch in lots of ways (we’ll cover that below).
- Your hymen during pregnancy and after vaginal birth: Like during puberty, as your estrogen levels increase during pregnancy, the tissue that makes up your hymen may become even more elastic to allow for childbirth. Your hymen can stretch and tear more during birth as the baby passes out of the vagina. “The stretches go back to (almost) normal postpartum, but the tears in the hymen do not heal back together,” says Dr. Twogood.
What happens when the hymen breaks?
“Breaking” and “popping” are words often used when people are talking about hymens. One minute it completely seals the opening to your vagina, and the next, it’s pierced and there’s a hole. But the hymen doesn’t actually “break” in this way. And as we know, most hymens don’t totally seal your vagina.
Instead, think of your hymen as a ring that is stretched and sometimes tears over time as things rub against it or enter the vagina. You might experience a little bit of pain or spotting (light bleeding) when this happens, but you might not even notice it happening at all.
How can the hymen break?
So, let’s get into the myth of “popping your cherry.” As we mentioned above, some people will stretch and tear their hymen the first time they have penetrative sex. This could result in a little bit of blood or pain, but this won’t be the same for everyone.
There are lots of other reasons why your hymen may already have stretched before you have sex for the first time. These include:
- Using tampons or a menstrual cup
- Having a pelvic exam or Pap smear
- Doing different activities like swimming, cycling, playing football, and horse riding
- Masturbating using your fingers or a toy
These are all totally normal and healthy. You might be wondering whether your hymen can grow back once it’s been “broken,” and the short answer is no. But as Dr. Schwartz explains, “It’s still there, potentially just a little stretched out or shaped differently.”
Why has the hymen been linked to sex?
If tampons and bike rides can break your hymen, why is it so often linked to sex for the first time?
Virginity means lots of different things to different people. In your sex education classes or elsewhere, you might have been told that it relates to when someone with a penis has penetrative sex with someone with a vagina for the first time. Other people might class any form of sexual intimacy as losing their virginity. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide, and it isn’t defined by whether a tiny piece of tissue in your vagina has been torn. If you feel worried or confused about virginity, then it can be useful to speak to an adult that you trust.
For a long time, some cultures have associated having a hymen that hasn’t been stretched or torn as a sign of being a virgin — and therefore pure. As you now know, medically speaking, this is a total myth. A hymen can break at any point, and that can be totally unrelated to sexual activity.
These ideas have been linked to the practice of “virginity testing,” an incredibly harmful procedure where a person is subjected to a vaginal examination in the belief that it might prove if they’re a virgin. Many doctors and health organizations have stood against virginity testing.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says it won’t provide any guidance on virginity testing because you can’t tell if someone has had sex simply by looking at their vagina. Similarly, the World Health Organization called virginity testing a breach of human rights.
If you feel at all pressured by friends, family members, or a partner to “prove” that you’re a virgin, or if you think you’re at risk of virginity testing, then reach out to a trusted adult for support. This could be a teacher or perhaps a relative.
You can also call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or 911 if you’re based in the US. In the UK, you can call Karma Nirvana, a charity dedicated to ending virginity testing, on 0800 5999 247 or emergency services on 999.
Hymen. The takeaway
Your hymen is the ring of tissue that surrounds the opening of your vagina. It can be different shapes and sizes but should never cause you pain and doesn’t actually have a clear function or purpose (that we know about yet).
Unsurprisingly, while the hymen has been linked to the phrase “popping your cherry,” you might have already torn or stretched yours long before you have sex for the first time. A tampon, a long bike ride with your friends, or even your first Pap smear could do it.
Like the rest of your vulva, your hymen is unique to you. It’s never an indicator of whether you’re a virgin or not, and the most important thing is that you feel confident in understanding your own body.
Written by Ella Braidwood