What’s up with the hymen?

Someone asked us:

Q. Does the hymen serve any purpose? What different types of hymens are there, and how do you know which type you have?

For those needing a little anatomy review, the hymen is the thin tissue that stretches across part of the opening to the vagina. The tissue can be stretched or torn during sexual activity, masturbation, tampon use, or any activity that places gradual and ongoing pressure on the groin area, for example riding a bike or gymnastics.

Why do you have a hymen? Who knows?!?!. They don’t serve any medical purpose. Some people are born without them. While they’re an interesting bit of anatomy, hymens probably don’t deserve all the attention that has been heaped on them over the years. In the olden days (i.e. before 1950 ) when female sexuality was even less understood than today, the hymen carried a whole bunch of cultural significance. In some cultures they still do. People believed that a hymen that had not been stretched or torn was proof of virginity. Blood from a torn hymen on your wedding night signaled that your new wife was a virgin, (and also that she had probably never ridden a bike or a horse). While people have a lot of different ideas of what virginity is and isn’t, hopefully more and more people understand that a missing hymen can be the result of a lot of things, not just vaginal intercourse.

As for types of hymens, you’ve probably heard us say “Different is normal,” and this is certainly true for hymens.  There are many variations of hymens. Some have small openings. Some have large ones. Some have multiple openings.

How do you know which type you have? A mirror and a flashlight are going to be your friends. Spread the labia with your fingers and peer inside. But be warned: hymens can be difficult or even impossible to find. If you’ve already had vaginal intercourse, used tampons, inserted a finger or object into your vagina, were active in sports or gymnastics, rode a bike, horse, mechanical bull, or were born without one, there might not be anything to see.