What is a hymen, is it an indicator of virginity and can you tell it’s intact? Read on for our expert guide to the hymen.
Medically reviewed by Dr Juliet McGrattan (MBChB) and words by Claire Chamberlain
Despite its diminutive size and lack of purpose in the body, the fact that the hymen is often linked closely with virginity can make it quite culturally significant for some people.
But even though an intact hymen is thought to be an indicator of virginity, in reality that’s not always the case – a ‘broken’ hymen is not, in fact, a sure sign a woman has had sex. The hymen can be broken by tampons or even masturbation, and one study found that only 43 per cent of women experienced bleeding when they had sex for the first time.
Therefore, no-one can really know whether you’re a virgin or not apart from you – and if this seems to be a matter of importance for a potential partner, it might be worth asking yourself whether they’re the sort of person you want to sleep with in the first place.
Cultural and social implications aside, there are some physical things you might be interested to know about the structure of the hymen, as well as any potential problems associated with it. We asked two expert gynaecologists from The Medical Chambers Kensington to answer your key hymen questions.
The function of the hymen
We speak to Pandelis Athanasias, an obstetrician and gynaecologist, about the hymen’s function:
What is the hymen?
A hymen is a thin layer of tissue, which partially covers the opening of the vagina. It’s usually found one to two centimetres inside the vaginal opening.
Does the hymen look the same in every young woman?
Generally speaking, everyone is different, so there may be some variations. For example, the thickness of the tissue or how large the opening is.
What is the purpose of the hymen?
The presence of the hymen is just how the vagina is made! As far as we know, it has no purpose.
What is an imperforate hymen?
An imperforate hymen is rare. It refers to a hymen with no gap in the middle, so that it completely covers the entrance to the vagina. This can cause a problem when a young woman’s period begins. The menstrual blood accumulates in the vagina and, every month the young woman has a period, more blood accumulates, causing abdominal pain and swelling.
How does a gynaecologist treat an imperforate hymen?
Minor, minimally invasive surgery is required to treat an imperforate hymen, where a small incision is made to remove the extra tissue. To restore the anatomy, a gap is created in the hymen for the blood to exit the vagina and uterus. This is a medical procedure that would be performed by a gynaecologist.
Are there any other hymen complications?
An imperforate hymen is the only real problem that can occur with the hymen.
The hymenoplasty procedure explained
We speak to Tania Adib, a consultant gynaecologist with a special interest in cosmetic gynaecology, about how a hymenoplasty procedure works:
What is a hymenoplasty and how common is the procedure?
A hymenoplasty is a procedure to recreate the hymen after it has previously been broken, and is quite controversial because of the social issues surrounding this. This procedure is really only carried out by a cosmetic gynaecologist.
What factors should be considered before opting for genital cosmetic surgery?
Physiologically, downtime post-surgery is four to six weeks, and you cannot have sex for six weeks following the operation.
However, the main factors surrounding this procedure are social issues. Culturally for some women – for example, if you are a muslim – you have to have an intact hymen, as it represents honour, which is why it is so controversial.
In some cultures, virginity before marriage is very important and it is therefore important to bleed during sex. This is where a cosmetic gynaecologist may recreate the hymen.
As with all surgical procedures, there are always risks attached, including the risk of infection, bleeding and wound breakdown post-surgery.