I was sitting with a group of teenage girls. We had been discussing the dynamics of sexual violence with a Myths vs Facts activity.
Myth or Fact: men rape out of biological need. [MYTH]
Myth or Fact: most women can get out of being raped if they fight back hard enough. [MYTH]
Myth or Fact: Not all victims of rape are female and not all perpetrators are male. [FACT]
You get the idea.
During a session the week prior, we had talked about consent, abstinence, safe sex and contraception, STDs, and boundaries so the girls did a great job discerning between what was a myth and what was a fact.
So I asked them one more question.
Myth or Fact: if a man rapes a girl who has never had sex before, she is still a virgin.
The room erupted. Everyone had a very animated answer and explanation for why they thought the statement was true or false. A couple of girls rightly argued that, because rape is a forced sexual encounter and entirely unwanted, it cannot take a girl’s virginity.
Then there was the more popular answer:
“Her cherry popped; she’s not a virgin!”
The statement I gave them is a fact, by the way. Virginity is something you give, not something that can be taken. Rape does not change a victim’s worth or sexuality in any way. But first, the anatomy lesson.
My mother told me that, before marrying my dad, her gynecologist had said something along the lines of, “I can tell by looking at your hymen that you’re a virgin”. And she was. So I grew up believing that there was this mysterious thing inside of me, stretched across my vagina like a silicone lid, that one day would break and bleed and then be gone forever, along with my virginity. Virginity and hymen were equivalent. A girl had to bleed on her wedding night to prove her virginity. She had to be in pain. Her hymen had to be intact when she walked down the aisle and a bloody mess later that night.
My purity depended on keeping that mystical hymen 100% intact. And, as I’ve written about before, I genuinely believed that my worth as a woman relied on maintaining my virginity until my wedding night. To lose my hymen, my virginity, too soon was to lose my value as a human being.
I was almost 25 before I learned that everything I knew about the hymen was wrong. Or, to quote my forensic nurse friend, “absolute BS”.
Once I found out that my understanding of the hymen was wrong (although extremely common…so much so that health care professionals misunderstand it), I actually started reading about how my body works. I looked at those scary diagrams that were forbidden in my conservative Christian high school. I talked to my friends, nurses I work closely with, and asked questions. And I learned so much.
For instance, did you know there’s something called the os in a woman’s body? It sounds like Oz, the Wizard of. But it’s actually just the external opening of a woman’s cervix and is visible during a vaginal exam (usually, when a speculum is inserted). I had one for 25 years before I even knew it existed.
The hymen, according to legend, covers the opening of the vagina and breaks after the first time a girl’s vagina is penetrated. There are a lot of problems with this understanding of the vagina. For starters, not all females are born with a hymen.
But how does all that menstrual blood escape if my vagina is closed off by a membrane? And how are virgins able to get a tampon up there?
The word “hymen” in its original Greek form meant simply “membrane”. Bodily membranes come in different shapes and sizes and have different functions but generally speaking, a membrane is simply a pliable lining of some kind. And that’s all the hymen is: it is a very elastic lining that forms part of the vulva (external) and acts as the entrance to the vagina (internal). It’s a tissue that encircles the opening but does not completely cover or block the vagina [technically that is possible but it is extremely rare and not at all the norm]. It doesn’t really serve much of a purpose except as a floppy little rim cover, like those furry things people put on their steering wheels (bad example but hopefully you get the idea). In other words, it has nothing to do with virginity.
The hymen does change as a girl matures. It’s appearance is altered slightly as a woman ages; specifically, it gets sort of thin and saggy with old age, just like most other body parts. Some women have a larger hymen than others. Much like the labia or clitoris, the hymen comes in different shapes, sizes and shades. But it is not the sentinel guarding a girl’s virginity. It never goes away completely (although it might thin out at different stages of life). It remains intact, even after having sex, although it can be injured during sex or during a rape. But those injuries typically heal extremely fast because the vagina is so vascular. Let me say it again, it has absolutely nothing to do with virginity.
“So why do girls bleed during sex?” those teenagers asked me.
Any part of the vulva and/or vagina can be injured during sex or an assault. Something might be nicked by a finger nail or torn by too much friction. Blood is an indicator that something – often the hymen but not always – has been injured. A little bit of blood and maybe some mild discomfort the first few times you have sex is okay. But as a general rule, if it hurts, you’re doing it wrong. Especially if it’s your first time or you’re having sex again after a long time of abstinence, it’s best to take things slow and easy. Your partner ought to respect that (if they don’t, that’s not okay). It’s very possible for a virgin to experience sex for the first time and neither bleed nor experience pain. Just learn how your body works! Understand what it’s doing before, during, and after sex! It’s a lot easier to figure out what’s going on with a guy because you can pretty much see it all happening but for women, it’s primarily internal. That doesn’t mean the vagina isn’t doing some pretty incredible things, though. Things start to lubricate, expand, change color, swell. It’s natural and normal and, for the sake of your sexual health, it’s important to know what’s normal and what’s not.
Learning more about my anatomy gave me a greater confidence in my body. I was once thoroughly disgusted and ashamed of my body, specifically my private area, because 1) I grew up as a teenager in conservative Christianity’s purity culture and 2) I didn’t really know how it all worked. Now I think, frankly, it’s pretty freakin’ amazing! There’s no reason to be ashamed of any part of me.
In summary, there is no “cherry” to pop. Nothing pops. In fact, if something does pop inside you during sex, get on the phone to your GYNO post haste. That’s not supposed to happen.
There are several reasons that the “pop the cherry” myth is dangerous but I’ll highlight just three.
- It’s anatomically inaccurate information.
- It perpetuates a shame-based sex education for teenage girls and bolsters the “conquest” mentality for boys (i.e. “I’m going to pop your cherry!”)
- It reinforces the shame of a rape victim who has never had sex before. If you were raped before you had sex – before you chose to have sex with someone of your own free will – you are not damaged goods. You are not broken. Your worth and value as a human being is no different than before. Your hymen, unless it is healing, is just like it was before the assault. It’s still intact, even after sex. And you are still a virgin until you make the choice to have sex [with another consenting person of a legal age].