Much ink has been spilled about India's tumultuous relationship with women's virginity and its trusty gatekeeper—the hymen. We've heard of prospective brides, newly-married women and even rape victims being subjected to thoroughly unscientific and humiliating 'virginity tests', such as the 'two-finger test' (in which elder women/doctors probe the woman's vagina with two fingers to detect the presence of a hymen) and inspection of the sheets after a couple's wedding night to determine if the bride broke her hymen and bled, proving she was a virgin.
There are other equally gross, if not as popular, 'tests' to establish a woman's virgin status. In several parts of Rajasthan, women are made to undergo trials by fire, where they must walk with red-hot iron rod on a plate of seven betel leaves and a thin layer of dough to shield their hands. 'Impure' women are the ones whose palms get burnt. Another one is purity by water, where a woman must prove her virginity by holding her breath under water while a person walks 100 steps. These 'tests' are barbaric, to say the least, but the patriarchy that defines a woman's moral worth by her lack of sexual experience has ensured that even today, men are consumed by the need to secure virgin brides for themselves; while women across the country live in mortal fear of their bodies failing these arbitrary tests. Last year, a village council in Nashik, Maharashtra, allowed a husband to end his marriage barely 48 hours after the ceremony when he showed proof — spotless sheets after the marriage had been consummated — to show that his bride was not a virgin.
It is no wonder then that the demand for cosmetic surgeries such as hymenoplasty — where the doctor discreetly 'repairs' the hymen so the woman is a virgin 'again' — is gaining popularity among women of marriageable age in conservative Eastern cultures like ours. In the same vein, a less-expensive way of faking virginity is by using a kit that helps women leak fake blood on their wedding night as proof of virginity. One such product — the Artificial Virginity Hymen Kit — caused such an uproar in 2009 that outraged protests calling for its ban went all the way up to the Egyptian parliament. All because the Chinese company that distributed it suddenly started advertising it as available for shipping to Arab countries. The thought of a woman being able to exercise her sexual agency was, and is, too much to stomach for societies obsessed with preserving her virginity.
It is a sad reality of our times that even today the hymen, which is essentially an anatomically useless piece of tissue (doctors haven't yet been able to find any biological purpose for its existence) that surrounds a woman's vaginal opening, continues to be used as proof of her virtue, the 'absence' of which can besmirch and ruin not just her own but her entire family's honour.
Considering how the hymen has historically occupied such an important place in pop culture as well as religion, one would think that it's been studied ad nauseam and we know all there is to know about the membrane that has plagued women's existence and her very first experience of sex. Shockingly, that's not the case. Myths about the hymen are so deep-rooted and pervasive, many of them continue to be propagated by pop culture, unknowingly, and believed widely. Here are four things we definitely need to stop believing about the hymen.
The hymen is not a 'film' that covers the vaginal opening
Notice how we called the hymen an anatomically useless piece of tissue that surrounds a woman's vaginal opening a couple of paragraphs ago? That's literally true. The hymen surrounds, not covers, the opening. Contrary to popular belief, in most women, the hymen is shaped like a doughnut or a rubber band—basically, it already has a hole in it. In female babies, the hymen is thick, but as she grows older, the tissue stretches, becomes thinner and the hole becomes wider. Daily activities such as walking, running, sports, swimming, even just washing the hymenal tissue can make it wear away.
Since the hymen has a naturally in-built hole in it, it logically follows that ...
The hymen does not 'break' the first time a woman has sex, denoting the end of virginity
If the hymen covered the entire vaginal opening, virgin women would not be able to menstruate because there would be no outlet to release the menstrual blood. Completely intact hymens, or imperforate hymens, are very rare and would require medical intervention to allow vaginal secretions to come out. And yet, most of us grew up believing that losing our virginity meant shedding a little blood when the hymen was punctured. In reality, by adulthood, only fringes of the hymen remain in most women. The bleeding is far rarer than we've been made to believe because the hymenal tissue is capable of stretching — like a rubber band — to accommodate the penis. The bleeding, if it happens, is more likely to be caused if the woman is too dry during intercourse or if the movements are too rough. In very few cases, the remains of the hymenal tissue in a grown woman are substantial enough for them to tear and bleed. If a woman is well-lubricated, sex, even for the first time, is likely to be painless.
'Virgins' can get pregnant
A man's single ejaculation (semen) can contain more than 300 million sperm. This sperm has the ability to swim up to the fallopian tubes, through a woman's cervix and womb, and fertilise her egg. Since most hymens have a natural cavity in them, women can get pregnant even without intercourse, if a man ejaculates close to the vaginal opening, not necessarily inside the vaginal canal alone. While the chances of women getting impregnated this way are rare, it is possible. The reason it is important to know this is because many couples believe that as long as the man doesn't penetrate and 'break' the woman's hymen, the sperm will not enter her reproductive tract and they are safe from the risk of unplanned pregnancies.
The shape, size or structure of a hymen can't tell you anything about a woman's sexual activity
Hymens come in all shapes and sizes, with the most common one being a smooth hymen with a central cavity, or like a doughnut. Some women are even born without a hymen altogether. According to this study, seven different types of hymenal tissues were observed in female infants. An intact hymen, or the one that drapes across the vaginal opening like a protective layer, was observed in less than 0.3% babies. Apart from all the different activities (mentioned above) that can wear out the hymenal tissue, oestrogen, or the female sex hormone, affects the hymenal tissue during puberty to make it more pliable for sexual activity. So, any 'tests' or inspection of a woman's hymen to determine her virgin status are not only unscientific, but absolutely invalid.
In reality, the very idea of 'virginity' as a biological condition is a myth and a social construct. Just like men, 'loss' of ones virginity leaves no physical evidence behind in the case of women either. In addition to being biologically inaccurate, it is also grossly heteronormative, since only penile-vaginal intercourse is considered sex under its narrow definition.
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