On this Valentine’s Day, many couples will show their affection with traditional gifts of the season: a bouquet of roses, a box of chocolates, a romantic meal. Others may opt for much more extreme moves – like paying for “recreational” hymen surgery, or even artificial hymens – to give their partners the “pristine experience”. But far from being a romantic gesture, the commercialization of the hymen is a disturbing example of outdated ideas meeting commercial interests.
It’s hard to think of a part of the human body as useless and inconvenient as the hymen (even the humble appendix seems positively useful in comparison). Society’s obsession with this tiny piece of tissue, which has no known biological function, stems from widespread and false claims about its ability to reveal whether someone is a virgin. Virginity itself has no real medical or scientific significance; it’s a simple reflection of the higher value placed on penis-in-vagina sex than all other sexual encounters and experiences. Nevertheless, the idea of the virginal hymen is so compelling that an entire market has emerged to monitor, repair and reproduce it.
Hymen surgery and virginity testing have been available in the United States for years. (After all, the virginity tests hit international headlines in 2019 when American rapper TI claimed he took his daughter to an obstetrician every year for a checkup of her hymen.) More recently, non-surgical virginity products like artificial hymens and virginity creams have entered the mainstream. online business platforms. Advertisers promote these products for a surprising array of reasons, from “last resort” to “partner giveaways.” The growing breadth of the market shows us how far we still have to go to dispel dangerous hymen myths.
If you are not sure what the hymen is or what it’s supposed to look like, you’re in good company. The hymen (and indeed, genital examination in general) receives relatively little attention in medical education, and studies have shown that even doctors are sometimes unable to identify it on examination. To make matters even more confusing, there is no “standard” appearance of the hymen. Medical studies demonstrated that there are huge variations in its size and shape and that the appearance of an individual’s hymen can change over time.
Accordingly, the idea that the appearance of the hymen can prove the absence or presence of previous sexual intercourse is a myth. Hymens can tear for all sorts of reasons other than sex – and penetration produces no specific reliable change in the hymen, as it can stretch to allow vaginal intercourse without tearing. The idea that hymens bleed on first vaginal intercourse is also a widespread and harmful lie. Inspection of post-coital blood on the wedding night has been, and continues to be, used in some communities as proof of a woman’s virgin status – but the reality is that the proportion of women who bleed on the first intercourse can be as low as a third. The hymen contains so few blood vessels that it does not always bleed even when cut with a scalpel during surgery.
Society’s refusal to abandon these harmful hymen myths is matched only by the fervor with which we cling to the idea that virginity can be visibly “proven.” The benchmark for “proving” virginity – from the right circumference of the neck, to the right color of urine, to the right type of hymen – may have changed across cultures and centuries, but the requirement to respect these references remained constant. The need for women’s bodies to conform to the norm of the day is not only dangerous, it’s profitable. Enter the hymen market, a range of procedures and products advertised to recreate or simulate the “virginal hymen”.
Until very recently, surgery to repair the hymen, also known as hymenoplasty, was the undisputed cornerstone of the hymen market. Although there is no real consensus among practitioners on how hymenoplasty should be performed, the goal of this surgery is to create scar tissue at the entrance to the vagina, usually by stitching together parts of the hymen or vagina together. This surgery carries risks and does not necessarily guarantee post-coital bleeding; a to study published in 2012 found that 17 out of 19 women who had hymenoplasty experienced no postcoital bleeding after surgery.