A History of Hymens

Virginity is a social construct, let's keep biology out of it

Jen Gunter spoke at Concordia University Presents The Walrus Talks Living Better, which took place on October 29th at The Isabel Bader Theatre in Toronto.

You can watch all The Walrus Talks speakers from this event here: The Walrus Talks Living Better on YouTube

I‘m Dr. Jen Gunter and we’re going to talk about the hymen. I mean, what else did you expect from me? Medically speaking, the hymen is a membranous fold that partially or wholly occludes the external orifice of the vagina. However, for most societies and religions, it is a membranous fold that determines if a girl or a woman is pure, if she is untouched, if she is worthy of marriage. Her tightness, her pain on penetration, the bloodstained sheets will be celebrated, and not just by her husband.

She may heave a sigh of relief when she sees those bloodstained sheets, because women are even murdered for want of a hymen. Both ancient and modern cultures including so-called progressive ones with evolutionary biologists, would have you believe the hymen evolved for virginity. If the first sex were bloody and painful, then resulting pregnancy would clearly be his. And it’s interesting that the word hymen comes from Greek, for membrane and coincidentally or not, Hymen is also the Greek God of marriage. Here, I assume, adored by virgins.

Except the hymen is a highly unreliable virginity indicator. Less than one third of women have bleeding with first penile penetration. And even then, there’s only a spot of blood, because the hymen has few blood vessels. I know – I’ve operated on them, and they often do not bleed even when cut with a scalpel. In addition, 50% of teen girls who have had sex with a penis, still have an intact hymen. So it makes no sense to expend a lot of evolutionary resources for an unreliable virginity indicator to prove paternity for pregnancy that might not even happen. Because the chance of getting pregnant from a single episode of sex is about 2-5%.

Then you have to factor in infant mortality, which is at least 50%, back in the day. So wedding night sex had about a one to 2% chance of producing an heir. Evolution does not invest in the one to 2% chance of survival. Another proposed theory is the hymen evolve to make first sex painful, so women would only have sex with a “bonded partner.” This assumes men care not for their partner’s pleasure. It also ignores the fact that first sex is not painful for two thirds of women. It is as if people who invent these theories have never actually asked any woman what happens when she has sex with a man.

Also, if the evolutionary goal were to keep first sex disappointing, why have a fully functional clitoris, years before the capacity to reproduce? If sex is supposed to suck, why have a clitoris at all. To get to these answers, let’s look at the biology, which evolved long before marriage existed. Now I was told not to have highly technical images, so I drew the key embryological stages myself. And so now I’m sure you’ll remember them.

So in red, we have primitive structure called the mesonephric ducts, and in blue we have the urogenital sinus. And the top third of the vagina comes from the mesonephric ducts, and the bottom two thirds comes from the blue, the urogenital sinus. And they join and they merge, and they form a big solid tube. And then that big solid tube hollows out. And there’s a few cells left at the bottom. And so you have the hollow tube of the vagina with a hymen.

So it seems unlikely this complex embryology would be to suit the evolutionary pressures of needing a virgin bride. I can certainly accept that physical features attract males, but no other structure evolved for the social purpose of marriage. So if the hymen were biologically speaking though about marriage, I want to bring in another point.

Why do cats have hymens? Why do dogs have hymens? Why do horses have hymens? Why do camels? Why do buffaloes, and why do elephants? In fact, the elephants hymen doesn’t break until its first delivery. If you wanted to prove paternity from a pregnancy from your virginal bride, conceived on your wedding night, you would want an elephant’s hymen, you wouldn’t want a human hymen. And yes, elephants don’t get married.

So what we do know from science is the hymen is quite rigid at birth, and provides a more robust covering of the vaginal opening. And then it starts to change. And by the age of three, it’s very less rigid. And the shape and elasticity change with age. This is because the hymen has served its purpose, protecting the infant vagina from urine and feces. Because before puberty, the vagina is very sensitive to irritants. So a mechanical barrier that’s in place until continence kicks in, makes sense.

So, you are going to see a picture of me when I was three, because I was super cute. And then you are also going to see a picture of me when I was 20 and desperately wanted to be Pat Benatar. After, that picture was taken the day after I had had sex for the first time. And I was going to ask you, what did I have at the age of three that I lost at the age of 20? My baby teeth. Get your minds out of the gutter.

And that’s how you should think of the hymen. Like baby teeth, it exists for a narrow developmental stage, and then once it has served its purpose, it takes on a variety of shapes and flexibility. Because at that point it’s not needed. So you should think about the hymen as something covering a narrow developmental phase. And once it’s taken on, once we’ve done with it biologically, we don’t need it anymore. And in fact, the whole reason it becomes flexible and pliable is so we can have sex without pain. Because if sex hurt a lot, people actually wouldn’t do it.

So what about those bloody sheets? This is a painting of a bedding ceremony. Could you imagine having sex with all those people watching? I can pretty much get it on anytime, but that might affect me. I’m telling you, I might have a limit to the number who can watch. So if sex is twist a nipple and stick it in, or if it’s rape, then you get vulvar and vaginal lacerations. Sexual incompetence and sexual violence is what brings bloodied sheets, not a disrupted hymen. So we should no more judge a woman’s virginity with her hymen, than we should with her baby teeth. And we’d like to remind everybody that virginity is a social construct, and please keep biology out of it.

Jen Gunter
Jen Gunter is an OB/GYN and pain medicine physician. She blogs at Wielding the Lasso of Truth.