I have a specific memory of breaking my hymen. As an 11-year-old girl I was on the back of a (sigh, yes) particularly large horse — he was at least 18 hands high — and I felt a sharp pain between my legs during my riding lesson. Which I summarily ignored, of course, because acknowledging pain is poor form in English dressage training. I used the bathroom after cantering around the ring a dozen more times, and when I saw my stained underwear, I started cursing.
Right there in the freezing-cold, concrete-floored stable bathroom in New York’s Hudson Valley, I assumed had gotten my first period. And I was not happy about it (it’s that visceral feeling of anger that makes the memory so strong). I had no use for menstruating; I remember feeling very sorry for myself that I had been stricken at such a young age. This womanhood thing was totally going to get in the way of my riding career.
But the days passed and that one bloody occasion was it. And I didn’t get my actual period until the ripe old age of 14. It was many years more before I had sex; I was both shy, bookish and also, honestly, not interested in doing it with an inexperienced teenaged lover (my sex-positive grandmother raised me and she had advised against it: “Just not worth it with those fools” is how she put it.) So I didn’t have sex until I was 23, with a lovely, sweet fellow in a sunny bedroom in California, which was pretty much just the way I wanted to lose my virginity. It didn’t hurt at all, and there wasn’t a bit of blood. I was surprised: I had expected a broken hymen, blood, pain—I had even put a towel down on the bed in preparation. I was confused (though also pretty happy because my first time was fun and not a painful bloodletting), until I thought back and realized that my motorcycle-riding drummer lover hadn’t broken my hymen — that horse had when I was 11.
There are so many myths about hymens, and I believed all of them. That you didn’t lose it until you have sex — with a man. That breaking one is necessarily a bloody, painful experience. That if you haven’t lost your hymen you are still a virgin, and if you have lost it you aren’t. I even assumed that every woman has pretty much the same hymen-equipment. None of those things are true.
First off, nobody really knows exactly why women have hymens—there are plenty of theories, most having to do with protection of babies’ and children’s vaginas. “The hymen is really just a piece of tissue that stretches across the opening of the vagina,” explained Dr. Vanessa Cullins, an OB/GYN who is Vice President for External Medical Affairs at Planned Parenthood. There’s a high degree of variability in hymens. “It differs among women, just like difference in breast, size, eye size, ear size, or any other body part,” she continued.
Most womens’ hymens have space for menstrual blood to escape, while others may have very little tissue — or none at all, even when they are very young. And a very few women’s might be thick enough to need a minor operation so that when they do get their periods the blood can exit the vagina easily. And as I found out myself, activities — like horseback riding, bike riding, wrestling, dancing, and even falls — can cause a hymen to break when a girl is any age.
Andrea, who lives in the Bay Area, slipped on the wet planking of a friend’s treehouse bridge and ended up dangling from a piece of rope about eight feet above the ground. She wrote to me of her experience when she was 13: “I tried to hold on to the rope, but with little upper body strength, dropped onto the ground, which knocked the wind out of me. I laid there like a slug making funny noises – my friend and her family surrounding me in a circle- until my breath came rushing back.” She said she later noticed that she had bled a bit but was unhurt otherwise and she’s pretty sure that was the day she broke her hymen.
Plenty of other women, like Tara, of Portland, Oregon, told me they don’t have a “I lost my hymen” story from sex or anything else (this is actually the most common scenario) Tara wrote: “I rode my cousin’s horses and always rode bikes, and I had sex when I was 14, but I don’t remember any incident of losing my hymen.”
For some women, there isn’t a time when they “lose” their hymen even if they had one. But there are some typical culprits. “A tampon and trying to learn how to use a tampon, may stretch the hymen open,” explained Dr. Cullins. And of course, masturbation, from using fingers to a sex toy, will also stretch the tissue. For a lot of women, it “…just wears away” over time, said Dr. Cullins. And no, once you have stretched, broken or otherwise become hymen-free, it won’t grow back.
You can even still get pregnant when your hymen is intact—according to Discovery Health, which noted: “If sperm comes in contact with the labia or general vaginal area, it can move through the opening in the vagina and possibly lead to a pregnancy. An intact hymen should not be considered a form of birth control.”
Considering the previous details, you can see why a hymen’s condition is a poor yardstick for determining virginity. “Virginity is a cultural construct,” Dr. Cullins reminded us, and never is it more obvious than when you realize that you had based it on a thin piece of skin that may or may not exist in the first place. The only way you can tell for sure if a woman is a virgin or not (via her body), is if she has given birth; the shape of the cervix changes.
But keep in mind that if you are already hymen-free, it doesn’t mean that you will have painless sex the first time. Conversely, stretching your hymen from intercourse or sexplay may not cause much discomfort either, since we all have different pain thresholds. When it comes to sex, Dr. Cullins advises communicating with your partner rather than assuming they can tell you are a virgin or not (and vice versa). “You really never know what someone else’s experience is,” she said. “You have to ask.”