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Her Virginity: The hymen is not a reliable indicator of virginity

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By Prof Raphael Nyarkotey Obu & Fatou Camara

Her Virginity is a new book by Fatou Camara that aims to address the social perspective of virginity. In this article, we examine and address the notion that the hymen is what differentiates between being a virgin and not a virgin.

The question is does “losing your virginity” the same as “losing” your hymen? And how do you lose your virginity anyway? There is a lot of misinformation and many myths about the hymen and we address them in this article.

Many people have the misconception that the vaginal corona is a thick membrane that entirely covers the vaginal opening and ruptures the first time a person has intercourse or any kind of insertive vaginal sex.

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One myth goes like this: If a bride doesn’t bleed from a ruptured hymen on her wedding night, this means that she has had sex and isn’t a virgin. This is not true.

Most women don’t know what the hymen looks like, how varied their appearance and dimensions are, and how little they comply with their cultural myths. Because of our lack of knowledge, we rely on stories that suggest hymen and virginity are some of the most important things about women.

In male-controlled societies, the hymens have huge cultural significance.  Men were told that a hymen that is intact until marriage, and bleeds on the wedding night, is thought to demonstrate the woman’s sexual and moral “purity.”  But in reality, many women don’t bleed during first intercourse, either because their hymen has already been stretched or torn through other activities, or because it was very thin or flexible, to begin with.

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Learning about our hymens, and our bodies in general, can help us to feel more comfortable and in control in sexual situations. Unlearning the misinformation that we’ve been taught can help us better protect ourselves from STIs, as well as increase our sexual pleasure.

The Hymen

Hymen

The hymen doesn’t cover the vagina. First, let’s take a look at the hymen’s meaning. Coming from the Greek word meaning membrane, the hymen is a small piece of skin found inside the opening of the vagina. Contrary to its name, the hymen is not a complete membrane covering the full vaginal opening. After all, menstrual blood can pass through the vagina before we have had penetrative sex for the first time.

Due to this controversy, a new name called the vaginal corona was proposed to replace the hymen in 2009 by a Swedish sexual rights group in an attempt to dispel harmful myths about hymens.  The membrane is located just inside the entrance to the vagina.

Hymens come in many shapes and sizes. The mucous membrane that makes up the vaginal corona may be tightly or more loosely folded. It may be slightly pink, almost transparent, but if it is thicker, it may look a little pale or whitish regardless of your skin colour. The vaginal corona may resemble the petals of a flower, or it may look like a jigsaw piece or a half-moon. It may be a scanty fringe of tissue, or even completely absent at birth.

The vaginal corona may tear or thin out during exercise, masturbation, tampon use, or other forms of vaginal penetration. Because of this, no one can look at or touch a vaginal corona and know whether a person has had vaginal intercourse, or even whether they have masturbated.

In rare cases, the hymen covers the entire vaginal opening. This is called an imperforate or microperforate hymen. Sometimes an imperforate hymen isn’t discovered until puberty when a person experiences cramping and pain because the menstrual blood in their uterus can’t pass through the vaginal opening. In these cases, the hymen can be surgically opened so that the person can have regular periods, use tampons, and have other kinds of vaginal penetration.

Somewhat more commonly, a hymen band may be present across the vaginal opening, allowing menstruation but preventing tampon insertion. If the opening is very small or partially obstructed, minor surgery can correct this.

Why virginity is a big deal

In both the Christian and Muslim communities, being a virgin is a religious and cultural construct, not a medical or scientific term.  Our value as human beings should not be based on our sex lives, whatever our gender. Because virginity is a big deal, in some communities, girls may be prevented from running, jumping, or riding horses to protect the hymen; girls’ and women’s activities may be tightly policed to prevent cross-sex mingling. This emphasis on virginity also sets up a “virgin/whore dichotomy,” in which sexually active women are rejected as bad, defiled, ruined, and dangerous. The rejection takes many forms, including “slut shaming,” social ostracisation, un-marriageability, rape justifications, and “honor killings.”

This notwithstanding, two studies (Knight, Bernard, 1997; Sally et al. 2004) found that the hymen is not a reliable indicator of virginity. And does breaking the hymen define who a virgin is? If that is the case, then, in the Ghanaian jurisdiction where young girls are taken through puberty right called dipo in the Krobo communities; what metrics do they use to know that they are virgins? 

Also, if your hymen was broken by other means and not through sexual intercourse; would that amount to not being a virgin? How are they able to test these young girls’ virginity before accepting them into puberty rights?

This is because, from a scientific angle, some women are born with very small hymen or with no hymen at all. Would those born without a hymen be considered virgins for those puberty rights? Or do the gods reject them because they have no hymen? Okay, if a young lady completes puberty right and a man decides to marry her and later finds that she did not bleed during the wedding night; how would the gods justify that? Because the man would be expecting the lady he marries to bleed the first night.

The fact that those girls do not have hymen doesn’t mean that they are not virgins. This is nature and this is perfectly healthy and does not mean that they are missing anything, or need medical attention. For some, hymens can be stretched long before they have penetrative sex, whether it’s from sports, self-exploration, or using menstrual products like tampons. So in a nutshell,  the hymen stretches – it doesn’t break. When we have penetrative sex for the first time, nothing disappears, the hymen may simply stretch.

This contradicts much of the language we’re familiar with when we talk about virginity. In reality, nothing physical is lost, and while the first time having sex may be significant for many of us, there isn’t a biological change to our bodies.

Virginity testing: not scientific

In 2019 the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists released a statement saying that they do not guide virginity testing. This is because you can’t tell whether a woman has had sex or not just by looking at her vagina. Also, every hymen looks different, so there is no set standard for finding evidence of penetration.

This idea that the hymen breaks during first sex has also led to a belief that our first time should be painful. In reality, pain during penetration is more likely to arise from anxiety or sexual inexperience, than from stretching the hymen.

In 2018, UN Human Rights, UN Women, and the World Health Organisation (WHO), called to end what is termed virginity testing — a gynecological examination conducted under the belief that it determines whether a woman or girl has had vaginal intercourse.  The WHO believes that is violence against women and girls everywhere. Also, the WHO held that this testing is medically unnecessary, and often painful, humiliating, and traumatic practice.

The WHO noted that there is no medical exam on earth that can tell if a woman or girl is a virgin. Unfortunately, parents, prospective in-laws, police, and even schools and employers still sometimes subject girls and women to coerced or forced “virginity testing.”

The WHO says: “From a human rights perspective virginity testing is a form of gender discrimination, as well as a violation of fundamental rights, and when carried out without consent, a form of sexual assault.”

The use of virginity testing by police in cases of sexual assault is often paired with the sexist belief that if a woman isn’t a virgin, she “couldn’t” have been raped. Performing this medically unnecessary and harmful test violates several human rights and ethical standards including the fundamental principle in medicine to ‘do no harm’. WHO recommends that this test should not be performed under any circumstances.

UN Human Rights, UN Women, and WHO are committed to ending virginity testing and ensuring that the rights of all women and girls are upheld. The following are recommended strategies to eliminate virginity testing in settings where it occurs:

o          Health professionals and their professional associations should be aware that virginity testing has no scientific merit and cannot determine past vaginal penetration. They should also know the health and human rights consequences of virginity testing, and never perform or support the practice;

o          Governments should enact and enforce laws that ban virginity testing; and

o          Communities and all relevant stakeholders should implement awareness campaigns that challenge myths related to virginity and harmful gender norms that emphasize control of women’s and girls’ sexuality and bodies.

Finally, we concluded that the status of your hymen has nothing to do with your virginity and it is prudent to create awareness to educate the public on this issue affecting our families, homes, and marital institutions.

Professor Nyarkotey Obu is a science and medical journalist, columnist, author, and BL Candidate at the Gambia Law School, Banjul, Gambia.  Fatou Camara is the author of the Book ‘Her Virginity’ E-mail: [email protected].

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