The hymen—the small lining of tissue that partially covers the vaginal opening—is practically synonymous with a slew of lady-part myths: You’re not a virgin if you’ve popped your “cherry”! You’ll bleed the first time you have sex! Remember those from back in the day?
Sigh. It’s time to get the story straight. Here are the hymen facts you never knew you needed in your life:
1. The Hymen Doesn’t Totally Cover Your Vagina
The most “normal” way the hymen presents itself is as thin tissue just at the bottom of the vaginal opening, says Fahimeh Sasan, doctor of osteopathy, an ob-gyn at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. “If someone has tissue that covers the whole opening, that’s called an imperforated hymen,” she says. There are other similar abnormal variants, too, where openings in the tissue are too small.
2. Abnormal Hymens Can Require Surgery
If your hymen is imperforated or separated (where there are two small holes in the tissue), you may need to have a minor surgery, says Sasan. In fact, an imperforated hymen is actually a medical condition—you’re getting your period but don’t have the physical discharge because it can’t pass through, she says. “In a truly perforated hymen, a young woman may say, ‘I’ve never had a period, but I feel like I get cramps.’” The minor surgery can fix the issue.
3. Experts Aren’t Sure of Its Purpose
Your nose helps you smell, and your urethra is where you pee—but the hymen doesn’t appear to serve any major purpose. “Physiologically, it’s there—but from a medical perspective, it’s akin to the foreskin of the penis: We’re not sure why it’s there,” says Sasan.
4. It Doesn’t Always Break the First Time You Have Sex
You’ve heard that when you lose your virginity, you also pop your cherry. “One of the big myths is that whether or not someone’s hymen is detached is a sign of virginity,” says Sasan. “That’s not true.” Why? Because there are other ways you can tear it besides sex. Rigorous exercise, gymnastics, horseback riding, cycling, using large tampons, manipulation with a finger, or a pelvic exam are all possible (but not surefire) ways to tear your hymen, she says.
5. You Might Not Know When It Breaks
When you break your arm, you know the moment it happens—that’s not always the case here, says Sasan. If the tissue does tear during sex, you may find intercourse painful and experience bleeding, she explains. But if the tear occurs during gymnastics or from wearing large tampons, for example, you may not even be aware of it. “Someone might say, ‘I bled after gymnastics,’ but might just think it’s spotting from her period,” says Sasan.
6. Some Cultures Still Obsess About It
Despite the fact that the hymen isn’t always a sign of virginity, some still treat intact tissue as a sign of purity. “In a lot of cultures, the hymen has become a huge thing,” says Sasan. “People even check before a women gets married to confirm that she’s a virgin.”
7. Once It Tears, You Never Really Deal with It Again
Remember: The hymen is a very small fragment of tissue, says Sasan. And if you do notice it break, it just goes off to the side or sloughs off never to be dealt with again. “In a woman who’s had a baby, you can’t even tell where it would have been,” she says.