“Keep your virtue in a garden behind a fence.” If you’re a woman, you’ve probably heard this or a similarly euphemistic phrase from a parent or teacher growing up. Or at least, you’ve read it somewhere. A moral science-cum-sex ed lecture at school? Maybe you vaguely recall it from one of those B-grade smutty novellas you’d read in secret as a teenager.
This idea that having sex for the first time is a major,life-altering event, is something many of us carried with us for at least some part of our adulthood. We get these messages from our pop culture and ideas of traditional morality. And while you may argue otherwise, let’s be honest with each other, this is a burden that is disproportionately placed on women.
In the strictest terms, a virgin is somebody who has not yet had intercourse. But virginity (or lack thereof) for women is commonly conflated with the presence(or absence) of a hymen. This leads to so much confusion. Because, hey, what about a woman who didn’t bleed the first time she had sex? Gynaecologists will refuse to use speculums while examining unmarried women for the fear of breaking their hymens. This is common in the subcontinent.
So how exactly does the hymen work?
The hymen is a membrane that surrounds or partially covers the external vaginal opening.
The medical term for this is “vaginal corona”, it is 1-2 cm inside the vagina, and unlike what the myth might have you believe, it is not a continuous membrane, or a sheet that needs to be “ruptured”. Thanks to a little something known as puberty, estrogen is released in women before they menarche, and this “hymen” around the vaginal opening separates on it’s own to allow menstrual blood to flow. Infact, in the rare cases that this does NOT happen, that is a problem requiring medical attention and an improperly perforated opening to be opened to allow menstrual flow. Normally, the hymen is sufficiently worn away by the time a girl reaches adolescence.
Every woman has a different vaginal corona, it may be thicker or thinner or more covering, some might not have one at all. During first penetration, some bleeding may occur as a result of stretching, or lack of lubrication. But infact, a great many women DON’T actually bleed during their first intercourse, and regardless of bleeding, this elastic membrane remains a part of the vagina throughout your lifetime, it simply stretches during intercourse or penetration. The hymen has nothing to do with virginity, not by a long shot.
The most common explanation for a woman not bleeding on her first intercourse is that she must have previously ruptured her hymen during “physical activity like swimming or horseback riding”. This is true and it can happen. However, people almost ALWAYS omit to speak of women penetrating themselves before they’re penetrated by a man. First penetration should ideally be something that a girl does herself, while masturbating.
Virginity is almost intrinsically linked to the idea of a woman’s sexual “purity”. It prevents women from exploring themselves and knowing their own bodies. It also creates an almost irrational idea of how penetration must be a painful, bloody mess. Some women will proclaim almost proudly, that they have “never been touched on the inside” because they’re saving it for marriage. It’s almost like a part of your body that you’re not even allowed to touch with your own hands because if you break your hymen, oh my god, your husband will be denied the right to “deflower” you and see the sign that he is the first one to reach this uncharted territory.
When we internalise these ideas, it’s almost like we don’t see our own selves as whole human beings. The woman is always TAKEN from, and a man DOES the taking. This reinforces the idea of women as passive sexual objects. When women see themselves as passive receivers, they are less likely to take an active initiative to pleasure themselves.
A culture obsessed with virginity is a culture obsessed with controlling women’s’ sexuality and interfering with its healthy development. All it is good for is to stroke the ego of every neighbourhood insecure “manly man”, and tell him that his penis is SO important that it can fundamentally change a woman. It’s almost hilarious.
Women cannot have complete sexual agency until we remove these archaic words from our vocabulary and these archaic notions from our society. Think about the vocabulary behind having sex for the first time. “Losing” your virginity. As if it were a tangible and precious commodity. Instead, why don’t we call it our “sexual debut”?