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Unpacking Cultural Myths and Biases About Women's Bodies & Sex

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rheashah5 asks:

When a woman has sex for the first time her hymen breaks. How is it possible to differentiate between a virgin female and not a virgin except for the hymen concept? How can one say that the girl is not a virgin on the face of it?

Heather Corinna replies:

Here are some other questions we've had like this one recently:

I'm a newly married man. I was suspecting my wife was a virgin but the result came opposite then what I was suspecting. When we had sex for the first time there was no bleeding and I did not feel the vagina is so tight. It means is my wife had sex previously? Or are there are some other reasons for being like this?

I was married five months ago. When we sex first time she did not feel pain and not bleeding too. We had done enough emotional activities before the sex. May be this the reason for that or has she done sex before?

my wife breast was very soft. i heard the lady who has not had their breast touched should have tight breasts. so i am confusing. we married one month ago. she had done sexual activites before?

We get questions and emails like this often. They are usually coming from people slightly older than our typical our age range, and also most often from South Asia or the Middle East. While these questions are often coming from older people, the issues are certainly pertinent to people of all ages. They are also still held by some Westerners.

I'll say some more in depth after I walk through the basic answers. Because we get so many questions on some of these issues, there are hyperlinks added to each of the items below for those who want more information.

Here are the bare basics:

1) Unless a woman becomes pregnant (or gives birth and/or breastfeeds, both things which usually happen through sex), contracts a sexually transmitted infection or is seriously injured during sex, her body is rarely, if ever, permanently changed by sexual activity. Previous or current sexual activity does not make a woman's vagina "loose." It does not make her external vulva look different. It does not cause her breasts or any other body part to have a different appearance or to feel different to a partner. The exception to that can be the hymen/corona to some degree, which I explain below.

Most of the physical changes a woman will have in her life, when not due to pregnancy or birth, will be due to her own genetics, to change in body composition (like losing or gaining muscle or fat), to the hormonal changes that are part of our lives just like they are part of men's lives, to the changes of puberty, to any injuries, serious illness or to aging. Very few, if any, are due to sex all by itself, of any kind. Just like a woman's vagina or hands don't tend to have the power to change male bodies via sex, a man's penis or hands do not generally have that ability with women. Most permanent changes to the vulva or vagina are due to puberty, aging or birth. Most temporary changes to the vulva or vagina are due to emotional and sexual feelings.

For more on this, see:

2) Based on what we know from the study we have to reference and from what women self-report, most women do not bleed with first-time intercourse. Some do, but many do not. Whether or not a woman has vaginal bleeding should not be seen as any kind of proof of whether or not she has had sexual partners in the past. A woman can have vaginal bleeding with sex who has had 70 partners; a woman who has had no partners may not have any.

For more on this, see:

3) If and when bleeding does happen, it's an error to assume it must be about a woman's vulva, vagina or hymen (corona) being a certain way because she has not had sex before. It is also incorrect that the first time a woman has intercourse, her hymen breaks.

The hymen (now also called the corona) is usually very thin, stretchy tissue just inside the opening of the vagina. For most women, most of it wears away on its own over a woman's lifetime, with or without intercourse. It is not a seal that "breaks" or "pops" with first intercourse, though first intercourse, and any vaginal sex thereafter, will often play one part in that tissue gradually wearing away. One round of intercourse will not remove the hymen or cause it to be all gone.

If a woman has menstrual periods, you can be sure that the hymen/corona has already begun wearing away, otherwise that fluid could not leave a woman's body. When that tissue wears away further or is stretched, it may not not cause bleeding, especially if a woman was fully aroused, emotionally comfortable, well-lubricated during sex and had a partner who was also responsive to what felt good for her (or didn't).

A minority of women have what are called "resilient hymens." For those women, intercourse or other vaginal entry will tend to be painful, and for the most part, impossible without causing that woman injury. (The women and their partners I have known with this condition have expressed attempts at intercourse as feeling like someone was trying to jump through a trampoline.) Women with resilient hymens may need a minor, outpatient surgery called a hymenectomy; a doctor makes an inciscion in the hymen so that it can begin to wear away over time as it should. Those women may also find they do not menstruate, because a hymen/corona which has not worn away at all will not be able to release menstrual flow.

At best, the only thing anyone could tell about a woman's sexual history by looking around her vaginal opening with a trained eye is if she has NEVER had any kind of vaginal intercourse or other entry. A doctor or someone who knew what a fully intact hymen looked like could tell that because the hymen was fully intact.

But. Many women who have not had any kind of sex do not have fully intact hymens, so that kind of examination is primarily useful with very young girls, who have also not started puberty or menses, both things which contribute to the hymen wearing away all by themselves. If a woman is pregnant or has a genital sexually transmitted infection, that is another way a doctor could be sure a woman has had sex before. On the whole, the idea or practice of a physical examination to "prove" virginity is deeply flawed and often inaccurate. For women who are put through that experience, it is also often an experience that feels degrading and humiliating. As well, some of the doctors engaging in this practice know how unreliable it is and are purposefully dishonest about that.

Virginity is not anatomical or medical: there is no such term in medical practice, even if you hear a doctor use it. Virginity is a social, cultural or individual idea or concept about people's sexual behavior. The hymen is not virginity: it is one body part which some people have made part of their ideas about virginity, and which historically was often part about ideas of virginity from times in the past when female anatomy was less understood.

For more on this, see:

4) Pain and/or bleeding are often signs of injury, not of well-being. If we love someone, we'll tend to do all we can to help them avoid injury and pain, rather than wanting to purposefully cause them injury or pain.

Sometimes people will get injuries due to sex accidentally, so if and when it does happen, it doesn't mean anyone involved is a bad person or has done something wrong. Genitals can be delicate and just like they can happen with sports, injuries can happen with sex. A woman may have vaginal bleeding because someone didn't trim their nails, was accidentally too rough or there wasn't enough lubricant used as was needed. Some health conditions can cause vaginal bleeding, like some sexually transmitted infections; vaginal bleeding can also happen because of spotting with ovulation or a birth control method, and certainly during menstruation. There are some health conditions which make vaginal sex painful for women, conditions which usually need treatment. Sometimes women experience pain with intercourse simply because they do not want to have intercourse.

If someone of any gender is having a lot of pain with sex, that's not ideal: it's something we want to try to avoid. Would you want to be in pain with sex yourself? Probably not. If someone is having bleeding, even if no one meant to cause any kind of injury, it means something likely went wrong, not right. Unless you are a sadist and pain is something a partner also wants, your aim as a caring partner should be to do all you can to help a partner to avoid pain, not to idealize them being in pain.

For more on this, see:

5) During intercourse, the vagina may not feel "tight" to a partner or a woman for a few reasons. When a woman is not scared and is sexually excited, the muscles around and of the vagina will temporarily become more flexible and open. Vaginal lubrication that also often happens at those times adds to the vagina not feeling tight. Contrary as it may sound, when women feel very sexually aroused (excited) and are active sexual partners, the vagina may also feel tighter because of the muscles being more active and because of certain areas of the vulva being more erect and because of more blood circulating to the pelvic area.

For men and women alike, the feeling of intercourse can sometimes or always feel more general than specific. It's not everyone's favorite sexual activity, and may not be the one where one or both partners feel the strongest or most specific sensations. Sometimes people's expectations of what intercourse or a vagina is "supposed to" feel like are not realistic or true to their actual experiences.

For more on this, see:

6) People are not property. Women and women's bodies are not objects. Despite whatever someone's marriage arrangement may be, whatever a person's culture is or traditions are or say, if in any way women or some part of women's bodies or selves are presented as something to be bought or owned by another person or family in any way, that is a false construction. People, which women are, in actuality are still are not, nor can be, property.

In colonial American history, many people once kept slaves. They usually purchased or traded for these slaves with another white person and considered the people they "bought" to be their property; treated them as if they were property, including sexually. However, no matter what was paid for them, no matter that our culture called them slaves, that never made people anyone's actual property because people are not objects. This is why slavery is globally considered a human rights violation: because the idea or practice of slavery presents and treats certain people as less than human. The same is true of women who are either treated like slaves or like property in any respect.

With men who believe that women are whole human beings, equal to them and absolutely not property, but who worry about things like this, it often seems to stem from insecurity and feelings of vulnerability. It can stem from a need to validate oneself or one's masculinity by having a sexual partner who only knows you as a sexual partner and who has and can make no other basis of comparison; who has not "belonged to" or "been marked by" some other man. Sometimes some of these ideas are rooted in notions that suggest or state women's sexuality to only exist or be complete in relationship to men or a given man, like the idea that our sexuality is given to us by men (it is not: it's part of who we are, all by ourselves, from before we were born), or that sharing our sexuality with a male partner is giving him that sexuality entire, or allowing him to "take" it from us. In short, otherwise fair-minded men, hanging unto ideas like the myths I've addressed here can be about men needing to do their own growing and developing, intellectually and emotionally.

For more on this, see:

Please understand that many horrible things have been done to women historically because of "traditional" ideas about virginity and its value (and the lack of value ascribed to women who are not virgins, or who are seen as not being virgins even when they are, including women who have been raped) and because of uneducated ideas about women's bodies and what they are seen as representing about women or their male spouses or partners. Things like stoning and other forums of torture or murder, public "virginity testing", rape, exile and female genital mutilation are and have been and are some of the atrocities done to women based in whole or in part on people's ideas about virgins and how "virgin bodies" are supposed to be.

I'd encourage you to ask yourself WHY you would find it ideal to have a person you are supposed to love be bleeding or in pain in order to support your subjective ideas, feelings and individual identity. I think it is important to ask yourself WHY it is important or essential a wife is a virgin, important enough to distrust her, to be trying to divine her sexual history through her body parts, and to be doing things, asking things or even thinking things which are likely to create problems in your relationship and to keep the two of you from earnestly and mutually loving and respecting one another.

If someone tells me they love and respect someone, I assume they believe what that person says; that they have faith in and trust that person, as we can't love or respect without faith and trust. The only way to know what someone's sexual history has been is to ask them and then put stock in their words. If a woman tells you she has not had sex with anyone before, that is the only reliable and respectful way to know she has not. If her words are not enough for you, or you don't believe them, it may be you need to reconsider if a marriage or other relationship with them is right for you. In other words, your disbelief in, or suspicion of, a partner isn't about her body, it's about your own mind and heart.

By all means, some people don't feel able to be honest about having sexual partners before, especially in situations or areas where being honest may put them in danger from family, a spouse or others or at risk of losing a roof over their head and food on their table. These ideas in and of themselves make honesty difficult. All the same, someone's own words and answers are what you have to work with. If you want to be sure that person feels they can be truthful with you, you need to be someone they find trustworthy, and who they have faith will treat them with love, kindness and respect no matter what their answers to questions about their history are. It's very hard to tel the truth when you know your own truth will be seen or treated as the wrong answer.

I'd suggest you consider why it's so important that someone has not had any previous sexual partners. If when they did, they used latex barriers (like condoms), chances are good that their sexual health is just as good as your own (if you, yourself, have not had any previous sexual partners, and if you did, you yourself used barriers when you did). A person who has had previous sexual partners is no more or less likely to be satisfied with you as a sexual partner; no more or less likely to be a good overall partner; no more or less likely to stay in your marriage or leave it. A person who has had previous sexual partners is no more or less valuable a person than someone who has not. I understand there are some strong cultural messages that say differently, but I think it's important everyone recognize those are inhumane ideas; they are not ideas that treat people with respect. They are ideas which need to be changed if any of us wants a culture where all people are treated humanely.

If and when there is one standard about this for women and another for men, that's a double-standard. If you don't feel it is vitally important a male spouse had no sexual partners before marriage, it's not fair to feel it is for women. And if you did have sexual partners previously yourself, it's an even more inequitable -- and hypocritical -- standard.

Zenab Eve Ahmed at the Guardian recently wrote, "Typically in Muslim families, with a strict ban on sex before marriage, girls still experience the patriarchal side of Islam in ways their brothers do not. The supporters of Islam tell me the west does not do things any better. They point out to the exploitation here of women by the men who run our pornographic and sex industries. They ask: is it better for girls to have the freedom to dress like sluts and to drink and fornicate like men do? My answer is that we are all, as women, struggling for self-determination in a world run by men, be they Muslim or Christian.

Sajad Ahmed Rana, fighting over the intact state of his daughter's hymen, has sought to portray a dispute with his ex-wife over custody as a battle between cultures. For the likes of Mr Rana, the West is full of "repugnant" temptations that lead an obedient girl astray. I view his battle as nothing more than the age-old story of a male determined to dictate how a female lives her life. It felt like an old-fashioned war when it raged over my head 30 years ago and I can only hope the Muslim girls coming to terms with their own east/west dilemma today find their subsequent path through life smoother than I did."

I want to share a couple other recent questions with you we've seen, questions from women dealing with these kinds of ideas:

i want my virginity back. i am from india. will u please tell me where i have to go to complete the surgery.

i'm from syria - i am a virgin but my hymen is not right please i want to know about hymenoplasty sergery and also the name of doctors to make this surgery in damascus thanks awaiting please your quick replay

Hi. I'm 19yrs n a virgin until recently i had sex. But d first time my bf fingered me, he said m not a virgin. I need to know how is it dat a hymen doesn't exist in me bcos i really want to free myself from his allegations that i ve had sex before which isn't true. he was telling me that my vagina hole is loose and that his ex girl friends vagina hole was really really tight. why am I so loose for a virgin? he said that his ex girl friend that he was with her for two years never got loose like me and he could barely stick his pinky in cause it would hurt her and it hurted her. I don't understand why her vagina is tighter then mine? now my boyfriend is always telling me that he isn't going to do anything to me no more because im not a virgin and I wanna go to those vagina doctors so I can prove him and my mom wrong is there anyway you can help me find one?

I'm going to get married this summer and i'm not a virgin. I am of very traditional background and it means a lot for a women to be a virgin until she gets married. If she's not, it will be something that will always be a problem with her and her husband. I don't agree to this, and i always thought that i was going to marry someone who didn't care about that, but now life has shown me otherwise. I know many women would say tell him the truth and if he really loves you he wont care. But my relationship with him is very traditional and my mother has always told me that i am to never tell him that i've been with someone already. Anyways, for the past couple weeks i've just been worried about my wedding night and if there are things that i could do to make him think i am. What can i do to make him believe i was a virgin before i got married.

Im from a country where culture, family traditions and religion does not allow you to have sex before marrige, if you do have sex then your doomed because your husband is going to find out the night of your wedding that you're not a virgin when he has sex with you and leave you.

i ave a question that i am a muslim girl and i waz sexually(penetration) child abused when i waz 9,10 i guess and now i m 20 years old....i ave stopped eating,cant even concentate on my studies,cant tell about this to anybody.......i want to know that will my partner on the wedding night while having intercourse with me find out by any means that i was already used by somebody else......have read alot that vaginal walls get opened when somebody does sex with u you....i have never ever been into all dis but yea i was sexually penetrated as a child...i feel so lost and i cry at times...i cant let my parents be ashamed of me and on the other hand cant tell about this to anybody...dunno wat to do:S...a few days back a proposal came for me but i refused because of:S please help me...

I included those letters to give you an idea of how women can suffer because of some of these ideas. Those letters are not as bad as it gets. The women with the least access to tools like the internet are often suffering even more, and are probably feeling even more scared, more isolated and more desperate.

I hope you can agree that women who feel they should consider unnecessary, painful, risky and often unsuccessful surgeries, who face suspicion and disdain from the very people who are supposed to love them the most, who feel they are defective because someone else abused them, have been put in a terrible position no one should ever be put in. Put yourself in their shoes for a minute, or the shoes of your wives. I think it's easy to recognize those are not shoes you'd want to be in, and then hopefully recognize that they're not shoes you'd want to put someone you loved and valued in.

I am going to assume that your hope is that during the course of your marriage, you will have a relationship where both people and any children feel loved, happy, honored, accepted and respected. I am also going to assume you want your sex life within your marriage to be one in which both people feel comfortable, safe, cared for and also enjoy themselves. I am going to assume you want to value the person who you chose to marry, or who you accepted a marriage arrangement with, and want them to value you.

If those re things you want, you will best meet those goals by working to unload or unpack any ideas you have about women's bodies being objects, being proof of something, being anyone's sole property. You will meet those goals best by establishing and nurturing trust, which involves believing what a partner tells you and working on any of your own trust issues or problems which may get in the way. You will meet those goals best by ditching sexual or other double-standards you have about your partner or their gender. You will meet those goals best by remembering that whatever your partners past has or has not been, it has made them who they are in the present: that person you love and cherish is a product of the life she has lived.

I know it's easy for Westerners to be relativistic, however, the same kinds of things I'm saying have been said by those who are not western, as well. East Asian women's organizations and projects like the Gulabi Gang, The Pink Chaddi Campaign and Blank Noise are all projects/groups begun and run by women from South Asia which address these issues or some of what can stem from them. There have also been some changes nations have been making lately, like the Supreme Court of India ruling that if a person commits rape, neither a proposal of marriage nor any other settlement between the rapist and victim can condone him of the crime to change a very disturbing tradition of a woman being forced to marry someone who raped her.

I understand and respect placing value in one's own culture and heritage. But I don't think there's a culture out there, nor has there ever been, which cannot stand to do some evolving, especially when we're given new facts and perspectives our ancestors did not have. I don't believe there is any culture at this time which is perfect, nor any which cannot benefit from questioning some of its beliefs, tenets or history. I don't believe there is any culture at this time which could not stand to make some improvements for its people, especially the people in it with less rights and agency than others.

By now, all of our cultures have since accepted the world is round, not flat, even though for a long time, most held to very different beliefs. Many cultures which also once enabled, condoned or enacted abuses of its people, or some of its people, have since changed their views and practices, or have begun that process of change. I think we all can, and should, do the same with issues like this, especially if we want our world to be a peaceable place that is safe and loving for everyone in it.

written 18 Mar 2010 . updated 24 Jan 2014

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