Hanne Blank is not a virgin. (She's almost 37 and she's been living with her life partner for nine years -- we just thought we'd get that out of the way.) But she is a historian, a writer, and an expert on virginity, having written the first-ever history of the subject, Virgin: The Untouched History.
Since virginity is such a hot topic these days, we asked her if she'd play 20 Questions with us about the subject of her book.
HB: When a female fetus is growing during pregnancy, her internal reproductive organs and her vagina develop separately from her external reproductive organs (the labia and so forth). The vagina starts out as a solid cord that runs from the body wall to the uterus. Between the fifth and seventh months of gestation, that cord slowly hollows out and turns into a tube. But it still doesn't have an opening to the outside of the body -- it ends at the body wall. Finally the body wall starts to disintegrate at the point where the vagina meets it and an opening forms in the body wall, and becomes the orifice (outlet or opening) of the vagina.
What the hymen is is whatever remains of that body wall cling to the inside of the opening of the vagina after the opening forms. It is the "leftovers" of the sheet of flesh that used to separate the internal genitals from the external ones before the vagina had an opening. The opening(s) in the center of the hymen are the entrance to the vagina.
I like to think of the hymen as a door frame mounted in a doorway that stands on the spot where "external" stops and "internal" starts. You can't go in or out of that doorway without passing through the door frame. The hymen is exactly the same. It is part of the entrance to the vagina. Nothing can enter or exit the vagina without going through it.
Scarleteen: Do all women have one?
HB: Medical science thinks that pretty much everyone does. Researchers have estimated that about 0.03% of women are born without enough leftover tissue at the vaginal entrance that it is visible as a hymen, which would just mean that the process of the formation of the opening of the vagina was a bit more thorough than normal.
Scarleteen: Do other animals?
HB: You betcha they do. Many mammals have hymens, including (but not limited to) llamas, guinea pigs, bush babies, manatees, moles, toothed whales, chimpanzees, elephants, rats, lemurs, and seals. This is because mammals' reproductive systems often tend to develop in similar ways to one another, so they have a lot of similarities in structure.
Scarleteen: What's it even for?
HB: I like to joke that it's good for keeping the bears out. But really, we don't know why human beings have hymens. They don't seem to serve any purpose for us, or for many of the other animals that have them. In some animals, the hymen appears to have more of a function: guinea pigs' hymens dissolve when they are fertile, letting male guinea pigs mate with them, then grow back and completely close off the vagina when the guinea pigs are not in heat. Scientists are not really sure what good this does the guinea pigs. But it is an excellent party trick.
Scarleteen: Is there anything to worry about with the hymen?
HB: Not usually, although there can sometimes be. The most common hymen problem that doctors see is called imperforate hymen. An imperforate hymen is a body wall that doesn't dissolve properly as it is supposed to when the fetus is developing. Instead of having a vaginal opening, the baby is born with no opening to the vagina, just unbroken skin where the vagina opening should be.
It's considered a very minor birth defect and is easy to correct, but often it is not detected until a girl hits puberty... because she doesn't start to get her period like she should. This isn't because her ovaries and uterus aren't working but because there's no way for the menstrual fluid to get out. The fluid gets backed up inside the vagina and causes a condition called hematocolpos -- a big wad of blood, if you don't want to use the medical term. This can cause pain, so it is often what prompts sufferers to see a gynecologist. The doctor takes a look and -- "Congratulations, you have an imperforate hymen!"
Obviously, what has to happen so that the vagina can do the things it's supposed to do and the woman can menstruate normally is that an opening has to be made in the imperforate hymen. Basically the doctor has to do what Mother Nature didn't, and create an opening for the vagina. This is done in a quick surgical procedure called a hymenotomy that takes just a couple of minutes and usually doesn't even hurt much. Sometimes hymenotomies are done with lasers, sometimes with a traditional surgical scalpel. After the hymenotomy, the vagina will be fully functional and there should be no further problems.
Occasionally, women don't have imperforate hymens but do have very thick or very inflexible hymens. There is a lot more variation in types of hymens than you might think, and while some of them are so fragile that doctors can't even examine them without having them literally fall to pieces, some are so sturdy that they cause problems when women want to use tampons or have penetrative sex.
Most of the time, thick hymens can be gradually stretched by using fingers or objects that can be inserted into the vagina. Doctors sometimes prescribe vaginal insertion devices called stents, but some women bypass that and just use small dildos instead, since both accomplish the same thing. Over time, the hymenal opening gets stretched sufficiently that it no longer causes a problem.
When stretching the hymen doesn't seem to help, or if the doctor thinks it is easier not to bother with trying to stretch it, he or she might prescribe a hymenotomy to enlarge the opening instead. This is the same as the procedure that's done for imperforate hymens.
Otherwise, there's really nothing to worry about.
Scarleteen: Does it need to be "broken?"
HB: No. The hymen will sometimes be abraded or torn during intercourse because it is being stretched further than it has been before, but not always. Some hymens are stretchier and/or more durable than others, and they may not have any problems at all with stretching to accommodate things like tampons, fingers, or a penis. Others are less stretchy and more fragile and they may tear at the slightest touch. And some are in between.
The big reason that a hymen doesn't have to be "broken" is that unless it happens to be an imperforate hymen (see above) it already has a hole in it. Hymens exist because the vaginal opening forms. Nothing needs to be "broken" in order to create that opening -- it was already there before the woman was even born.
Scarleteen: What does the hymen have to do with virginity?
HB: Not much, necessarily. As I've said, hymens may or may not be affected in any way by sexual activity.
Historically, people always wondered why many women felt pain and/or experienced bleeding from the vagina the first time they had penis-in-vagina intercourse. They assumed that there must be some part of the vagina that was literally broken open by the penis the first time the vagina was penetrated.
What people thought that part was varied depending on who you asked. There were some pretty wacky explanations: one medieval doctor believed that there was a "knot" of flesh inside the vagina that looked like a chickpea, and that this was smashed by the penis during first-time intercourse. Another believed that there were five blood vessels that more or less tied the vagina closed until the blood vessels were broken by the penis.
In the tenth century, a gifted Arab doctor named Ibn Sina (we have a custom of spelling his name "Avicenna") determined that there was a small ridge or flap of skin inside the vaginal opening and that it was this that was damaged by the penis during first intercourse and caused pain and bleeding. The existence of this little bit of skin was confirmed in 1544 by the world-famous Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius, who was the first person to find it in an actual dissection.
Ibn Sina was both right and wrong: there is a small ridge or flap of skin inside the vaginal opening, and sometimes it is damaged during penetration, but not always. And even when it is, it may or may not be painful or cause bleeding.
Just the same, Ibn Sina was more on the right track than the doctors before him, so he gets the credit for being the first guy with the right answer about what this mysterious thing inside the vagina might be.
So what the hymen has to do with virginity is that it has had the reputation -- for a little over a thousand years -- of being the part of the vagina that is damaged during first intercourse.
Scarleteen: Where did the idea of virginity start?
HB: No one really knows where or when it started. Anthropologists believe that human beings may have come up with the idea of virginity at about the same time as they learned how to domesticate animals and plants, during the Neolithic Era.
Scarleteen: How has it changed through history?
HB: Virginity has played a lot of different roles in our lives. Some of the roles have been more important at certain points in time, and other roles have been more important at others. Among other things, virginity has been a way to make sure of the paternity of children, an expression of holiness, a source of honor for families and individuals, a way of controlling women's behavior, a way of keeping women from being controlled by men, and a very reliable contraceptive. The reasons that some of these things have been more important than others at certain times are complicated -- I'd recommend that people who are curious about this read my book, because it takes a lot more room than I have here to explain!
Scarleteen: Who decides what virginity is, anyway?
HB: The people who use the concept of virginity end up deciding how it should be defined. It's a lot like other abstract qualities that way. Since you can't see or feel or smell virginity or weigh it on a scale, the standards for deciding what a virgin is or isn't can be pretty arbitrary really. Some people have felt that virginity is primarily a physical thing. Others have felt that it is really psychological, or spiritual. Or it might be defined as having some physical elements and some psychological ones as well.
Generally, the people who have gotten to make the decisions about how virginity is defined have been people in positions of power over young women's lives. Parents and older relatives, community elders, and especially religious and medical authorities have always had a lot of clout in terms of deciding what the critera for virginity were at any given time.
Scarleteen: How important has virginity been to women through history? Why?
HB: For much of human history, a woman's life was literally at the mercy of virginity. A woman who lost her virginity before she married was pretty much doomed: she was dishonored, her family was disgraced by her, it was likely that no one would be willing to marry her, and she might be beaten or even killed by her family. This was true whether she had lost her virginity voluntarily or been raped -- it didn't matter.
Women who lost their virginities when they weren't married were often disowned. This would make them homeless, and leave them without any means of providing for themselves. Many disowned women ended up turning to prostitution to support themselves, not because they wanted to but because they had nowhere to go and owned nothing else that they could sell.
In ancient Athens, the law required that young women who lost their virginities before marriage be sold into slavery, because that was all they were worth once they had ruined their reputations and their family honor. Roman law allowed fathers to murder their daughters and the men who had seduced them if the daughters lost their virginities before marriage. The same has been true in many other places and times. In some parts of the world, "honor crimes" are still commonplace -- women who lose their virginity before marriage can be beaten, mutilated, or killed by their families. Sometimes this happens just because a father or brother or other male relative thinks she might have done something "dishonorable."
Short answer: Virginity has sometimes been a matter of life and death. Other times it has made the difference between a miserable life of poverty and not. Or between being able to find a partner and not. Or some combination of these things.
Scarleteen: Do you think the idea of virginity helps or harms people?
HB: I think that depends a lot on what you mean when you say "virginity." If all you mean is that "virginity" is a name for a sexual status characterized by not ever having engaged in sexual activity with another person, I think that's pretty neutral, neither positive or negative. In that mode, "virginity" is just a useful way of describing someone's sexual history.
On the other hand, if what you mean by "virginity" is "a particular quality that women have to have or else we kill them," I'd say that's pretty harmful. Or if what you mean by "virginity" is "people who haven't had sex are better and nicer and shinier than people who have had sex," I think that's harmful, too, because sexual history is a pretty flimsy basis on which to decide that some people are better human beings than others.
Scarleteen: Is virginity just about women, or is it about men, too?
HB: Historically speaking, virginity is almost exclusively about women. Men have simply never been held to the same standards of sexual behavior that women have.
In practical terms, though, of course men can be virgins. Everyone is a virgin at birth -- and some people stay that way their whole lives. So naturally men can be virgins too.
HB: There's no right answer to this question, and no wrong answer, either. Whether these people are virgins or not depends on what definition of virginity you want to use. There are historical precedents for pretty much any definition you might come up with. No one has the One True Definition, so the answers to these questions are destined to be judgement calls.
Scarleteen: Historically, how has that been addressed?
HB: The lowest common denominator definition of virginity has mostly been that a virgin is a woman who has never had a penis inside her vagina. But there have been plenty of variations on this and plenty of technicalities, too.
Historically, same-sex sexual activity has not been considered in virginity definitions because virginity definitions have tended to only deal with heterosexual intercourse. Same-sex sexual acts have been considered deviant or criminal for much of Western history. They simply have not been regarded as something anyone would even consider evaluating in terms that were reserved for a "legitimate" sexual act.
As for oral or anal sex, these too have not typically been considered because they were considered "deviant" acts (they have often been punishable as crimes), even when they were being performed by a heterosexual couple.
As for rape, opinions have gone both ways. St. Augustine believed that virgins who were raped did not lose their virginity so long as no part of their mind consented to the act. He believed that such women remained virgins in spirit even if their bodies were violated without their consent, because their spirits were more important than their bodies in God's eyes. Other people have believed that the physical fact of penetration was the only thing that mattered, so a woman who had been raped would not be a virgin. As I said before, there is historical precedent for a number of viewpoints on these questions.
Scarleteen: Let's say I'm proud to call myself a virgin. Is there anything wrong with that?
HB: Nope. If virginity is part of your identity and it makes you feel good to be a virgin, I say rock on. You may feel that way every single day for the rest of your life. Or you may eventually decide that you no longer want to be a virgin. Both are totally fine.
Scarleteen: Now let's say I'm not a virgin, but my partner is, and he's disappointed. How do I deal with that?
HB: I'd try having a talk with him about why he feels disappointed. What does he think would be different if you were both virgins? What does he think about virginity in general? Basically, I'd try to figure out what specifically about the issue is bothering him, and then talk about it. His concerns may be rational ones that you can do something about, for instance, if he is worried that you might have been exposed to STIs, you can get tested and put both your minds at rest. Or they may be less rational, more emotional ones, for instance if he was convinced that you don't really love him because you didn't save your virginity for him, which is an issue you may or may not be able to settle satisfactorily between you. Either way, you're not going to know what the real issues are until you get down to the nitty gritty.
Scarleteen: Can I get my virginity back?
HB: Again, that depends on how you're defining "virginity." If you are asking whether you can go back in time to a point where you are completely inexperienced in terms of sex with a partner, the answer is a pretty unequivocal "no way."
I should note that if what you're really looking for is a chance to start over with sex, all you really have to do is stop having sex you don't want. A lot of people start having sex, then decide that they want to feel more in control of their sex lives. So they put themselves "on the bench" for a few months or years until they feel better able to handle it. It's a really sensible approach.
Scarleteen: Just for kicks, because you bring it up in the book, and so many people are so unaware of who it actually refers to, tell us a little about the immaculate conception.
HB: The Immaculate Conception, according to Catholic doctrine, is a name for the Virgin Mary.
The Church teaches that she was, through a miracle, conceived immaculate - free of the taint of Original Sin, which all other human beings bear from the moment they are born -- so that she would be an appropriately spiritually and morally pure vessel to bear the Son of God. Her virginity is only part of that overall purity. According to the tenets of Catholic doctrine, if Mary had only been a virgin and had not also been the Immaculate Conception, she would not have been sufficiently pure to play the role that she did in bearing Jesus because she would still have been tinged with Original Sin.
So, what I have to say about the Immaculate Conception is this: I really have nothing to say about it at all, because it has very little to do with virginity and I am not a Catholic theologian.
Scarleteen: So, you're the virginity expert here. Do YOU think we should keep or toss the idea of virginity? Why?
HB: I don't think we have a choice. We will always have to grapple with the transition that happens in people's lives when they go from not having sex with other people to having it. So in some form or other, virginity will always be with us. It's one of the major life stages, in terms of sexuality, and it's one that eventually ends for the vast majority of people on the planet. So we're probably always going to be talking about it.