Between sport, tampons and changing cultural values, the hymen has disappeared, physically and symbolically, from modern life, writes Bettina Arndt.
This article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald 21 September 2002.
It was 1981. Lady Diana Spencer was about to marry Prince Charles. Then came the intriguing news that the girl was required to undergo a gynaecological test to confirm her virginity. It was Diana’s uncle, Lord Fermoy, who made the announcement. “Diana, I can assure you, has never had a lover,” he told the bemused press conference.
“I knew I had to keep myself tidy for what lay ahead,” was Di’s comment on her virginal state. The press tiptoed around the topic, speculating on the miracle of Charles finding an intact 19-year-old bride in the aftermath of the ’70s sexual revolution a time when “virgins had attained almost mythical perspective, like unicorns”, as a National Times reporter commented.
The essence of Di’s tidy state was, of course, the hymen. This international news story marked the last public occasion when the mystical membrane was given anything like the social significance it had once been accorded. Historically, the hymen had been the palpable anatomical marker for virginity and as such had carried enormous social and emotional value. This was the “largest diamond in the crown of youthful virtue”, according to the 19th-century Italian sexologist Paulo Mantegazza. Preserving this “jewel” or “treasure” until appropriately sacrificed at marriage was the duty of every virtuous young lady.
But even as the world reacted with curiosity to Di’s very public ordeal, the hymen was on the way out both physically and culturally. “This once hallowed membrane has been consigned to the junk heap of women’s history,” wrote Cornell professor Joan Jacobs Bruberg in her 1997 book, The Body Project.
“Twentieth-century social and cultural changes have altered the female body, so much so that a membrane that was once a primary concern is not only culturally extraneous, it has all but `disappeared’,” she says. The advent of safe contraception, giving sexually active women control over fertility for the first time in history, combined with the women’s movement’s powerful message of sexual equality to destroy the traditional reverence for the hymen and societal preoccupation with preserving the innocence of young women. Overnight, it seemed, virginity was transformed from a treasure to be safeguarded to a problem to be solved.
By the time American writer Naomi Wolf lost her virginity in the 1970s, “the ancient sense that virginity was precious was now held up to ridicule”. In her book Promiscuities, she described girls of her age drifting into their first sexual experiences, often when drunk, overpowered or just “swept” away shying away from taking responsibility for what had once been a significant “passage into womanhood”.
“The end of our virginity passed unmarked, neither mourned nor celebrated. The world view we inherited told us that what we gained by becoming fully sexual was infinitely valued and what we lost by leaving behind our virgin state was negligible,” wrote Wolf.
Yet adding to the impact of this seismic shift in the cultural value of virginity was the actual physical disappearance of the hymen. The fact is that the membrane traditionally seen as prima facie evidence of a woman’s virginity has become increasingly unreliable, now failing to grace many a virgin body. The chances today of a young woman embarking upon her first experience of intercourse with an intact hymen are significantly reduced.
Even in the days when the lives of young women were severely restricted to protect their purity, there were no guarantees that the cherry was still there to be plucked. The hymen consists of a membrane which may be thick or thin, elastic or inelastic. In its virgin state the hymen is often dotted with a variety of gaps or holes (which allow the release of menstrual blood.) Even when intact, far from being a firm membrane guarding the vaginal entrance like the skin on a drum, it often looks more like a girl’s hair “scrunchy”, complete with multiple pleats and folds.
So how valid is the long-held belief of previous generations that vigorous physical exercise can stretch or tear the hymen? “My grandmother trembled every time she saw me riding my brother’s bicycle and warned me I should never get on a horse,” wrote Columbian-born journalist Silavana Paternostro in Latina, a Hispanic women’s magazine.
The University of Auckland senior lecturer and sexual abuse expert Felicity Goodyear-Smith has searched medical literature for evidence regarding the impact of sporting activities on the hymen. Her review, “What is an `intact’ hymen?” (published in the Journal of Medicine, Science and the Law, 1998), reveals very little research on the subject. Her guess is that certain sports may occasionally result in changes to the hymen. “Intuitively, gymnastics is likely to, horseriding might do it, and any sport where there are straddle injuries increases the chances of tears to the hymen,” she says.
The literature does show that “straddle” injuries involuntary splits during dancing or gymnastics, a fall into a beam or bicycle bar can cause tears in the hymen. But, overall, the effect of the more strenuous sporting activities of modern young girls counts for little compared with the dramatic impact on the hymen of another recent development the use by young women of tampons, or internal sanitary devices.
The tampon is playing a major role in the deflowering of our nation and indeed of most Western countries. Not that tampon manufacturers are willing to admit to it. “Are you sure I’ll still be a virgin?” asked an ad for Tampax in an American young women’s magazine in 1990. The answer was a neat sidestep: “You can use them at any time and still be a virgin.”
“Medically speaking, a woman is a virgin until she has had sexual intercourse” is the message in an advice column by Lil-Lets, an American tampon brand, explaining that tampons usually fit into openings in the hymen “although occasionally slight tearing may occur”. This contrasts with the standard line now being presented in most teenage health advice, such as a recent BBC Health report which baldly stated: “The hymen can be stretched and/or torn by exercise, sports and the use of tampons.”
That’s nearer the truth, says Goodyear-Smith.One major research study by a professor of pediatrics, Jean Emans, and colleagues from Harvard Medical School, in 1994, is often used in sexual abuse court cases to suggest tampon use doesn’t affect the hymen. Goodyear-Smith’s analysis shows their results prove no such thing. Their data was confusing: in sexually active girls, only 84 of the 100 had breaks or tears in the hymen, but among sexually inactive girls, 20 out of 200 had breaks.
Goodyear-Smith concludes sexual intercourse does not necessarily break the hymen and plenty of girls who aren’t sexually active are no longer intact, possibly as a result of tampon usage. “It is likely that tampon insertion does stretch or tear the hymen and there’s certainly no scientific evidence to the contrary,” she says. Yet Goodyear-Smith, who has had extensive experience appearing as an expert witness in court cases concerning sexual abuse, says alleged perpetrators have been wrongly convicted using dubious medical evidence on the state of the hymen.
For instance, in the early ’80s it was commonly believed, as a result of research on abuse victims, that a horizontal opening in the hymen of greater than 4mm in girls under 13 was an indicator of abuse. By the end of the decade there was solid evidence that this was wrong the hymenal opening increases with age, from about 5mm in one- to five-year-olds, to nearly 12 mm for girls aged 10 to 12. Virgin three-year-olds can have openings as large as 8mm.
The simple fact is examination of the hymen often does not reveal whether penetration has taken place. “You just can’t tell,” says Goodyear-Smith, explaining that changes due to penetration often can’t be distinguished from the variations in naturally occurring openings in the hymen, nor from changes due to tampon usage, or stretching during sports.(The exception is sexual abuse of little girls where obvious tearing is more likely.)
But if you can’t tell, how is it that Di’s gynaecologist was able to proclaim to the world that she was untouched? It’s an infuriating thought that throughout the ages, the medical profession and other “experts” have used misleading evidence to make judgements about a woman’s virginity with profound effects on their reputations, marriages, even their lives.
And it is still happening. In 1998 an Associated Press report covered the story of the attempted suicide of five teenage girls in Turkey who’d been forced to undergo virginity tests after returning late to their orphanage dormitories. The girls took rat poison and then jumped into a deep water tank.
Right back to the Middle Ages there have been strange rituals designed to test for virginity, such as conducting a urine test (a virgin’s urine is clear and sparkling) or breast examination (a virgin’s breasts point up). In India there is a centuries old custom of “Kukari ki Rasam” (thread ritual) where a skein of thread is used to detect the presence of an intact hymen. Brides found to be impure are beaten to reveal the names of their lovers and then these lovers are forced to pay large amounts of money to the bride’s family.
Virginity testing is serious business with thousands of females in South Africa, including infants as young as four months, in theory to protect them against sexual abuse and to encourage women to abstain from sex as a safeguard against AIDS-related illnesses. Given this critical social context, the dubious basis of such tests is all the more of a concern.
But of similar concern is the thriving practice of hymen restoration, which is available in countries throughout the world, including Australia. Search the Internet and you’ll find medical practitioners offering this service, including the enterprising Hawaiian medical practitioner Rick Williams who offers to assist any woman who “wants to become a virgin again”.His offer includes a two-centimetre hymenal opening. “When the woman has sex for the first time, there will be a definite `pop’ which will convince the most sceptical man,” he promises on his Internet site.
But even Williams acknowledges there can still be a problem. Even with these convincing sound effects “the hymenal ring doesn’t always bleed”. He has a solution: “Advanced methods to guarantee blood would include having a tube or syringe of blood, with an anti-clotting factor. The woman would secretly place this blood inside after having sex.”
The all-important blood. The blood that produces the stain on lily-white sheets waved from the bridal balcony. The blood required to satisfy the family honour and prove the groom is not receiving “damaged goods”. There are still many cultures where the consequences of not bleeding can be severe, with the husband’s family taking revenge through violent punishment and banishment of the bride.
“The couples would come in the morning after the marriage and say, `She didn’t bleed!’ They needed the evidence to show his mother and prove she was a virgin,” says Patricia Weerakoon, who is a lecturer in the Sydney University’s Faculty of Health Sciences but previously spent seven years as one of the few sex therapists for the 18 million people of Sri Lanka.
The US-trained Weerakoon found offering sexual advice in her native country to be quite a challenge. She worked hard to help newlyweds deal with the consequences when first intercourse failed to produce the required bleeding. Since she’s been in Australia, she’s been required to advise couples from the Middle East and Asian countries struggling with similar dilemmas. The lust for blood isn’t easily discarded, irrespective of the mores of a new host country.
(Incidentally, no-one really knows how common it is for women with intact hymen to bleed on first intercourse. Sara Paterson-Brown, an enterprising British gynaecologist at Queen Charlotte’s Hospital in London, surveyed 41 colleagues about their first intercourse experiences and found 14 bled, 26 did not and one did not remember.)
As Weerakoon explains, the very different cultural practices in Sri Lanka mean tampon usage is very low. “The women were reluctant to even touch their genitals. They’d say to me, `How can you do that? How can you stick anything up there?’ With single women, concern about the hymen add to the taboo.
Tampon usage worldwide reveals an intriguing picture. About 70 per cent of women in the US, Australia and much of Western Europe use tampons but usage falls to single digits in a handful of countries such as Japan and Spain and is not even measurable in much of the world.Just 2 per cent of women use tampons in much of Latin America, to the vexation of the large American manufacturers striving hard to crack that market. It’s proving quite a challenge. “Everywhere we go, women say, `This is not for senoritas’, says Silvaian Davila, marketing director for Tampax Latin American, quoted in a December 2000 edition of The Wall Street Journal. But most of the senoritas of Australia have no such qualms and the result has led, according to our sex therapists, to more pleasurable first intercourse for many young women.
Sandra Pertot is a Newcastle clinical psychologist who has specialised in sex therapy for three decades. She’s struck by the fact that these days the hymen rarely rates a mention by her clients.”As far as the hymen goes, it’s gone. You just don’t hear it talked about in the way we used to 30 years ago when guys would talk about wanting a virgin and girls would worry about whether the guys could tell whether they were or not.”
Pertot believes tampon use is contributing to this change, not just through stretching of the hymen but by changing girls’ attitudes to first intercourse. “They are learning to touch their bodies, and are more used to the idea of penetration. So they are also less anxious and first intercourse isn’t the big deal it used to be.”
This probably means fewer women are experiencing pain or trauma the first time around. Pertot mentions a recent shift in the plot of Mills and Boon romance novels. “When we were growing up the novels always described the first time as `pleasure mixed with pain’. Today the pain is gone. It’s always wonderful right from the start with him taking her to heights of ecstasy she never knew before.”
Still a long way from reality but a big change from the fear and nervousness that once plagued brides on the wedding night. The death of the hymen marks an immense social and cultural shift but few mourn its passing.