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Thursday, May 10, 2012

What Does Your Hymen Have to Do With Virginity?

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If your hymen isn't broken but you've had sexual intercourse, are you still a virgin?

At first glance, virginity looks like a concept that we all understand. A virgin is someone who hasn't had sex, right? But things get complicated as soon as we start unpacking the definition of “having sex” and examining the cultural markers (like an “intact hymen”) that have historically been used to determine virginity. Then, the questions start flying: Am I a virgin if I've had anal sex? Am I a virgin if I've used a tampon?

Virginity is a cultural construct that has changed over time (for a fascinating account, read Hanne Blank's Virgin: The Untouched History).  In the United States today, a virgin is most commonly defined as someone who has not had penis-in-vagina penetration, but since we also associate virginity with someone who is sexually inexperienced, this definition breaks down under scrutiny—for instance, would we really describe a man who identifies as gay and has had sexual contact with other men, but no women, as a “virgin”? If a man and a woman who want to avoid pregnancy decide not to have vaginal sex, but engage in oral sex, anal sex and all kinds of fun, kinky role-playing, are they virgins? At some point, using only one specific sex act as the “gateway” to sexual experience becomes ridiculous.

So what about the hymen, which is usually described as a membrane that partially covers the entrance to the vagina in women who have not experienced vaginal penetration? One of my favorite sex ed websites, Scarleteen, is on a mission to spread the word that the hymen doesn't exist. It, too, is a cultural construct. The idea that something is “broken” or “torn” when a vagina is penetrated for the first time, or that pain or bleeding always accompanies this penetration, is a myth. The person asking the question above may have had penis-in-vagina sex, but didn't feel pain or bleed, and thus is wondering if her hymen “isn't broken.” Many sex educators would say that there was nothing to break in the first place! Doctors, nurses and other health care providers can't tell by physically examining someone whether they've had vaginal sex or not.

So, if the idea of virginity is a cultural construct and the hymen is too, where does that leave our questioner? Ultimately, it is up to you to decide what virginity means and whether or not you consider yourself a virgin. The most important thing to know is that being a virgin is fine, and not being a virgin is fine. One state is not automatically better than the other.

If this column has got you thinking about how we do (or don't) talk about virginity in our culture, check out the blog for How to Lose Your Virginity, a documentary-in-progress by filmmaker Therese Shechter that examines why virginity is such an important concept in our culture, especially for women, and expands our ideas about what virginity means through lots of first-person stories.

Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.


Laura Anne Stuart has a master's degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee's East Side.