The hymen (also called maidenhead) is a fold of mucous membrane which surrounds or partially covers the external vaginal opening. It was also the name for the Greek god of marriage, "Hymenaios. It forms part of the vulva, or external genitalia. An English slang term is "cherry", as in "popping one's cherry" (losing one's virginity). However, it is not possible to confirm that a woman or post-pubescent girl is not a virgin by examining the hymen.. In cases of suspected rape or sexual abuse, a detailed examination of the hymen may be carried out; however, the condition of the hymen alone is often inconclusive or open to misinterpretation, especially if the patient has reached puberty. The most common formation of the hymen is crescentic or crescent-shaped, although several other formations are possible. After a woman gives birth she may be left with remnants of the hymen called carunculae myrtiformes or the hymen may be completely absent.
There are several different formations of the hymen, some more common than others. In about 1 in 2000 females, the hymen fails to develop any opening at all: this is called an imperforate hymen and if it does not spontaneously resolve itself before puberty a physician will need to make a hole in the hymen to allow menstrual fluids to escape. A hymenotomy may also be required if the hymen is particularly thick or inelastic as it may interfere with sexual intercourse.
The shape of the hymen is easiest to observe in girls past infancy but before they reach puberty: at this time their hymen is thin and less likely to be redundant, that is to protrude or fold over on itself.
Most common forms of the hymen:
Less common forms:
The hymen is torn or stretched by penetrative sex, and more so when a woman gives birth vaginally.
In newborn babies, who are still under the influence of the mother's hormones, the hymen is thick, pale pink, and redundant (folds in on itself and may protrude). For the first two to four years of life, the infant produces hormones which continue this effect.
By the time a girl reaches school-age, this hormonal influence has stopped and the hymen becomes thin, smooth, delicate and almost translucent. It is also very sensitive to touch; a physician who needed to swab the area would avoid the hymen and swab the outer vulval vestibule instead.
From puberty onwards the appearance of the hymen is affected once more by estrogen. It thickens and becomes pale pink, the opening is often fibriated or erratically shaped, and redundant: the hymen often appears rolled or sleeve-like.
There is a surgical procedure that can repair the hymen so that it is intact. The procedure, known as hymenoplasty, has become a popular procedure for some females.
Once a girl reaches puberty, the hymen tends to become quite elastic. It is not possible to determine whether a woman uses tampons or not by examining her hymen. Sexual intercourse is one of the most common ways to damage the hymen, although in one survey only 43% of women reported bleeding the first time they had sex; which means that in the other 57% of women the hymen likely stretched enough that it didn't tear (or that bleeding was not noticed by the partners).
It is common to damage the hymen through physical activities such as horseback riding and biking. In fact, biking is the most common way to rupture the hymen through physical activity. Contrary to popular belief, the breaking of the hymen is not necessarily an indicator of the loss of virginity.
It is argued that since the hymen has been culturally constructed to be the sign of virginity, its existence plays into a political discourse that circulates around the body. By examining women's bodies for the existence of the hymen, researchers have used it to determine whether or not women are "virtuous." Sherry B. Ortner, professor at the University of Chicago, explains how "the hymen itself emerges physiologically with the development of sexual purity codes" as an element of patriarchy. In some cultures it is still customary to examine a woman for her hymen before her marriage to see if she is truly fit to be married. If she is found with a broken hymen, or to have no hymen at all, often the man would not feel obligated to marry her. This has prompted some women who wish to marry within such cultures to seek surgery to restore their hymens to a socially acceptable state.