Beth Ashley On The Hymen Myth 

From award-winning journalist Beth Ashley comes a groundbreaking investigation into the history of slutshaming, how it continues to affect us today and what we can do to fight it. Here, she shares an exclusive extract with FGRLS CLUB.

The hymen myth 

The hymen myth is the completely false idea that the hymen can be tested to determine whether a woman is a virgin. Did you know that we know more about the surface of mars than we do about women’s sexual anatomy? 

Florence Schechter, biochemist, founder of the Vagina Museum in London, UK, and author of V: An empowering celebration of the vulva and vagina, tells me that purity culture myths manage to make  their way into actual sex education textbooks and go unchecked (except by her and the museum, of course). The sex education textbook Review of Forensic Medicine & Toxicology, used in universities in India, tells people how to spot the difference between virgins and non-virgins, and includes misinformation such as ‘a true virgin will have an intact, rigid, inelastic hymen’, who will take a finger into the vagina ‘painfully’, while a ‘fake virgin’ will have a ‘loose, elastic and fleshy hymen’ who ‘easily admits fingers’ into her vagina. It also says that fake virgins will have enlarged, dark nipples and a bigger clitoris, and their labia majora (the outer ‘lips’ of the vulva) will not be touching one another. 

This information is, of course, simply untrue. Everyone’s genitals look completely different, as do their nipples and other body parts. Our bodies may change over time due to age, illness or other factors, but they will not change from ‘virginity loss’ alone, and you will never be able to identify people who’ve had sex and people who haven’t just by looking at their bodies. Engle explains that virginity tests are sometimes done privately but are often ceremonial. Some take place during wedding ceremonies in particular cultures, and others have even been filmed and posted on TikTok! 

In any case, a ‘virginity test’ involves inserting fingers (sometimes covered by a cloth) into the woman’s vagina to determine whether her hymen breaks. If it does, she is determined to be a virgin and therefore ‘pure’. If it doesn’t, she is considered an ‘impure’ non-virgin and, depending on the culture and context, she may be subjected to abuse or even death. Engle explains that throughout history ‘women have been known to cut between their toes on their wedding day so they can use the blood to pass the test if they know their hymen is already broken’. 

Virginity tests have even been used and discussed openly by celebrities. In 2019, during an interview on the Ladies Like Us podcast, the famous rapper T.I. notoriously spoke about having his daughter’s virginity tested annually to ensure she had not had sex. He acknowledged a woman’s hymen can be broken outside of sexual activity by things like cycling, athletics and horseriding, but countered this with: ‘So, I say, “Look, Doc, she don’t ride no horses, she don’t ride no bike, she  don’t play no sports. Just check the hymen, please, and give me back my results expeditiously.” ’ 

Engle explains that the true purpose of the hymen is debated. A lack of research into women’s anatomy and the sexual reproductive system means that there’s very little thorough exploration of the hymen. But she says that the leading theory is that it’s there to protect the juvenile vagina, keeping bacteria away from children while their immune systems fully develop. She can, however, confidently tell you what the hymen is not: a virginity indicator. ‘For most women, the hymen breaks long before they even reach adolescence or puberty. You can lose it from stretching, horseback riding, bike riding, living, running, dancing – pretty much anything that involves lifting your legs,’ Engle says. Even women who have had penetrative sex before could still have theirs intact. So as well as the numerous ethical problems involved with invasive investigations of a woman’s hymen, it’s also just a nonsensical strategy. 

Sluts: The Truth About Slutshaming & What We Can Do To Fight It by Beth Ashley (Penguin Random House) is published 9 May


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