PSA: This Is How Your Hymen Actually Works

Here's a refresher on what a hymen even is and everything you need to know about this part of the female anatomy.

Back in 2019, rapper T.I. made headlines for saying that he takes his 18-year-old daughter, Deyjah Harris, to the gynecologist every year to check if her hymen (and, seemingly from his perspective, her virginity) is "still intact." He brought up the topic during an interview with Nazanin Mandi and Nadia Mohamad on their podcast, Ladies Like Us. (FYI: The episode has since been taken down.)

They were discussing parenting and "the sex talk" when T.I. started talking about his daughter's hymen — something he's apparently been keeping tabs on since her 16th birthday, T.I. said in the interview. "Right after her birthday, we celebrate, then usually like the day after the party, she's enjoying the gifts, I put a sticky note on the door: 'Gyno. Tomorrow. 9:30'" he said.

T.I.'s comments sparked a huge conversation about the construct of virginity and the role the hymen plays in "proving" whether or not a woman has had sex. So much so that Planned Parenthood issued a statement about it and New York lawmakers are considering setting up a ban on virginity testing. Alarmingly, there currently aren't state laws banning the practice.

The truth is, what most people think they know about hymens is totally unfounded. Here is a breakdown of what the hymen actually is and why "breaking" it doesn't necessarily have anything to do with someone's virginity.

What is the hymen?

"The hymen is a small ragged membrane that covers part of the vaginal opening in women," board-certified ob-gyn, Michael Cackovic, M.D., of the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Shape. It's made of tissue from mucous membrane remnants that originally developed during the embryologic process (aka when you were still growing in your mother's womb), he adds. "It's often incorrectly thought of as anatomic proof of virginity when in fact its true purpose isn't known," he explains.

Many people picture the hymen as some type of wall or structure waiting to be broken. But in reality, the hymen itself already has an opening to allow menstrual blood and other secretions to leave the body, explains Dr. Cackovic.

Since not all hymens are created equally, some women have one opening to their hymens while others have many, he adds. At times, "the hymen can really just be a thin rim of tissue surrounding the vagina," explains Dr. Cackovic.

Only 0.05 percent of women actually have an imperforate hymen, meaning a hymen that's completely sealed, according to research published in the journal BMJ Case Reports. This condition requires a simple surgery to open the hymen so that period blood and fluids can flow through, explains Dr. Cackovic. It's also worth noting that some women are born without a hymen altogether, he adds. So, using it to measure "virginity" doesn't really make sense.

What does it mean when a hymen "breaks"?

As far as "breaking" the hymen is concerned, there are many "anatomic variants" of the hymen, notes Dr. Cackovic. "The hymen can fully or partially cover the introitus or opening of the vagina, and the coverage itself varies, too," he explains. "Since there are so many variants, it can be torn when young girls exercise, play sports, use tampons, or perform any activity that involves stretching."

Turns out, this is something T.I. said he already discussed with his daughter's gynecologist. In the podcast interview, he claimed that his daughter doesn't ride horses or bikes and doesn't play sports and that her ob-gyn should "just check the hymen" anyway. Following the backlash, T.I. addressed the backlash he received on an episode of Red Table Talk, saying he wanted to "clear up any misconceptions."

"Let me go set this record straight: I never said I was in any exam room — that is an assumption; that is a falsity," he told host Jada Pinkett Smith. "I never said that it was being done present day, as an 18-year-old, and I never said that her mother wasn't present. Her mom was present every time."

T.I. then went on to say that he did not know the impact his comments would have on his daughter, for which he felt guilty. "I understand it and I am incredibly apologetic to her," the rapper emphasized. "Not to any of these other strangers or any of these weirdos who toss lies around for free."

So, does the hymen have anything to do with virginity?

At the end of the day, unless you're caught in the act, there's no way to prove or disprove someone's virginity. Plus, virginity is a social construct, notes Dr. Cackovic. It isn't "defined by a piece of anatomy," he says. Even the World Health Organization agrees on this and has called to ban virginity testing — the practice of conducting a gynecological exam specifically under the assumption it will determine whether a woman or girl has had sex — altogether.

"The term 'virginity' is not a medical or scientific term," the organization said in a statement last year. "Rather, the concept of 'virginity' is a social, cultural, and religious construct — one that reflects gender discrimination against women and girls. Performing this medically unnecessary and harmful test violates several human rights and ethical standards including the fundamental principle in medicine, to do no harm."

Bottom line: Virginity testing is not only unnecessary and inhumane, but it also has absolutely no scientific or clinical basis.

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