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What is the use of the hymen?

Asked by Marc Savage of Northampton, United Kingdom

The hymen (or maidenhead) is a ring of tissue around the vaginal orifice. "Hymen" is a Greek word meaning "virginal membrane" or "thin skin". Hymen was also a Greek god of marriage.

The hymen is shrouded in myth. One myth is that the hymen completely occludes the vaginal orifice in human females. But this is quite rare.

Another myth is that the human hymen is the same in all females. However, there is much variation. There are in fact four distinct forms of hymen (annular, septate, cribriform, and parous introitus) based upon its general configuration. The many variations in the "normal" hymen are very important for doctors to understand. Otherwise, they risk, among other things, the misdiagnosis in a child sexual abuse case.

This is a point made recently by Drs A K Myhre and two colleagues from the Department of Laboratory Medicine, Children’s and Women’s Health at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, writing in the Acta Paediatrica in 2003.

Indeed, variations in the hymen are so great that a small percentage of female babies are born without one.

Yet another myth is that a so-called "intact" hymen insures that a woman is a virgin. But the hymen may be "broken" for a variety of reasons besides sexual intercourse. Another myth is that the hymen is necessarily "intact" at some time. In fact, there is always an opening in it of some kind.

Still another myth is that the blood that flows after the first sexual penetration is caused by the tearing of the hymen. In fact, blood is not always produced and if it is it may be from the tearing of surrounding tissue, not necessarily the hymen.

In recent years, the very concept of a hymen has been criticised, and its very existence has been questioned by researchers. Many gynecologists and other experts on the human female reproductive system consider most commonly-held beliefs about the human hymen to be based more on cultural perceptions and sexual stereotypes than upon anatomical and physiological reality.

The hymen has no definite function other than as part of the vaginal opening. The hymen does not "grow back", although it can be surgically "restored" according to some surgeons.

What is not a myth is that the hymen has, and continues to have, great symbolic significance as an indicator of a woman's virginity in many religions and cultures throughout the world.

Stephen Juan, Ph.D. is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Email your Odd Body questions to s.juan@edfac.usyd.edu.au

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