Historically, the hymen has been the focus of many traditions and the marker of a woman’s virginity.

Much mystery and many myths surround the hymen, which in many cultures is the treasured “price” a woman gives her husband on their wedding night. Sometimes the newlyweds are expected to consummate the marriage immediately after the wedding ceremony and then appear before their guests with the blood-stained sheet to prove that the bride was a virgin and she lost her virginity.

grayscale photography of bride and groom
Photo by Frans Hulet on Unsplash

Does Virginity really mean?

Many girls are told from a very early age to be careful not to “break” the hymen for the fear of “losing their virginity”. But what does lose your virginity really mean and what does the hymen look like?

The hymen isn’t a membrane that needs to bleed or be broken during intercourse. It just consists of small, usually elastic folds of mucous tissue that only partially cover the vaginal opening and can, but do not always, tear if stretched. 

Abstinence only & Virginity Pledges

Abstinence-only sex education has been heavily promoted by the United States Government since 1997 at a cost of more than $1.5 billion. These programs are aimed to stop teens from engaging in sexual activity and promote abstinence outside marriage. They could only discuss contraception methods if emphasizing their failure rates.

Protecting a girl’s virginity became a national and familial concern. The abstinence movement urged teenagers to take virginity pledges and fathers even became involved in organizing Purity” balls for their daughters.

Virginity pledges are commitments made by teenagers and young adults (both girls and boys) to refrain from sexual intercourse until marriage. The inherent peer-pressure of a group pledge leads them to make promises they may find difficult to honor later. This can cause great personal psychological distress. Such pledges can also lead to sexual confusion for men, as discussed in this article. Even though these two articles mentioned were written years ago they are still relevant today.

This isn’t just happening in the US

What’s alarming is the fact that the US abstinence programs have also been exported to the United Kingdom, Ireland, New Zealand, and to some parts of Australia.

In the course of researching an article on teenagers and sex, writer Benjamin Law spoke with several Queensland sex-education providers. He attended in a year 8 and 9 presentations at which actor Scarlett Johansson was called “promiscuous” for admitting that she regularly has STI checks. The presenters in Queensland providers taught that condoms were ineffective, that sex before marriage was immoral and that abortion was immoral, even after rape. After the lecture, the teenage audience was invited to make a virginity pledge. Law said these organizations are well-funded by churches and donors and are regularly invited to speak at both private and public schools. 

A decade ago, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was interviewed by the Australian Women’s Weekly about a range of issues. Asked what advice he would give his three daughters on sex before marriage, he answered: “I would say to my daughters – if they would ask me that question – virginity is the greatest gift you can give someone, the ultimate gift of giving and don’t give it to someone lightly.”

As there still is so much expectation for many women to be virgins on their wedding day, those who have been sexually active before their marriage often engage in deception to avoid problems and not hurt their families. Restoration of the hymen has become a booming market in the US, UK, Japan, and the Indian sub-continent. The procedure, hymenoplasty, involves raising a small flap of the vaginal lining so there appears to be a hymen again. Subsequent intercourse will tear it, causing pain and bleeding. This Conversation article explains restoring virginity in more detail.

Confusion ensues

With all the confusion about virginity and the absence of proper sex education in most schools; in Australia for example, there are many young girls who believe they can keep their virginity by having non-penetrative sex or outer-course.

Young girls are typically not ready for sex and sometimes feel pressure to have sex. These days oral sex is one of the most popular sexual activities that adolescents take part in, and anal sex has also become more common. The reason? Because they believe it’s not “real” sex!

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This post originally appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald and was published on April 27, 2015. This article is republished here with permission and updated on September 9, 2020.