The hymen has an almost-mythical status as a symbol of female virginity across the world. But what is the hymen? Why do you have one? Can your hymen really be “broken”?
In this in-depth guide to the hymen, we’ll discuss what it is, bust some hymen myths, and tell you how to know if your hymen is broken. We’ll address all your questions and concerns about this small but much-discussed body part!
Note: We know not everyone who identifies as a woman has a vulva/vagina, and that some people who have a vulva don’t identify as women. We’ve tried to keep the language as inclusive as possible!
What Is the Hymen?
The hymen (also called the “vaginal corona”) is a thin membrane that partially covers the entrance to the vagina. It typically sits just inside the vaginal canal. Infants usually have a fairly thick, donut-shaped hymen with a small opening. But as you grow, the hymen thins out, stretches, and erodes just from the activities of daily living.
Hymens come in all shapes and sizes. Some hymens cover most of the vaginal canal. Some barely cover it at all. There are hymens with squiggly edges and hymens with smooth edges and hymens with notches. Lots of hymens are really just one or more flesh tabs around the entrance to the vagina (also called “hymenal tags”). More uncommonly, some hymens do completely cover the vaginal entrance; this is called an imperforate hymen (about 1 in every 200 people with a vagina have an imperforate hymen). And some people don’t even have a visible hymen at all!
Why do we have hymens, anyways? The truth is that no one is really sure! But one theory is that the hymen keeps things like bacteria and dirt out of our fragile baby bodies when we are young children.
People attach a lot of value to the hymen. But the state of your hymen says nothing about you as a person one way or another. Hymens come in all kinds of shapes and configurations, and anyone who tries to tell you that your hymen says anything about either your worth as a person or the state of your virginity is very, very wrong.
The Broken Hymen and Other Myths
There are some very common myths about the hymen. First, that you can “break” the hymen. Second, that the hymen is an indicator of virginity. Third, that “breaking” the hymen is what causes pain and bleeding during your first experience of vaginally penetrative intercourse. I’ll bust these myths here.
The “Broken” Hymen
It’s very common to speak of breaking the hymen or a broken hymen. But you can’t really break the hymen! It’s not like a piece of glass, or a bone—it’s a stretchy, fleshy membrane. So you can stretch the hymen, or you can tear the hymen. In general, more gentle pressure on the hymen will stretch it, while more abrupt pressure or motion will tear it (vigorous intercourse or vigorous athletic activity included!).
The stretching and/or tearing of the hymen can occur from all kinds of activities, especially from sporty activities like running and swimming. You probably won’t even feel the stretching and eroding of the hymen that occurs just from daily life.
However, inserting a tampon or fingers (or a vibrator/dildo) into the vagina can also stretch out or tear the hymen. In these instances you may feel a sensation of stretching or tearing.
Vaginal intercourse can also stretch or tear the hymen, but what your hymen looks at any given point in time doesn’t tell anyone anything about your “virginity status.” (More on that below).
For those people who have an imperforate hymen, or a hymen that covers the vagina but has lots of little holes, or a hymen with strings of tissue stretching across the vaginal opening, you may need to have a doctor perform a procedure to snip away some of the tissue.
Is the Hymen a Symbol of Virginity?
You’ve probably heard that the hymen is a symbol of virginity and you’ll “break” your hymen the first time you have penetrative sex. This is a really pervasive cultural idea, but it’s not borne out by biological reality.
In the medieval era, it was not uncommon for “virginity exams” to be performed on prospective brides in which midwives or other medieval medical personnel (such as there were) tried to check out the state of the bride’s hymen to determine it she was a virgin or not. (Unfortunately, this still occurs in some regions of the world today).
But here’s the thing: you can’t actually tell if someone has had penetrative sex or not just by looking at their hymen. Since every hymen is different, and the hymen can be stretched, eroded, or torn by a variety of activities, there is no particular look to a “virgin” or “non-virgin” hymen. In fact, penetrative sex doesn’t even affect all hymens the same. A hymen may barely stretch at all from penetration, or it may stretch a lot. It may look different after penetration, or it may look pretty much exactly the same. So what does a “broken” hymen look like? It looks like any other hymen.
This means that hymen vs. no hymen (or smooth hymen vs. notched hymen, and so on) does not mean virgin vs. not virgin. There’s simply no way to know anything about whether someone has had penetrative sex by looking at the state of their hymen.
The idea that the hymen symbolizes virginity also makes people wonder if using a tampon or engaging in vigorous athletic activity—two things that can cause the hymen to stretch or change shape—somehow makes you not a virgin. There is no one “true” definition of virginity; that’s something you’ll have to consider for yourself. However, a stretched or eroded hymen certainly doesn’t automatically “disqualify” you from being a virgin.
The idea that the hymen means virginity is so pervasive that it’s possible to get “virginity restoration” procedures that purport to restore the “virgin” hymen. But these painful, invasive procedures are typically “restoring” something that never existed! There is no pristine virgin hymen. There are just lots of different kinds of hymens and none of them can tell you anything about virginity.
Breaking the Hymen Makes Intercourse Painful
A lot of us have been told that having vaginally penetrative sex for the first time will be painful no matter what—and that this pain is just one of the “broken” hymen symptoms.
It is true that pain during first intercourse is common, but it’s typically not because of the hymen. You may feel a slight stretching sensation from the hymen stretching out, or slight discomfort from pressure or friction on hymenal tags you have. But the main sources of pain during first penetrative intercourse usually arise from some combination of the following two factors:
Anxiety: It’s perfectly natural to feel nervous the first time you are having penetrative sex! It’s a new experience, and it can be a big step in a relationship. The vaginal canal is elastic and can stretch to accommodate a lot (including a baby’s head—the miracle of life)! However, being nervous or anxious can cause you to tense up, which means the vagina is not stretching to accommodate a whole lot, which can make intercourse painful.
Here are some things you can do to help stave off anxiety:
- Make sure you’re in a relaxed, comfortable setting. If you’re worried you’ll be discovered or you’re on a strict time limit, it will probably be hard for you to fully relax.
- It’s important that you’re with someone who you really trust, whether it’s a romantic partner or just a friend. If you trust the person you’re with, you’ll feel safer and more comfortable, which will help keep you from tensing up.
- Take it slow. As you are penetrated for the first time, it’s good to take it slow. Allow your body to adjust before your partner penetrates you a bit further. You may also want to start with fingers before moving on to a penis or dildo.
Lack of lubrication: penetrative vaginal sex without enough lubrication tends to be really uncomfortable. (Think friction burn.) And for a lot of totally normal reasons, your body may not produce enough lubrication on its own for things to be all slippery-smooth. Anything from your current hormone levels to feeling a little nervous to medications you’re currently taking can cause you to not produce a lot of lubrication, even if you’re feeling completely turned on. (This phenomenon—feeling turned on but not being lubricated—is called “arousal nonconcordance,” and it’s incredibly common).
Lubrication is even more important when your partner is wearing a condom, which is critical if you want to prevent STIs (and pregnancy if your partner is male and you aren’t using another birth control method). Without enough lube, there’s too much friction, and the condom might break.
Thankfully, there’s no rule that says you can only rely on the lubrication your vagina produces for sexual activity. There are tons of personal lubricants out there in many different formulations and consistencies that you can use to ease the way for penetration. I advise having a tube handy before you get down to business. Just be sure to use a condom-safe one if you’re using condoms—this means water or silicone-based, but NOT oil-based as it will increase the risk of condom breakage. You may also want to test any lubes on your skin first (like the inside of your wrist) if you have sensitive skin.
People may have told you that bleeding from first intercourse is from the hymen breaking. This is actually pretty unlikely. Even if the hymen tears, there isn’t likely to be a lot of blood because not that much blood actually flows to the hymen. So blood may or may not be one of your torn hymen symptoms. Usually when there’s bleeding, it’s because of small tears in the vaginal walls—little abrasions caused by the friction of penetration. Relaxation and lubrication as described above can help prevent or minimize tearing and pain. But you might also feel very relaxed and not feel any discomfort and still notice some blood afterwards. This is normal too!
How to Know If Your Hymen Is Broken: What to Look For
As we’ve established, there’s not really any such thing as a broken hymen. You can have a torn hymen or a stretched hymen or an eroded hymen. Lots of women just have some hymenal tags around the entrance to the vagina.
So I can’t tell you how to know if your hymen is broken, so to speak. But I can tell you how to get information about your own hymen, and what that information will tell you.
What Your Hymen Looks Like
If you’re curious about what your own hymen looks like, you can check it out! Grab a handheld mirror and get into a comfortable position for you to look at your bits. You might lay back with knees up and legs wide. You could also squat.
Hold the mirror between your legs with one hand and spread your labia with the other. If it’s hard to see anything, you may need to shine a flashlight down there. (I appreciate it may be kind of hard to manage this with holding the mirror and spreading your labia! You may need to balance either the mirror or the light source on a nearby surface.)
Whatever hymenal tissue you have will be just inside the entrance to your vaginal canal, no deeper than the first knuckle on your pointer finger. You can check it out to see what it looks like. It might be a smooth edged membrane partially covering the opening of the vagina, or it might just be a few fleshy tags around the edge of your vagina. It might be a really thin band around your vaginal entrance, or it might be a big thicker. You may not see a hymen at all. All of these situations are totally normal.
If you don’t see an opening to the vaginal canal at all, you might have an imperforate hymen. If you see only a very small hole, that’s a microperforate hymen. You have a septate hymen if there’s one or more bands of tissue going across the vaginal entrance. In all of these cases, you may need to see a doctor to snip away the excess tissue so that you can use tampons and be penetrated more easily (and, in the case of the imperforate hymen, so that menstrual blood can exit the body).
I suspect that some of you who want to know how to tell if your hymen is broken really want to know if you can tell if something (penetration or otherwise) has impacted or affected the state of your hymen. If you already have a baseline knowledge of what your hymen looks like, you might be able to see a difference in your hymen after penetration or other activities that may affect the hymen, like vigorous athletic activity. The tissue may be stretched aside or even torn. If it is torn, you may be able to see the torn area. Torn hymen symptoms can also include tenderness to the touch and bleeding. If there’s discomfort, you can ice the area.
However, you also might not be able to see a difference in your hymen after penetration or other activity, especially if you didn’t have a lot of hymenal tissue to begin with. So how do you know if your hymen is “broken”? You might be able to see a change in your hymen (assuming you know what it looks like before) after any activity that you think affected your hymen. But you might not.
What Your Hymen Feels Like
You can also feel your own hymenal tissue. You may want to do this in conjunction with looking at it so you can more easily tell what’s going on.
To feel your own hymen, you’ll want to lubricate a finger (index may be easiest). You can use a store-bought personal lubricant, a body-safe oil (like coconut oil) or even your own spit. Don’t use anything that might irritate your skin.
Carefully insert your finger into your vagina. You won’t need to go further than one knuckle deep; the hymen is right at the vaginal entrance. If you feel a stretchy piece of tissue there partially covering the vaginal opening, that’s your hymen. If you press down, towards your anus, you may be able to feel it stretching. (Be careful as this may be somewhat uncomfortable!)
If you have hymenal tags (fleshy tags leftover from the erosion of the hymen) you might be able to feel those too. These areas tend to be pretty sensitive to pressure. This is normal.
If you don’t have a lot of hymenal tissue, you might not be able to feel much of anything (other than, of course, your vaginal walls).
You can also stretch your hymen yourself if that’s something you’re interested in doing. Some people want to do this before penetrative sex to make it easier. (Note that this will really only make a difference if you still have a visible hymenal ring. If you just have hymenal tags, you won’t accomplish a whole lot of stretching.)
Googling “how to break your own hymen” or “how to break your hymen” can pull up all kinds of wacky stuff. But all you really need to do is gradually stretch out the tissue with your fingers. Start by lubricating one finger and pressing down against the vaginal wall for a few minutes to stretch the tissue. After doing this a few times, when it feels more comfortable, use two fingers, and eventually three fingers. (And always use lube! It will make the process much more comfortable).
But remember that hymenal tissue is elastic, and so is the vagina. It’s typically not necessary to pre-stretch the hymen before sex because it’s already designed to stretch. This also means it won’t necessarily stay visibly stretched out. But it’s your body, and you should feel free to explore!
Review: How to Know If Your Hymen Is Broken
In this article, we discussed everything you need to know about the hymen, the thin membrane surrounding the entrance to the vagina. You may have started out wondering how to know if your hymen is broken. But now you know that you can’t really have a broken hymen! Hymens naturally stretch and erode from activities of daily life. By the time many women are adults, all they have left is some tags of flesh around the vaginal entrance, called hymenal tags.
This means that you can’t really tell if someone is a virgin or not based on the state of their hymen. There’s no reliable hymen vs. no hymen = virgin vs. not virgin rule. So what does a “broken” hymen look like? It looks like any hymen—you really can’t tell someone’s sexual history by looking at their hymen.
Additionally, bleeding and pain during first intercourse aren’t usually related to the hymen at all. Instead, it’s usually due to nervousness/anxiety (which causes the pelvic floor to tighten up) and to a lack of lubrication (which can lead to micro-tears in the vaginal walls).
It’s possible that you might get a torn hymen from especially vigorous intercourse or other activity. Some torn hymen symptoms include a little pain and bleeding.
You can check out the state of your own hymen with a mirror, a light, and your finger! You may see and feel a smooth-edged ring around your vaginal entrance, a few hymenal tags, nothing at all, or anything in between! Additionally, you may or may not notice a difference in your hymen before and after penetration or other activities. It varies from person to person!
Here’s the bottom line on hymens:
- All hymens are normal
- The hymen is not a reliable indicator of virginity
- The hymen says nothing about your worth as a person!