Sex Question Friday: Can You Really Tell If A Woman Is A Virgin?

Every Friday on the blog, I answer people’s questions about sex, love, and relationships. This week’s question comes from a reader who wanted to know the following:

“The first time a couple has sex, is it possible to physically tell if the woman is a virgin? Do all women have a hymen that breaks and bleeds during sex?”

I’m glad you asked this question because there are a lot of myths and misconceptions about what happens the first time a woman has vaginal intercourse. Let’s start with the hymen, one of the most misunderstood aspects of female anatomy and virginity. The hymen is a piece of tissue that partially covers the vaginal opening (also known as the introitus). The size and appearance of the hymen can vary dramatically. In fact, in one article I read, they described seven different types of hymens [1]! For instance, some have a rounded appearance with an opening in the center (an annular hymen). In others, a thin strip of tissue runs down the middle of the hymen’s opening, dividing it into two (a septated hymen). Some hymens may have multiple small holes (a cribiform hymen), and in very rare cases, there is no hole at all (an imperforate hymen). If there is no hole, this needs to be corrected surgically because menstrual blood will not be able to exit the body.

The hymen may or may not remain intact until the first time a woman has vaginal intercourse. Hymens can wear away before that for multiple reasons, including but not limited to masturbation practices and athletic activities. The fact that some hymens are thinner and more yielding than obviously plays a role here too. Consider this: in one study in which medical examinations of the hymen were performed on female virgins, doctors were only certain that the hymen was intact in 57% of the cases [2]—thus, for a lot of women, despite the fact that they’ve never had intercourse, they don’t have a visible hymen.

As for bleeding, there is a widespread belief that first-time intercourse with a woman always yields a fair amount of blood due to rupturing of the hymen. This belief is actually so common that in some Middle Eastern and African countries, women are expected to produce a blood-stained sheet on their wedding night, lest they bring shame and dishonor to themselves and their families. However, not all women bleed the first time they have sex. As some evidence of this, in a small survey of women, 63% reported that they did not bleed upon first vaginal intercourse [3]. The thing to remember here is that it’s possible for a woman with a hymen to not bleed at all (e.g., as previously mentioned, some hymens are more flexible than others), just as it’s possible for a woman without a hymen to bleed after sex (e.g., bleeding can occur as a result of rough sex or due to a variety of medical conditions).

In short, contrary to popular belief, there aren’t necessarily any physical signs to indicate whether a woman is a virgin. Despite this, a number of women around the world are going to great lengths to have their hymens surgically restored (revirginization), with some even going as far as inserting fake blood capsules into their vaginas in order to demonstrate their virginity. However, it’s high time that we abandoned these mistaken ideas about what is “supposed” to happen during first-time sex, as well as this sexist notion that a woman's value or worth is tied to her ability to "prove" that she is a virgin.

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[1] Stukus, K. S., & Zuckerbraun, N. S. (2009). Review of the prepubertal gynecologic examination: Techniques and anatomic variation. Clinical Pediatric Emergency Medicine, 10(1), 3-9

[2] Underhill, R.A., & Dewhurst, J. (1978). The doctor cannot always tell: Medical examination of the “intact” hymen. The Lancet, 311(8060), 375-376.

[3] Paterson-Brown, S. (1998). Commentary: Education about the hymen is needed. British Medical Journal, 316, 461.

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