The sex myth that’s centuries old

The hymen – or the vaginal corona, as some believe we should now call it – has been a centre of scrutiny and anxiety for centuries. How can we put an end to the myths around it?

“Am I virgin?” asked the stranger across the internet, matter of factly, in Abir Sarras’s inbox. Sarras wasn’t sure how to reply. It was the first time she had been sent what she describes as a “vagina selfie”. 

At the time, Sarras was an admin on the Love Matters Arabic Facebook page, which delivers relationships and sex education in Arabic on social media. “She said she had had a relationship and now she was getting engaged and wanted to make sure she was a virgin,” Sarras explains. Then she pauses, and grimaces. “I hate this word: maftuuha – she asked if she was that, she asked if she was ‘opened’.”

What the stranger was really asking was if Sarras could see her hymen – and tell her if it was “intact” – because of the pressure in her community to be a virgin at marriage, and for her husband to see this, visibly, in the form of blood. This belief that the hymen provides physical “proof” of sexual history is the premise of virginity testing, a practise condemned by the World Health Organization in 2018 as a human rights violation. Such tests can take different forms; everything from physical examinations of measuring a hymen or vaginal laxity to wedding night rituals where a bloodied bedsheet is expected to appear, and even be shown to the bride and groom’s families.

Despite this having no scientific basis – and despite virginity itself being a social construct with no biological reality – millions around the world continue to believe that a woman’s sexual history is somehow writ into her anatomy, and that all cisgender women bleed the first time that they have sex. Neither, of course, are true – yet such beliefs can be found in languages, religions and communities across the globe.