Female genital mutilation has been illegal in the UK since 1985. And from 2014, teachers have been required to complete special safeguarding training on spotting risk factors associated with FGM. We should now all be prepared to respond to the myths perpetuated by those who advocate the practice.
However, there are other dangerous myths about women’s bodies that are not a standard part of safeguarding training. I’m talking about the mysteries of the hymen.
Despite the fact that scientists have known a great deal about the hymen for over a hundred years, numerous myths about it are perpetuated in society:
1. That the hymen is a membrane covering the vaginal opening.
2. That the hymen breaks the first time a girl has sex.
3. That the hymen is not present in non-virgins.
These myths are by no means unique to non-Western cultures. I was taught them both in school. In Norfolk. And they are damaging.
Let’s break down these myths.
Myth 1: Pseudoscience
The hymen does not, at any point, fully cover the vaginal opening. It is tissue forming a partial covering, which stretches during sex, masturbation, or putting in a tampon, and then goes back to its original position again afterwards. Think of a scrunchy hair band being stretched and released. If it were a complete covering, then period blood could not escape the vagina.
Myth 2: Sophistry
The inner edges of the hymen can tear during sex. Particularly if the girl is not particularly aroused, or if the sex is forceful. Whether she is a virgin or not. This is what is responsible for the blood on the sheets. So, in cultures where blood on the marriage sheets is celebrated as a sign of virginal purity, what is actually being celebrated is forceful penetration and a lack of foreplay.
Myth 3: Illusion
Over time, with stretching and unstretching, the hymen does become thinner and looser. This makes it appear less obvious to a physical examination. But it doesn’t disappear. So the keen athlete, whose hymen is being stretched by sport, appears non-virginal, regardless of all of the sex she isn’t having because she is at training.
Like FGM, these myths have collectively been used to control women’s sexuality in every culture on earth, by providing a physical, scientific test for virginity. If the hymen is ‘broken’, then a girl is tainted. If she does not bleed the first time she has sex, she is a liar.
And this notion of a physical test for virginity lives on. Every time a student asks, “Are you still a virgin if you have oral sex, were on your period, were with another girl, penetration was partial, or you didn’t give consent, etc?” in Biology, PSHE, or tutor time, they express a belief that virginity has a definitive yes-or-no answer that can be determined scientifically. And teachers, even when they know the science, perpetuate the myth by giving them a yes-or-no answer.
But a scientific test for female virginity is just sophistry and illusion. Virginity is something much more subtle, complex, and personal: it is resistant to "yes" and "no".
And we need to be better prepared to talk about it.
Emily Seeber is head of science at Bedales School in Hampshire