Because of the belief that first vaginal penetration would usually tear this membrane and cause bleeding, its "intactness" has been considered a guarantor of virginity in societies that place a high value on female chastity before marriage.
However, the hymen is a poor indicator of whether a woman has actually engaged in sexual intercourse because a normal hymen does not completely block the vaginal opening.
The normal hymen is never actually "intact" since there is always an opening in it. Furthermore, there is not always bleeding at first vaginal penetration. The blood that is sometimes, but not always, observed after first penetration can be due to tearing of the hymen, but it can also be from injury to nearby tissues.
Post-injury, injuries to the hymen and surrounding tissues often quickly heal, leaving the hymenal tissue looking as if there had been no injury at all.
Therefore, the appearance of the hymen is not a reliable indicator of virginity or chastity. Injuries to the hymen are not caused by straddle injuries such as falling on the bar of a boy's bicycle or intense horseback riding.
The hymen is recessed behind other nearby structures which help protect the vagina from injury. (The eyeball is protected by surrounding structures in a similar way.) To injure the hymen, the tissue would have to be caught between the bicycle bar and something hard, such as bone.
The hymen itself is not anatomically located directly in front of any hard structures. In straddle injuries, the impact of the bicycle bar is far more likely to injure other structures such as the labia, the skin over the pubic bone, or the perineum. Tearing or bruising injury to the hymen is caused by blunt, penetrating trauma, where the force is directed inwards toward the hymen and tears it.
The size and shape of this opening (or openings) vary greatly from person to person. Rarely, women are born with no hymen at all, while (equally rarely) others have a closed or imperforate hymen. These women may require a gynecologist to perform a medical procedure called a hymenotomy to allow menstrual products to escape.
Still other women have unusually thick hymens that may require a hymenotomy to prevent pain for the woman during sex. In a woman or girl past puberty, the general structure of the hymen can be compared to a hair scrunchie in that it is elastic and stretches open easily.
Some other common forms of hymen are:
Annular – in which the hymen forms a ring around the vaginal opening.
Septate – in which the hymen has one or more bands extending across the opening.
Cribriform – in which the hymen stretches completely across the vaginal opening, but is perforated with several holes.
Parous Introitus – which refers to the vaginal opening which has had a baby pass through it and consequently has nothing left of its hymen but a fleshy irregular outline decorating its perimeter.
It is important to note that some women have completely normal hymens (all tissue still there and not injured) even after giving birth.
During the early stages of fetal development there is no opening into the vagina at all. The thin layer of tissue that covers the vagina at this time usually divides to a certain extent prior to birth, forming the hymen.
In a very small percentage of female births, this tissue has divided completely, and the baby is born without a hymen. Also, a woman can have the hymen surgically restored in order to feign not having engaged in intercourse.
For these reasons, as well as the reasons detailed above, the presence or absence of a hymen cannot be taken as a reliable indicator of whether a woman has engaged in intercourse. A hymen never completely "tears" until birth is given vaginally; the hymen only stretches.
In late 2005 Monica Christiansson, former maternity ward nurse and Carola Eriksson, a PhD student at Umeå University announced that according to studies of medical literature and practical experience, the hymen should be considered a social and cultural myth, based on deeply rooted stereotypes of womens' roles in sexual relations with men.
Christiansson and Eriksson support their claims by pointing out that there are no accurate medical descriptions of what a hymen actually consists of. Statistics presented by the two show that fewer than 30% of all women who have gone through puberty and have consensual intercourse bleed the first time.
Christiansson has expressed an opinion that the use of the term "hymen" should be discontinued and that it should be considered an integral part of the vaginal opening. The slang term "cherry" is also commonly used as a reference to a woman's hymen. Specifically, the phrase "popping the/her cherry" indicates a loss of a woman's virginity. The cherry may have been chosen because its bright red color and juice is similar to blood, and many women bleed when having intercourse for the first time.
In some cultures, it is the presence of a women's hymen which can affect her marriage prospects, her family's reputation, and even her very life.
For these women, hymenorraphy, or hymen repair surgery, may actually provide an escape from grave social persecution. The social function of the hymen has been and still is a mythical symbol of virginity in many cultures.
Upon initial intercourse, a woman's hymen ruptures and bleeds (or not). The image of a bloody sheet is highly celebrated in many cultures because it represents the purity of a woman and the virility of a man. In these non-Western societies, the virginity of the bride is valued for religious, social, and even economic reasons.
For example, the Koran, the Islamic holy book, states that the bride must be a virgin. In China, the bride's virginity determines the amount of betrothal gifts.
"The presence of the hymen is particularly important for families of prestige who want to keep the family lineage non-contaminated," explained Professor Charles S. Nicoll from the Department of Integrative Biology at University of California (UC), Berkeley. These traditional cultural beliefs demand the "bloody sheet" no matter what.
Unfortunately, the consequences of not bleeding, or being a "non-virgin" bride, can be severe. In many Mediterranean and African cultures, the husband's family may take revenge through violent punishments and banishment of the bride because the "non-virgin" bride "shamed" them.
Among the Yungar people of Australia, girls without the hymen before marriage were starved, tortured, or even killed. In Arab countries, the "non-virgin" brides may be killed by her brothers, uncles, or even fathers. The perpetrators often escape prosecution due to the strong customs that justify such murders.
Clearly, those who seek hymenorraphy believe that the procedure is necessary for their social status, happiness, and even preservation of life. In the past ten years in Egypt, the hymen repair surgery has reduced 80 percent of the murders committed when a bride was found not to be a virgin on the wedding night, according to the June 1996 issue of the British medical journal, The Lancet.
Large parts of this article have been taken from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.