My mother attended a convent school that had, as part of its curriculum, a track focused on marriage. These upper-grade classes provided instruction on skills very few of the women leaving this school would ever need, like sewing, as well as a lot of conversations about the sanctity of marriage. During one of these discussions, the topic of virginity arose and one of my mother’s classmates surprised the room by stating flatly that virginity was a myth used to control women. She said she was not a virgin, that she was neither proud nor ashamed of it, and that the best way to live was to do so in a fashion that made one happy. Happiness, she told her schoolmates, was not possible if one arrived at marriage not knowing how to satisfy, for themselves, one of the most basic human cravings.
This is the story my mother related to me when we discussed virginity. Her retelling relayed a certain respect for this position, but her choice to offer these views in story form without stating her own opinion was equally telling. My mother had arrived at the cathedral altar wearing white, the traditional symbol of purity, and not been struck down by an angry deity. But she was very aware, too, that punishment for failing to comply with cultural norms wasn’t necessarily meted out by a furious god, but rather by people. Though the stoning described in Deuteronomy 22:20-21 wasn’t the norm where she grew up, she was aware of the social repercussions of being identified as non-compliant. As a result, while I didn’t receive the message that I had to be a virgin until marriage, I did get the message that it was important not to give people reason to believe I wasn’t.
This message was relayed implicitly, often during discussions about my “reputation.” I noticed, relatively quickly, that this “reputation” didn’t have anything to do with whether I was a good student, a talented artist, or even a decent person. My “reputation” didn’t come up in stern reprimands about lying, for instance, or having poor work ethic if I failed to come through on commitments. It didn’t come up when I indulged in social and relational aggression toward other girls or gossiped or disrespected my parents. Discussions of my “reputation” only came up in relation to how I dressed, how I danced, where I went and at what time — essentially, “reputation” was a code word meant to describe a young woman’s perceived sexual availability.
What infuriated me the most about these discussions was that I had no real control over my “reputation.” Anyone could throw it into question at any time, no matter what I achieved for myself. In fact, the more I achieved for myself, the more likely it was that it would be thrown into question (the allegation that someone is “sleeping her way to the top,” is a perfect example of this). This thing wasn’t a measure of decency at all but a weakness, open to anyone wishing to exploit it. So I threw it out. It’s difficult to define adolescence in any single way, but one of the most important things I did during this time was try to shift the measure of my worth, both internally and externally. I wanted my reputation to be comprised of things I’d done for myself, not to be ruled by this one, allegedly valuable thing that someone would eventually take away, leaving me only with blood on my sheets.
That’s what it is, basically, isn’t it?
It really bothered me (and still bothers me) the number of cultures that want their young women to suffer pain and violence on their wedding nights. Growing up, I picked up that the hymen was a fragile thing, and that you could break it accidentally at any time. Knowing this, I reasoned that it was possible to “cure” young women of this thing that could hurt them, but cultures were actively choosing not to. In fact, they stressed that behaviors that imperiled the thing were unseemly, such as riding a horse astride. Why did they want to hurt us?
It wasn’t until much later that I learned that what I thought I knew about the hymen was completely wrong. And yet despite medical progress, the violence normalized by certain cultures has remained — you can see it everywhere in language relating to sex. Women are “penetrated,” they are “taken” as though they were citadels, they “give it up,” they are “popped” and “lose” their virginities, while the other person “scores.” Some of these terms and expressions have only recently started to be used to describe both genders. That may seem more fair, but their perpetuation still carries in it a sort of violence that we’d do best to rid ourselves of completely.
It’s telling that one of the most promising attempts to address these issues at their root hasn’t had much traction. Five years ago, Sweden’s RiksfÃ¶rbundet fÃ¶r Sexuell Upplysning (RFSU) — a group focused on sexual education and policy — suggested changing the word “hymen” to “vaginal corona.” The word “hymen” comes to us from Greek, via French, and means “membrane.” That’s what most of us learn when (and if) we learn about the female reproductive system — that there’s a barrier inside the vagina that gets punctured during the first penetrative sex act and disappears forever, along with your purity (unless you managed to “pop” it some other way first, like by riding your bicycle).
This is not true. The hymen isn’t a membrane stretched taut inside the vagina like a gate-keeper. It’s an elastic mucous tissue between 0.4 and 0.6 inches (one to two centimeters) inside the vagina that takes many shapes, the majority of which are not completely closed. This tissue isn’t a brittle thing that breaks — it stretches. Yes, it is possible to injure it, just as it’s possible to injure or irritate any other aspect of the vagina, but the cause of this is usually related to not being sufficiently aroused or lubricated during sex or other types of penetration. The tissue is not there to be pushed through like some internal wall that needs to be bulldozed. And it certainly doesn’t go away after sex, though childbirth may alter its appearance.
This flaw in how we discuss anatomy can and often does cause women who grow up in cultures that explicitly or implicitly assign value to virginity or sexual purity to avoid seeking medical assistance when they suffer assault, when something seems wrong “down there,” or even for a check-up. They’re afraid that medical assistance will imperil the hymen. Or they’re afraid that a medical professional, especially their family doctor, will notice that they no longer have one. This is only one of the many reasons that reproductive health clinics are important, though we’re certainly excelling at doing away with them at the same time as we’re bringing back the notion that virginity is important and that worth can be measured in terms of “purity.”
Ultimately, the word “corona” more adequately describes this characteristic of female anatomy than “membrane.” “Corona” comes to us from Greek, via Latin, meaning garland or crown. We most often use the word when we talk about the plasma that surrounds celestial bodies, like the sun. The solar corona isn’t evenly distributed either but the real bonus, of course, is that the term “vaginal corona” comes with no baggage attached.
And yet for some reason, it’s rare to encounter this term when reading about the hymen outside of resources concerned with sexual rights. A recent article about virginity in the Atlantic by Nolan Feeney briefly touched on the efforts to introduce the term “vaginal corona,” noting that none of the activists and sex educators that Feeney spoke with expected to see the term “catch on in any serious way.”
Why? Why can’t we let hymen go? Why can’t we stop referring to first-time sex as a loss?
I didn’t lose my virginity. I was enriched by the first sexual encounter I had, and continue to be enriched by those thereafter.
Header image by Tarique Sani.