The hymen is a mucous membrane, more or less flexible, which partially covers the external opening of the vagina. This septum is usually torn by penile penetration during the first sexual intercourse ; for this reason, many cultures have made it the symbol of purity .
The hymen is one of the organs that has the greatest morphological variations . For example, the central opening (called the hymen orifice ) may be rounded or semi-lunar, or the membrane may have more than one hole.
From the clinical point of view, the most important aspect is that of the imperforate hymen, in which the membrane completely covers the orifice through which the vaginal canal opens to the outside.
What is the hymen
The hymen is a thin and elastic membrane, formed essentially by a folding of the mucosa, which surrounds and partially closes (in rare cases, completely) the vulvo-vaginal orifice.
Curiosity. The origin of the anatomical term "hymen" derives from the Greek "hymèn", which means membrane. However, in Greek mythology, Hymen (or Hymenaios) was also the name of the deity responsible for protecting spouses and the marriage rite.
Where is it
The hymen is located at the transition between the posterior vaginal wall and the vestibule.
From the anatomical point of view, this structure is part of the external genitalia, which also include the following structures:
- Pubic mount : relief of skin and underlying adipose tissue located centrally in the pelvic region.
- Big and small lips : group of external and internal folds that surround the external opening of the vagina.
- Vestibule : area enclosed by small lips that leads to the meatus (orifice) of the vagina and urethra.
- Clitoris : small erectile organ located in front of the vestibule.
- Vestibular glands : pair of small glands that secrete a lubricating fluid that facilitates penetration of the penis into the vagina during sexual intercourse.
The hymen can be observed by the woman herself, with a small mirror, between the lips of the vulva, stretched to the edge of the canal and the vaginal vestibule.
In the hymen it is possible to distinguish two faces : a vestibular one (facing outwards) and a vaginal one (facing inward and consisting of an epithelium similar to that of the vagina).
Between these two layers of mucosa, a layer of connective tissue rich in elastic fibers, smooth muscle fibrocells, vessels and nerve endings is placed.
The hymen also has two margins :
- Free : limits the hymen's orifice; it is thin and rarely regular.
- Adherent : separated from labial formations by means of an ninfo-imenal sulcus, it is always well pronounced.
An intact hymen typically has one or more openings that allow menstrual blood and vaginal secretions to escape.
Figure: Different types of hymen; the gray areas represent the vaginal opening. From en.wikipedia.org
The effects of sexual intercourse and birth on the hymen are variable.
After the first sexual intercourse, these orifices are destined to tear, giving rise to a certain number of flaps ( hymenal lobules ), variable in volume and shape, arranged around the vaginal orifice. However, it can also happen that the membrane is so elastic that it is not affected by penetration.
After the first birth, with the passage of the fetal head, there is a further opening and most of the lobules undergo necrosis. The parts of the hymen that remain, on the other hand, produce on the contour of the vaginal orifice some cicatrized formations, more or less pedunculated, called hymenal caruncles .
In general, therefore, the appearance of the hymen varies depending on whether there is an intact hymen or its residues:
- In most adult women, the hymen is not intact and the external vaginal opening appears oval; on the contour of the latter, the vaginal mucosa continues directly with that of the vestibule.
- In virgin girls, on the other hand, the hymenal membrane is intact and defines the opening of the vaginal canal.
What is it for?
The function of the hymen is not yet completely clear. This structure separates the entrance of the vaginal cavity from the vulva, allowing menstrual blood to pass through one or more small openings.
According to some scientific interpretations, this membrane would act as a barrier, protecting the vaginal opening and the areas immediately surrounding the intake during the development of the female genital tract until reaching puberty.
According to other scholars, instead, the hymen would be the result of evolution : its presence would serve to push the woman to look for strong ties with her partner and to avoid the randomness of sexual relations.
Curiosity. The hymen is also present in different animals. In particular, there are many primates (such as chimpanzees), marine mammals (eg manatees and whales), but also elephants, guinea pigs and horses.
The hymen has very different characteristics from woman to woman: at least 8 different conformations have been detected. A common aspect of the membrane is crescent-shaped, however the shape and resistance of the hymen have wide variability.
The hymen can have various forms, among which the main ones are:
- Annular (or circular) hymen: it appears as a diaphragm crossed by a hole (hymen orifice) that occupies the center of the membrane or located at a more or less eccentric point.
- Semilunar hymen : it has a half-moon shape, with an upper-front concavity; depending on the case, the adherent margin occupies half, two-thirds or three-quarters of the vulvo-vaginal orifice.
- Laminate hymen : it consists of two lateral parts, separated from each other by a narrow median opening directed vertically or horizontally.
- Hymen cribriform : quite rare, it is characterized by numerous small cracks along the entire surface, which make it similar to a sieve.
In some women, the hymen is non-existent from birth or poorly developed, therefore the vaginal canal is already completely or partially open; this conformation, completely physiological, does not involve problems on a physical or sexual level.
At other times, the hymen is imperforated, ie it completely covers the passage between the posterior vaginal wall and the vestibule and has no opening. This is rare and represents a medical condition.
The imperforate hymen is usually found at the onset of the first menstrual cycles and requires a small surgical intervention to be resolved ( hymenectomy ). In practice, the membrane is incised to create an opening and allow menstrual leakage to escape. If this condition is not corrected surgically, the risk is that of incurring a haematocolper (accumulation of blood inside the vagina due to the impossibility of outflow to the outside).
Even the thickness of the hymen can change considerably: in some cases, the septum is thin and elastic, at other times it is thicker and stiffer.
A superelastic membrane can only be broken by birth. On the contrary, an inflexible hymen can make penetration impossible and can predispose to various problems, such as vaginismus or hypofertility.
If it is very resistant, the imenar membrane can be surgically incised with an imenectomy.
Breaking of the hymen
Defloration, ie the physiological rupture of the hymen, usually follows the moment of penetration of the woman, during the first sexual intercourse. In general, the tearing of this membrane is not painful, but it can lead to slight discomfort or temporary bleeding.
Clearly much depends on the partner's approach (more or less delicate), the thickness of the membrane and the different vascularization of the tissue.
Depending on its appearance and shape, in fact, the hymen can be so elastic that it does not tear at the moment of coitus, remaining intact. In other cases, however, the membrane is so thin that it can easily break even during the preliminaries and not bleed at all, without necessarily having to reach complete penetration during the sexual act.
After defloration, only the small limbs, called hymenal lobules, remain in place of the hymen.
The intact hymen is not a contraceptive method
A cliché about the hymen holds that it is not possible to become pregnant without it being broken. This idea is absolutely false: the intact hymen is not a barrier if you do not wish to become pregnant:
as well as menstrual flow and vaginal secretions are able to pass through the membrane, even the seminal fluid can penetrate inside the vagina and effectively fertilize the egg.
The rupture of the hymen does not always depend on sexual acts. In some cases, in fact, laceration may occur due to the introduction of objects in the vagina (eg internal absorbents) or following a trauma due to physical or sports activities (eg riding a bike or doing gymnastics).
Furthermore, the hymen can break down due to illness and medical examinations. The latter cases are however very rare.
Virginity and socio-cultural significance
The integrity of the hymen is synonymous with female virginity for many cultures.
In different parts of the world, the presence of this intact membrane represented a guarantee of morality of the woman, who was subjected to inspection before marriage.
As seen above, it is important to remember that the state of the hymen is an extremely unreliable indicator of virginity, as the membrane can break during childhood as a result of physical trauma or during sports activity. Therefore, having an already torn or perforated hymen is completely normal and natural. In some women, the hymen is even absent or poorly developed due to agenesis or hypoplasia.
Another misconception was that during the first sexual relationship with the husband, a blood loss should occur; so many women were condemned as unfaithful only because the day after night they could not expose a copiously bloody sheet to the balcony of their house. In reality, it is not at all certain that the rupture of the hymen involves a small or large bleeding or that it is painful.
Even today, the presence of an intact imene membrane takes on a very important value in the sexual life. In fact, for cultural, social and religious reasons, some women resort to hymenoplasty reconstruction to restore anatomical virginity.
Furthermore, these erroneous beliefs may predispose to a primary vaginismus, a sexual disorder linked to the fears that afflict certain women with the idea of feeling pain at the moment of the hymen breaking. This problem has a strong emotional component and can even be the cause of first traumatic or painful relationships.
Hymen: to remember
- The hymen takes on a different shape and consistency from woman to woman.
- The sexual act is not necessary for the laceration of the hymen.
- Defloration is not inevitably painful or associated with blood loss.