Living Myths About Virginity

Vacuums of reliable information and sexism in popular culture can have serious consequences for women's health.
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Laci Green grabs a thin sheet of latex, stretches it over the end of an empty toilet paper tube, and starts cutting away with a pair of scissors. "I'm makin' a hymennn," she sings before holding up the finished product to the camera, where, on the other side, more than 700,000 subscribers now await her every upload. "Ta-da!"

Since 2008, the 24-year-old YouTube sex educator has been making informational videos about everything from slut shaming and body image to genital hygiene and finding the G-spot. This particular scene comes from a clip called "You Can't POP Your Cherry (HYMEN 101)" which explains, with the kind of bubbly, web-savvy humor that makes her a popular vlogger, that the hymen isn't a membrane that needs to bleed or be broken during intercourse—it's actually just small, usually elastic folds of mucous tissue that only partially cover the vaginal opening and can, but don’t always, tear if stretched. A year and a half after it premiered, with well more than one million views, Green's video debunking one of the most enduring misconceptions about virginity is also one of the most popular segment she's ever recorded.

For a lot of women (and men), Green's message is hardly news, for any number of reasons. Several comments on the video, which still arrive almost daily, point that out. But other comments tell a different story: that myths about virginity, sex, and basic biology still pervade even among sexually active adults, and when those myths get reinforced by vacuums of reliable information and sexist messages ingrained in popular culture, they can have serious consequences for women's health.

“Every night I have people come up to me about this video in particular,” Green, who takes her sex-positive presentations to college campuses across the country, tells me. “‘I’m so glad I saw this.’ ‘Sex was so much better than I thought it was.’ ‘It didn’t hurt.’ It’s sad to me that people expect this to be a painful experience.”

*  *  *

When Therese Shechter lost her virginity at age 23, it wasn’t the firework-spouting, momentous occasion she had come to expect. On the contrary, it was kind of unremarkable given the hype. Now a filmmaker, Shechter spent much of the past six years working on her new documentary How to Lose Your Virginity, which revisits her experience—including the basement apartment where it happened, now, funnily enough, a flower shop called Bloom—and explores the "myths and misogyny" behind one of society's most institutionalized rites of passage.

Through interviews with historians, abstinence advocates, sex educators, and self-described virgins and non-virgins alike, Shechter learned she's not the only one who had certain ideas about what sex is supposed to be like. There are a number of pervasive and loaded myths about virginity: That having sex for the first time will be an irreversible transformation that changes your body and mind; that there’s a “right” way to lose your virginity, and how you lose it will affect the rest of your life; that it's going to be the most pleasurable, magical feeling; that it's going to be the most painful experience of their lives. These myths persist in part because of a lack of information about what happens to the human body, specifically the hymen, during sex—information that's often not taught in schools, that's not always found online, and that's not always available from medical providers.

“I’ve spoken to lots of women who are just terrified of having sex because they think it’s going to be this horrible pain and [they’ll] bleed gallons of blood,” says Shechter, whose documentary makes its broadcast premiere on February 8 on the Fusion Network and is airing in cities across the U.S. and internationally in coming months.

Abstinence-only education in U.S. schools isn't to blame for creating these myths, but Shechter and Green say the programs, which have received more than $1.5 billion dollars and counting in federal funding since 1996 despite mounting research about their ineffectiveness, do create environments where this kind of misinformation thrives. (Even some schools with more comprehensive programs, Green notes, are guilty of getting the facts wrong, too.) Abstinence-only education promotes marriage as the proper venue for sexual activity and the only prevention method for STDs and pregnancy—it doesn't offer information about how, once someone becomes sexually active, to make sure sex isn't painful or how to avoid the kind of bleeding Green talks about. (Fewer than half of all women bleed during the first time they have sex; they can bleed a little or a lot, or not at all, and it can be painful or painless. There’s a range of experiences that vary from individual to individual and depend on factors like use of lubrication and levels of arousal.)

Reliable information is out there, but it doesn't always find its way to young women (or men) who could benefit from it. Kiki Zeldes, a senior editor of Our Bodies, Ourselves, the landmark book about women’s health and sexuality published by a Boston-based non-profit, says the Internet can often lead astray young women looking for answers. While sites like Scarleteen, an independent sex-education website founded in 1998, are devoted to providing accurate, non-judgmental information to young people, Zeldes says she's concerned by the number of Google search results and general information sites that describe the hymen as a tissue that completely covers the vaginal opening, one that tears and bleeds. "There are a tremendous number of women who don't understand how their bodies work and what happens when they are sexually active," says Zeldes, who adds that “hymen” is the most-searched term on the book’s website. "There's lots of information out there, but it's more about reaching young women in formats that they will hear."

Even the medical community contributes to that void. Most medical schools offer little education about the hymen, according to Virgin: The Untouched History author and historian Hanne Blank, and for relevant reasons: it's medically uninteresting and very rarely poses health problems—it's just tissue left over from sometime between the fifth and seventh months of fetal development, roughly. "Your average gynecologist doesn't know a whole lot [about the hymen]," Blank says. "From the medical perspective, we could fairly charitably say there's a wide range of knowledge, and there's a wide range of belief. Doctors are the same as everyone else. Unless an individual physician has taken efforts to educate themselves, chances are what they think they know about the hymen is more reflective of what's around them."

One Swedish sexual health organization felt that misinformation about the hymen was so rampant that it decided to do away with the word entirely. In 2009, the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education (RFSU) began promoting the term "vaginal corona" as an alternative in order to dispel myths and rebuild associations with this part of the body from scratch. (None of the women I spoke to expect the term to catch on in any serious way—though the latest edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves does adapt RFSU's materials—but all agreed it was an important symbolic step in rebooting the conversation.)

Myths about virginity don't exist solely because of misinformation about the hymen, however, and that's because the concept of virginity existed long before the hymen was even identified. First acknowledged in the 16th century by anatomist Andreas Vesalius, the hymen, historically speaking, is a relatively new discovery; social and cultural ideas about virginity, on the other hand, have been building on thousands and thousands of years of history. For reference: Flip open a Bible to the Book of Deuteronomy, which declares that if "tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel … [then] the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die."

The exact origins of virginity are difficult to pinpoint, Blank says, because people have been talking about virginity for as long as we’ve had written records, and the earliest mentions of virginity suggest it was already an established concept. (One popular explanation, called the K-Strategist Theory, suggests men used virginity to help determine paternity—a way to make sure the material resources they devoted to new or expectant mothers weren’t wasteful investments.) Despite its long history, virginity has never had a precise definition. Many associate the word with penile-vaginal intercourse between cisgender men and women, but that's not the only way two people can be sexually active together, and that definition also excludes LGBTQ people. What constitutes the idea of purity, it turns out, is surprisingly messy.

Yet what's allowed virginity to persist in spite of this, Blank says, is that virginity is a highly effective way of organizing women. Throughout history, virginity tests, like the "string test" (which "determined" virginity based on the relative size of your head and neck) Blank performs on Shechter in How to Lose Your Virginity, weren’t really concerned with science so much as they were concerned with control: However nebulous its definition, virginity easily sorts women into those who have had sex and those who haven't, which, in societies that place value on a women's purity, also helps determine their worth.

That value system—and the idea that a woman's first sexual experience is this permanent, hymen-breaking change—is reinforced by the language used to talk about a woman's first time,: She lost her virginity; he took her virginity; She gave it up to him; he popped her cherry; she was deflowered. "It's kind of violent," Green says in her video as she comically jabs a dildo into her home-made model of a hymen. These words, she argues, don't just further the idea that there's a painful or bloody transformation, they also carry a lot of baggage about gender roles. They characterize women as passive with something to lose, and men as the aggressors with something to gain; they suggest that men are the stewards of virginity—the same idea behind the “purity balls” that take place across the country today, where young girls pledge their virginity to their fathers until husbands come along.

For evidence of just how strongly these ideas about virginity and sex are rooted in popular culture, Shechter points to the number of businesses that profit off them. Genres of pornography fetishize virginity and frequently depict the moment innocent school girls are "corrupted.” Hymenoplasties, or controversial surgeries that "reconstruct" the hymen to induce bleeding during sex as proof of virginity, have become an established practice around the world (stories about the trend have appeared in Time magazine and The New York Times, which, it’s worth noting, called the hymen "the vaginal membrane that normally breaks in the first act of intercourse" in its reporting). In her film, Shechter meets with a wedding dress vendor who markets a dress's virginal qualities as a selling point.

"You click back to that other time for the [wedding] day because now you're this dirty, ruined women," Shechter says. "We still make jokes, 'I can't wear white at my wedding.' All that [says] is there's this object of value, and when it's given away or taken or sold, that value is lost. [Virginity] sells purity rings and artificial hymens [because] being perceived as not having that value can be a death sentence." Women do still get killed over others' perceptions of their own virginity: In 2005, an Alabama woman told a Birmingham police detective she killed her 12-year-old daughter by pouring bleach down her throat because her daughter revealed she was no longer a virgin.

Male partners' expectations of blood in particular sometimes leads women to take drastic, unhealthy measures: In How to Lose Your Virginity, Shechter reports on women who sewed stitches into their vaginas to make sure they bled. Artificial hymens that can be inserted into the vagina and "bleed" red dyes can be bought online cheaply and have been trendy in China, but have also been known to cause infections. Green says she's even heard from women who said their boyfriends became verbally abusive when there wasn’t any blood or pain following their first time having sex. “People told me they show their boyfriends my video and explain why there wasn’t any bleeding," Green says. "It’s kind of bizarre when you have these kids getting angry at each other because there wasn’t enough blood.”

Because hymens vary greatly from person to person, they’re not reliable indicators of virginity—How to Lose Your Virginity even features a film clip from the 1940s saying as much—but the myth that looking at a hymen can reveal whether a woman has had sex can still discourage women from seeking medical care. "The biggest question we're asked is, 'Can a doctor or a boyfriend tell if I've had sex before?' Zeldes says. "Many people think they can, so they're scared to go to a gynecologist or a GYN exam because they're scared, one, that it could make them not a virgin, and, two, someone would be able to tell."

But what Blank and Zeldes say is one of the most widespread consequences—and the one Green says convinced her to make her video in the first place—is simply fear. Myths about virginity cast a shadow of negativity over young people’s attitudes toward sex. They keep can people from taking ownership of their sexualities and bodies through informed decision-making. They can turn what could be a pleasurable and fun experience into an event that’s scary, stressful, and needlessly traumatic.

"I'm not of the belief that for teenagers having sex, it should be terrible," Green says. "You remember your first time as a time when you were terrified, and I think that's really sad."

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Nolan Feeney is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Entertainment channel. 

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