I'm not the first person to say this, but it bears repeating: hymens are a myth.
Or rather, intact, virginal hymens that can "break" or "pop" inside of us don't exist.
Countless young women, myself included not so long ago, have fretted over what happens with the hymen during that inaugural vaginal intercourse, when the concern is scientifically futile. Hymens can't be broken because there isn't any kind of plastic wrap-like barrier sealing off the upper crevices of the vaginal canal like a Tupperware container of leftovers. In reality, if a girl's hymen is completely intact -- a rare medical occurrence -- she would need a hymenectomy, or incision in the tissue, to allow menstrual fluids and other discharge to exit the body. Despite that gynecological truth, that collective imagining of the hymen as a sacred seal persists.
Medically speaking, the hymen (derived from the Greek word for "membrane," but not to be confused with Greek god of marriage) is more accurately referred to as the vaginal corona. This ring of stretchy tissue is leftover from the formation of the vaginal canal during fetal development. As such, Hanne Blank, author of "Virgin: The Untouched History" describes the hymen as a "door frame mounted in a doorway that stands on the spot where 'external' stops and 'internal' starts."
In the womb, the hymen potentially serves as a protective barrier from germs and bacteria, but aside from that, scientists have yet to identify any significant physiological functions of the vaginal corona. Estrogen naturally primes the tissue to stretch and wear away as girls develop, and the shape and size also varies from person to person. Ironically, the least common coronal formation is the imperforate hymen that stretches all but completely across the vaginal canal - in other words, how we typically misconceptualize it.
By the time many women have sex, that vaginal corona may have devolved from a doughnut to an unnoticeable rubber band all by itself. Not to mention the myriad ways girls can stretch and tear the vaginal corona sans sexual activity, including bike riding, horseback riding, inserting tampons, masturbation and dancing (don't tell the "Footloose" preacher). Weighing that utter uselessness against its cultural impact on women's lives, the hymen might be the most overrated flap of flesh in the human body, the anatomical equivalent of a sexually charged appendix.
But what about the bloody sheets and such, you ask? First, Anna Knöfel from the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education points out over at Scarleteen that the bleeding-during-first-intercourse is yet another facet of virginity mythology that we've accepted as a standard and unnerving feature of the female sexual experience. For many women -- 63 percent according to one small-scale survey -- losing their virginity was neither physically uncomfortable nor messy. Sex educators instead attribute bleeding during coitarche (aka "first sex") to what Michael Castleman at Psychology Today cringingly called "nonsensual, poorly lubricated, piston-like intercourse."
The unpleasantness may also have to do with girls not feeling ready and willing to have sex for the first time. A 2010 study from the Guttmacher Institute found, somewhat unsurprisingly, that girls are less eager than boys to engage in sexual intercourse at the average age of 16. Combine that with public sex education curriculum that solely arms kids against pregnancy and STDs, rather than preparing them for any pleasure, and young women probably don't expect to have much fun doing something most commonly associated with blood and babies. Given the extent of this persistent hymen hype, it's incredible that we lose only our virginity and not our minds as well in the process.