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Hymen or Vaginal Corona?
The hymen is not a membrane that partially covers the vaginal opening?
After 24 years of nursing experience, the majority of this in women’s health, I have always thought the hymen was a thin membrane that partially covers the vaginal opening and could in some cases be torn by having sex or doing sport. That is what it says in the anatomy books anyway.
So I was fascinated to hear about some exciting work being carried out by the RFSU (the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education). The RFSU are actively challenging and attempting to dispel myths around this definition of the hymen. They are carrying out informative campaigns in schools, educating professionals who work with women, and have renamed the ‘hymen’, now calling it the ‘vaginal corona’ (slidkrans in Swedish). Vaginal Corona has since been recognised by the Language Council of Sweden as a new word (Cinthio 2015).
I decided to look into this further to see if they were onto something or not.
What is a hymen?
Historically the hymen has been described as a thin membrane that partially covers the vaginal entrance (Wilson 1987). It has also been described as a ‘circumferential skin structure composed of non hair-bearing skin’ that varies greatly in terms of size, shape, form and presence (O’Connell et al 2008). The vaginal opening changes in appearance from birth to puberty and is strongly influenced by oestrogenic factors (Stewart 2011).
Others describe the hymen as an embryological remnant that mostly disappears or ‘perforates’ during the fifth gestational month (Stewart, 2011) or before the female child is born (Dane et al, 2007).
Statistically, 1 in 1000 to 1 in 10,000 girls are born with a ‘hymen imperforate’, (Parazzini and Cecchetti 1990) which is when the ‘membrane’ covering the vaginal entrance has not perforated in the fifth gestational month (Stewart, 2011) .
What do the RFSU say about the hymen?
“Known by the established term “hymen,” the vaginal corona is the subject of many myths and misunderstandings. The most important of these is the notion that a woman’s vaginal opening is covered by a membrane that ruptures on penetration. This is incorrect. There is no such membrane. RFSU wishes to dispel the myths and promote knowledge of the true facts. In this booklet, we aim to give you a more accurate idea of what you will find just inside the vaginal opening of every woman.”
You can download the booklet as a PDF here: ‘Vaginal corona: Myths surrounding virginity – your questions answered’. The content in the booklet has been reviewed by Lena Marions, gynaecologist at KI and Södersjukhuset.
What and where is the vaginal corona?
The vaginal corona is located 1 to 2 cm inside the vaginal opening (RFSU 2009). The vaginal opening is encircled by elastic folds of mucous tissue, individually shaped in every female (H. Cinthio 2015).
What anatomy and gynaecology textbooks say
There is no mention of the term ‘vaginal corona’ in any of the medical text books I sourced. However many of these were written years before the term and concept had been recognised. I am informed by the midwives at RFSU that it is discussed in two gynaecology books (Lundberg and Löfgren-Mårtensson 2010 and Landgren 2011).
The hymen (or vaginal corona) and virginity
Bleeding on the night of the wedding was, and still is in some cultures, thought to be ‘proof’ of virginity and a sign of a ruptured hymen. However, this theory is being challenged by medical doctors and academics who believe it is a widespread myth (Mernissi, 1982; Welchmann and Hossein, 2005; Essizoglu et al, 2011).
According to Essén et al (2010), factors that can increase the likelihood of bleeding include:
- forced sex
- lack of lubrication
- physical anomalies
- if the girl is very young
Voluntary sexual intercourse seldom leaves any visible changes.
If there is bleeding then it will be from minor ruptures in the mucous folds and there may be discomfort which resolves within 24 hours (RFSU 2009). It is now believed that the majority of women do not bleed during their first vaginal intercourse (H. Cinthio 2015).
Consequently virginity is not an anatomical characteristic that can be verified by a gynaecological examination but is viewed by some writers as a sociocultural construct that puts women in a subordinated position to men, (Christianson and Eriksson, 2011; van Moorst et al, 2012) which in turn leads to health disparities (Shalhoub-Kevorkian, 2005; Eich, 2010).
Can sport and physical activity break the hymen / vaginal corona?
Some medical literature says that the vaginal corona can be torn during sport or exercise (Goodyear-Smith et al 1998 and Adams et al 2004). However, more recent literature reports that physical activity does not rupture the vaginal opening (Christianson M, and Eriksson C 2013).
Should we stop using the word hymen?
This is a very emotive and complex subject. Unfortunately, most of the more recent literature is written by academics and medics in Sweden, so there is little available in English.
The term ‘hymen’ is well known. Far more people search online for information about the hymen than search ‘vaginal corona’. Our own FAQ asks ‘Will the Mooncup break my hymen?’ because that is the question people ask. Changes to language can take a long time. Will other countries follow in the footsteps of Sweden? Watch this space!
Read more on the Mooncup Blog
Adams JA, Botash AS, Kellogg N (2004) Differences in hymenal morphology between adolescent girls with and without a history of consensual sexual intercourse. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 158:280–285
Christianson M, and Eriksson C (2011) ‘A girl thing’-perceptions concerning the word hymen among young women and men in Sweden. J Midwifery Women’s Health 56(2): 167–72
Christianson M, and Eriksson C. Myths and misconceptions: Midwives’ perception of the vaginal opening or hymen and virginity British Journal of Midwifery • February 2013 • Vol 21, No 2
Cinthio H ‘‘You go home and tell that to my dad!’’ Conflicting Claims and Understandings on Hymen and Virginity Sexuality & Culture (2015) 19:172–189
Dane C, Dane B, Erginbas M, Cetin A (2007) Imperforate hymen: a rare cause of abdominal pain. Two cases and review of the literature. J Pediatr Adolesc Gynecol 20: 245–7
Eich T (2010) A tiny membrane defending ‘us’ against ‘them’: Arabic Internet debate about hymenorraphy in Sunni Islamic law. Cult Health Sex 12(7): 755–69
Essén B, Blomkvist A, Helström L, Johnsdotter S (2010) The experience and responses of Swedish health professionals to patients requesting virginity restoration (hymen repair). Reprod Health Matters 18(35): 38–46
Essizoglu A, Yasan A, Akgun Yildirim et al (2011) Double standard for traditional value of virginity and premarital sexuality in Turkey: a university students case. Women Health 51: 136–50
Goodyear-Smith FA, Laidlaw TM (1998) Can tampon-use cause hymen changes in girls who have not had sexual intercourse? A review of the literature. Forensic Sci Int 94:147–153
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Mernissi F (1982) Virginity and patriarchy. Int J Women’s Stud 5: 183–91
O’Connell HE, Rahman M, Cleeve J (2008) The anatomy of the distal vagina: towards unity. J Sex Med 5: 1883–91
Parazzini F, Cecchetti G. The frequency of imperforate hymen in northern Italy. Int J Epidemiol. 1990 Sep. 19(3):763-4
Shalhoub-Kevorkian N (2005) Imposition of virginity testing: a life-saver or a license to kill? Soc Sci Med 60: 1187–96
Stewart S (2011) Hymenal characteristics in girls with and without a history of sexual abuse. J Child Sex Abuse 20: 521–36
Van Moorst B, van Lunsen RHW, van Dijken DKE, Salvatore C (2012) Backgrounds of women applying for hymen reconstruction, the effect of counselling on myths and misunderstandings about virginity, and the results of hymen reconstruction. European J Contracept Reprod Health Care 17: 93–105
Welchmann L, Hossain S (2005) Honour. Crimes Paradigms and Violence Against Women. Zed Books
Wilson K (1987) Ross and Wilson Anatomy and Physiology in health and illness, sixth ed.