If the hymen is unrelated to virginity, why do women bleed the first time they have sex?

Ask. Dr. Jen

So why do we bleed after the first time?

@joesqueen03 via TikTok

(This was in response to a video I made on TikTok explaining how the hymen and penis are unrelated and virginity is a social construct, click here to watch)

Quick take…

It is a myth that all women bleed when they have sex with a penis for the first time. Bleeding after first sex only happens to approximately one-third of women, and even then when it does, it is typically just spotting. There are also other causes of bleeding after first sex unrelated to the hymen.

Tell me more…

The hymen is a circumferential membranous fold just inside the vaginal opening, and it is there to protect the infant vagina, which is very sensitive to irritation.

During infancy, the hymen is very tight; this functions to protect the infant vagina from irritants. Remember, we are all incontinent of urine and stool for a few years, and there are no labia or pubic hair to offer physical protection from urine, feces, dirt, and debris. If these substances entered the infant vagina they would lead to intense inflammation and a heavy, irritating discharge.

Thinking about our evolutionary ancestors, they likely sat on the ground a lot more than we did (no chairs), and their vulvas had direct contact with the earth (no diapers or underwear). So, the hymen protected the vagina in infancy and early childhood from all these irritants as well as from urine and fece, as it likely still does today. It is also possible that the hymen we have today has outlived its biological function, like wisdom teeth, and simply remains as an evolutionary vestige. 

Many mammals have hymens. Dogs, cats, cows, and even elephants. This reinforces the idea that the hymen has or once had a biological function — meaning, nothing to do with the social construct of virginity. It not as if tomcats wait for marriage, ya know?

As young girls grow, around the age of two to four, the hymen becomes more pliable and takes on other shapes. When girls go through puberty, estrogen also has an impact. By the teen years, the hymen can have a variety of shapes. It can have clefts or notches (what some people think of when they imagine a hymen that has “broken,” meaning no longer an intact circle), it can be an intact circle and be very flexible, or it may be an intact circle and remain relatively stiff. Some women even have very little hymenal tissue at all.

The hymen can be disrupted (meaning develop a notch or cleft) long before sex happens and 52% of teens who report they have had sex with a penis have an intact hymen, so the hymen is a highly unreliable indicator of first sex. It is simply tissue that had a purpose early on in life and once that purpose is met the shape is no longer important, so evolution was never invested in the shape of the hymen once a child has control of their bowel and bladder. In many ways the hymen is like baby teeth, valuable early on and then discarded when no longer needed.

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Only one-third of women report bleeding during their first sex, but it would be wrong to assume that this bleeding if it occurs is always due to a disruption in the hymen. Here are all the causes:

  • A typical hymen: For some women their first sex with a penis may tear a portion of the hymen (leaving a cleft or notch once it heals). Some women may have tighter or thicker hymens, and for these women bleeding is more likely to occur. As the hymen typically doesn’t have blood vessels, this is usually just spots of blood, and if there is pain, it should be relatively brief for most. 

  • Variations in hymen shape: There are also conditions where the hymen is significantly larger and covers much more of the vaginal opening than typical. This will produce more tissue trauma if this is disrupted during sex. 

  • Lack of lubrication: This could be first-time sex nerves or it could be technique (think, no foreplay and sex is just twist a nipple and stick it in). The friction of a penis on dry tissues can cause abrasions and hence bleeding. 

  • A medical condition: The most common is vaginismus, a condition where the muscles around the vagina are tight and don’t relax during sex. A woman can feel as if she is too tight or too small or her partner may feel as if he is hitting a roadblock. In this situation, as the vaginal canal is tight, there is increased friction leading to abrasions and bleeding for some.

  • Rape: The physical trauma can injure tissues, either by abrasions or even deeper lacerations (cuts).

On a Personal Note…

Most women don’t bleed their first time having sex, and for those who do it is important to remember that not all bleeding is from the hymen. Having this information is important so women understand how their body works. And also so they can be liberated from the harmful, patriarchal myth that the hymen is related to the penis.

The hymen is a few millimeters of tissue that is there to protect the infant vagina, and yet it has controlled the worth of women for thousands of years and still does for many today. It has been twisted into something false as a means of controlling women. That is unacceptable, and those who seek to perpetuate this myth should shut up and take a seat in the back of class.

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