The hymen is a thin layer of tissue appearing in the vagina of many female mammals, including humans. In women, this tissue is usually present in childhood and early adolescence, but can be torn away by various activities, including sexual intercourse. For this reason, many cultures associate this vaginal barrier with virginity, sexual activity, and the passage to womanhood. Like many aspects of female sexuality, however, this tissue has often been poorly understood throughout history.
Like fingerprints or ear shape, the hymen can vary greatly from person to person. In general, it forms a partial barrier across the opening of the vagina, but it's biological purpose is not known. Vaginal penetration can remove this barrier, and it is usually accompanied by minor discomfort and blood loss. In some women, however, the tissue can remain intact even after childbirth.
Historically, the presence of the hymen has often been used as proof of a woman’s virginity. This is particularly true in cultures that link a woman’s virginity with her worth as a person, her moral standing, or her suitability for marriage. Conversely, its absence has been seen as proof of sexual activity and even as legal evidence in cases of sexual abuse or rape. In reality, there are a number of activities that can remove this layer of tissue, including tampon use, medical examination, and masturbation. Strenuous activities, such as horseback riding, may also break it, although the Kinsey Institute states there is no research to confirm this.
Nevertheless, the tissue continues to be linked with the loss of virginity and the onset of sexual activity, even in the 21st century. An archaic English euphemism for the structure is the maidenhead, as its presence was believed to confirm a woman was a maiden, or a virgin. In modern times, the blood resulting from the breaking of the hymen led to another nickname, the cherry. Once considered vulgar, the word has passed into common usage as a term for both the structure and the state of virginity itself.
Some women may be born without this vaginal barrier, and in others, it may be so large that it effectively blocks off the vaginal entrance. These women may require its surgical removal to allow menstrual flow and normal vaginal health. The 2004 film Kinsey, about the life of the famed sex researcher, reveals that his wife initially suffered from this condition. According to the film, this discovery was one of the events that inspired Dr. Kinsey’s groundbreaking research into sexuality.