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09 January 2012

Anatomy 101: The Hymen (revisited)

Over at SmartBitches, Sarah has a lovely rant on this topic, so I thought I'd dredge up and repost the one I did back in 2006. I'm really happy to see that others agree with me on this topic, and I'm glad to see it reaching a wider audience. I'd like to recommend a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves to every woman out there. Seriously, we should all own a copy of this book. It should be handed out in health classes in junior high.

The original post

Contrary to what appears to be popular mythology (at least among the writers of romance and erotica) the hymen is not a “barrier” (except in RARE cases that require surgery; 1 in 2000 per Blaustein's Pathology of the Female Genital Tract) nor is it up inside the vaginal canal as it is commonly represented to be in fiction.

It’s a tiny bit of sensitive skin that usually runs along the sides and bottom (along the perineum) of the vaginal opening. Yep, right there on the outside, and it only disappears when a woman gives birth (so it’s not a reliable method of verifying chastity). Fingers, tampons, and usually penises will slide right past it without disturbing it in the least (less than half of all women surveyed report bleeding resulting from their “first time” per Forensic Medicine: Clinical and Pathological Aspects).

This being the case, when a woman has intercourse for the first time the man is not going to encounter some tell-tale barrier membrane that he has to burst through, and even if it were, it would prevent him from inserting his penis at all, he wouldn’t be part way in and then feel it.

I’m tired of encountering anatomically impossible deflowering scenes, so today’s post is my blow for physical accuracy. Am I the only one out there who is amazed that women can be so ignorant about their own bodies? Am I the only one disturbed that editors don’t catch this? I mean come on, this is basic anatomy.

47 Comments:

Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

You know, Kalen, now that you mention it, I do recall many, many anatomically implausable "first time" scenes, in historicals particularly, though fewer now than in the '80's.

And I just read one historical romance where the hero's male body parts (er, one body part in particular) "jerked hungrily toward her." It did this several times, and I started thinking more about the mechanics of that than the story . . .

In historical romance, seems like the consequences of the loss of virginity are more important than the exact details of the deflowering, and I agree, if an author writes about "the act," at least get it right.

What I'm waiting for...that paranormal other-world where loss of the hero's virginity has a social stigma and consequences that are are life changing (and not necessarily in a good way)...

Pam, I bet you have a lot to say on this!

Kathrynn

5:08 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Ha! Hoyden.

Honestly, I just heard this part about the positioning of the hymen last year. LAST YEAR! And I'm no ignorant slut. Wait, maybe I am. Hmm. Anyhoo, maybe I learned too much about my sexuality from stealing my mom's romance novels at an early age. But I also snuck peeks at Our Bodies, Our Selves, so I don't know how I missed the part about the hymen being RIGHT THERE.

Perhaps we're all raised to think of it as something more substantial and therefore it couldn't possibly be right there where we'd notice it.

Anyway, despite the fact that it doesn't disappear until childbirth, it must be significant enough in many women to cause bleeding. There must be some fair amount of tearing or stretching and I assume the (sensitive) man would feel that as resistance. A resistance that would intensify when the, er, increasing circumfrence was, um. . . I mean to say that it would seem as if the resistance occurred a couple of inches in?

5:10 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

5:12 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

(sorry, I forgot to close my italices.) Kathrynn, I'm amazed at the fantastic muscular feats of both male and female body parts in some novels.

5:17 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I'm just amazed by descriptions of intercourse where the guy is already partially inside her and THEN figures out somehow that she's a virgin and "breaks" her hymen. WTF? Dude, if it needed breaking, you already broke it.

Somehow I’d hoped/assumed this would be less common in erotic romance (and that maybe the virgin worship would also be a little less common) but I’ll be damned if I don’t encounter the magic internal hymen all over the spectrum.

6:27 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Well, I'm relieved to say I never thought of the hymen as a bouncy little circle that had to be torpedoed through. *boing, boing*

6:43 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Okay, you guys crack me up. I have to wonder what the biological function of the thing really is. I mean, is it supposed to guard against something? Other than the hero/villain?

It's not something that ever came up in veterinary school. But I do hate the term "maiden" mare. As if a horse cares....

Kathrynn

7:19 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

I have to wonder what the biological function of the thing really is.

YES! Thank you! I have always meant to ask this. Is there any other animal with this special feature? It boggles the mind.

7:41 PM  
Blogger Stacey Kayne said...

Well dang. I sure wish you had posted this BEFORE my final edits. I must have been absent that day in Anatomy, as I had no idea the virginal veil was a myth. Or pehaps I've been far too influenced by Romance ideology.

As for body part nitpicks...some of these heroes are so, uh, well endowed, I have to wonder how they walk straight--anything that takes two hand to cover the circumference is going to rupture something :)

Thanks for the heads-up, Kalen!

Stacey

8:36 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Wow, this is all news to ME. It's true that I never was quite able to visualize this barrier -- but way back a million years ago, it seems to me that me and my girlfriends all reported some blood and some pain...

But now that I think back on it, I bet we all imagined (or expected) MORE blood and MORE pain because we were all thinking in terms of this imaginary barrier.

Which only goes to show how fraught most people's notions of sex are, and how much meaning we impose upon the materiality of our bodies, and how powerful these invented meanings are. (I mean, haven't bloody sheets been a powerful symbol for centuries?)

But I'm also breathing a sigh of relief that I was more anatomically correct than I knew, when I couldn't drum up much enthusiasm for the blood and pain of my one erotic romance virgin's deflowering (Marie-Laure in THE BOOKSELLERS'S DAUGHTER). As I imagined it, she wept a little from the combination of pain, confusion, and inexperience, and then cheered up rather quickly, for the pleasure and the intimacy of the moment.

And then (like me and my girlfriends) turned the force of her attention on how to GET GOOD AT IT. ;-}

Thanks so much, Kalen. This blog is going to be bigtime educational.

10:20 PM  
Anonymous Monica said...

Boy, Kalen, you learn something new everyday. I'm one of the 50% who bled, so I never questioned it much. I think I skipped anatomy 101 anyway.:)

10:40 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

This has got to be at least Anatomy 201!

Lest you all run to delete the dreaded hymen from your manuscripts, I should point out that it varies from woman to woman. A lot of women do have a hymen that partially obstructs the opening. Some women have virtually none at all. And some poor women have the thick, bouncy kind that makes sex nearly impossible and definitely painful. Nowadays they have them surgically removed. Back then? *shudder*

Personally, I fell more toward the bedsheets-as-evidence side. ;-D I don't think it's that unusual.

10:42 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

According to the recent Kinsey movie, (which I liked a lot), Kinsey's wife had to have that procedure, which was one of the things that sparked Kinsey's interest in human sexuality and sex education in the first place.

10:57 PM  
Blogger Laura Vivanco said...

Wikipedia has a lot of information on the hymen, and links to pictures of different kinds (some have pretty patterns). If you don't like detailed anatomical photos and pictures of the vulva, then don't go to this Wiki page. I thought it was very interesting, though. And their page on the clitoris (again, detailed photos/pictures) explains that some women have more visible clitorises (sp??) than others. It's amazing how much variety there can be.

We weren't taught this sort of thing in school either.

2:42 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

The Wikipedia pages are great. And yes, some women do have a hymen that partially covers the opening of the vagina (I'm assuming these are the "bleeders"), but even then it's not on the INSIDE.

As for clitorises, I saw a book years ago that was nothing but portraits of them . . . and yeah, there was a wide wide wide range. It was quite surprising (note, one of my best friend’s mothers is a sex therapist, and pretty famous in that circle, so I’ve seen some pretty wild books laying around her house*GRIN*).

7:33 AM  
Anonymous Michelle said...

Great post, Kalen. More detailed biology classes are definitely in order.

So what were those doctors who examined Princess Diana for virginity before she married her prince checking out, do you think?

8:07 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

They were checking her hymen, but it's a stupid thing to check, cause you can't ACTUALLY tell squat by looking at it. It was a totally outdated, very Victorian thing to have done, IMO. And are we surprised that Britain’s royal family is still mired in Victorian aesthetics and ideals? Un, no. As least I’m not.

It’s like when they check to see if a woman has been raped, SOMETIMES there is evidence forced intercourse (tearing and the like), but it’s almost never conclusive. You can’t PROVE a woman is a virgin by examine her hymen, all you can prove is that she’s never had a baby.

8:24 AM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Another issue of the buckets of blood deflowerings is that most men were uncircumcised. So since the foreskin would be pushed back, the delicate, um, head would be subjected to unseemly painful battering. The image of a squealing hero jumping out of the marriage bed to examine his anatomy by firelight and make sure no lasting damage has occurred is not a pretty one.

A former CP, a qualified nurse once tried to convince me the hymen was stuck somewhere up inside. Nonsense! That particular rumor must have been started by a writer whose lover was an alien with an advance probe.

Janet

10:19 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

So since the foreskin would be pushed back, the delicate, um, head would be subjected to unseemly painful battering.

LOL! This is so freaken funny, Janet.

Foreskins are another thing lots of Americans don't seem to know much about. One of my girlfriends (mind you she was 44 when this happened) called me to say that she thought her new beau was somehow deformed cause his penis had a "turtleneck".

I laughed so hard I dropped the phone.

11:00 AM  
Blogger lacey kaye said...

OMG you ladies are KILLING me.

I didn't know it wasn't inside, either, but my mom made sure to tell me it wasn't likely to break and that for the most part, blood and pain was a myth. At the very least, part of the bygone era when women didn't do the kinds of things I did as a child (and still do, really).

Breathing a sigh of relief I skipped the hymen altogether in my wip...

11:15 AM  
Blogger Laura Vivanco said...

most men were uncircumcised. So since the foreskin would be pushed back, the delicate, um, head would be subjected to unseemly painful battering

So are you saying that the head of a circumcised man's penis isn't sensitive? Surely it would be affected by battering too? Or are you suggesting it would have lost almost all sensation due to keratinisation?

11:41 AM  
Anonymous Michelle said...

Kalen, regarding the Diana virginity test, I think they were just doing it for the stupid look of the thing. They MUST have known it was a useless examination, and it was a degrading and insulting one, too.

11:48 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

You know, I checked around with other vets and none of us can recall ever seeing a hymen in an animal, and know of no reference to it in the scientific veterinary literature. Nor does there appear to be any readily available information on it's presence or absence in non-human primates (monkeys). You would think...

Hmmm, so what the heck is it's function? It's a biological mystery to me....Kalen, anything in any of those books your mother kept around?

12:31 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

It has no purpose.

From Wikipedia

The hymen has no known anatomical function.

During the early stages of fetal development there is no opening into the vagina at all. The thin layer of tissue that covers the vagina at this time usually divides to a certain extent prior to birth, forming the hymen.

An intact hymen, historically called a maidenhead, has been considered a guarantor of virginity in societies that place a high value on female chastity before marriage . . . However, the condition of the hymen is not a reliable indicator of whether a woman past puberty has actually engaged in sexual intercourse.

A tear to the hymen, medically referred to as a "transection," can be seen in some women or girls after first penetration. Bleeding does not always occur following transection. The blood that is sometimes observed after first penetration can be due to tearing of the hymen, but it can also be from injury to nearby tissues. Post-injury, injuries to the hymen and surrounding tissues often quickly heal, leaving the hymenal tissue looking as if there had been no injury at all.

Once a girl reaches puberty, the hymen tends to become quite elastic. It is not possible to determine whether a woman uses tampons or not by examining her hymen. Only 43% of women report bleeding the first time they had sex; which means the hymen likely stretched enough that it didn't tear in the other 57% of women.


I imagine the reason you don't find any report of it in animals is that there is no “value” assigned to the virginity of nonhuman species, so there's no reason to basically name a body part that exists more as an ideological construct than anything else.

12:50 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

So are you saying that the head of a circumcised man's penis isn't sensitive?

I’m not sure that “keratinisation” is the proper term, but yes, according to everything I’ve ever read an intact penis is much more sensitive than a circumcised one.

The foreskin itself is very sensitive, and the fact that it’s been left in place to do its job of protecting the sensitive head and glands means that the entire organ is more sensitive.

12:57 PM  
Blogger Laura Vivanco said...

I’m not sure that “keratinisation” is the proper term

I read it in a couple of places, including this page about circumcision damage. That has explicit pictures of various penises, so again, if anyone doesn't want to see pictures, don't go there.

but yes, according to everything I’ve ever read an intact penis is much more sensitive than a circumcised one.

I've read that too, but I would have thought for an uncircumcised man pain would occur if the foreskin was pulled too far back during intercourse, or pulled too roughly (there's one picture on that site of how far a foreskin can be retracted, and I can only think that if that happened roughly, it would be painful). But if the head of the penis was battering away at a hymen of the sort that does almost completely cover the entry to the vagina, I'm not sure it would be worse for an uncircumcised man, as surely the glans would be protected by the foreskin? Also I'm imagining that the hymen would be a sort of bouncy barrier, rather than a really hard one, but perhaps it wouldn't be.

This makes me wonder - have any romance writers ever consulted a gynacologist for information about hymens and other details? I know writers sometimes double-check other facts, but is this the sort of 'fact' that doesn't get checked? Presumably not, since as you point out, Kalen, novels often include incorrect descriptions of the hymen. Thanks for setting the record straight - I've had an interesting time googling for more info.

Somehow I can't imagine anyone would want to write a scene with the hero in agonies due to being unable to penetrate the heroine's hymen. But perhaps someone would.

1:25 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Well the dictionary definition certainly didn't seem to make it the right word. LOL!

Oh, well.

The foreskin does not cover the glands of an erect penis. It rolls back (folds back; not quite sure what word to use to describe it) exposing the head, glands and most of the shaft (so it wouldn’t protect anything were there any “battering” taking place. And I’m not sure how much “battering” would be required to break an imperforate hymen (and I’m grateful for my ignorance!). I’ll have to see if I can get my friend Scott (whose obcession is the history of surgery) to tell me what he thinks would have been done about an imperforate hymen in days gone by . . .

2:49 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

You guys are NOT putting me in the mood to write a sex scene, FYI. Too many cringes going on here!

3:15 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Nah, baby. We're letting you know that unless you WANT to make your heroine one of those poor girls who's 1 in 2000 it's ok to not make her first time suck.

Mine sure didn't! Ok, that was TMI, but I'm leaving it in. LOL!

3:30 PM  
Blogger lacey kaye said...

Kalen, you are a goddess.

I think it's time for me to go home now!

3:35 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Ah, man, Kalen look what Wikipedia says:

Hymens in animals
Only horses and humans have hymens.

I'd sure like to see that primary reference! I've posted this on some vet loops...members keep asking me why I am asking...it's er, hard to explain.

But ya learn something every day, just like our blog announcement says: useless but fun facts!

Kathrynn

3:37 PM  
Blogger Laura Vivanco said...

The foreskin does not cover the glands of an erect penis

According to this page, 'How much of the glans is covered by the skin is very variable. Still more variable is the coverage remaining when the penis is erect'. On this page which is another one with lots of anatomical photos, there's a photo, right down at the bottom, of an erect penis with the glans completely covered by the foreskin and it says that 'For many guys there is enough loose skin to allow the foreskin to cover the head of the penis while erect, even without something holding it in place'.

Imperforate's a good word. I'll try to remember it. Not that it's likely to come up in conversation very often ;-)

3:42 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Things "can" and "may" and "might" but in my personal experience they usually "don't". Just as women usually “don’t” have a hymen that is a “barrier”.

Hell, anyone who’s ever seen Puppetry of the Penis knows that the foreskin is an amazing thing, and that it’s capable of some pretty impressive maneuvers. LOL!

3:58 PM  
Anonymous Jan said...

I had an aunt that had to have her hymen cut away surgically, but in all honesty I never knew exactly where it was and because it wasn't an issue for me I never researched it. Ugh, I should've. Anatomy wasn't taught in depth in highschool and my mother's version was straight out of a Victorian manual, lol. Thankfully I'm not sexually repressed, nor was my virgin heroine in my March release. At least now I know the facts, and knowledge is power. :)

8:39 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

but in all honesty I never knew exactly where it was and because it wasn't an issue for me I never researched it.

I think the location has become a romance urban myth. In some book, a long time ago, a writer got this aspect of anatomy tragically wrong . . . someone else read it, internalized it, and then regurgitated it in her book, and so on. And now this false impression of how the female body works has taken on a life of its own.

If my friend Scott finds anything in his historical medical books I'll post again.

8:51 AM  
Anonymous Alice Valdal said...

Perhaps the location of the hymen on the outside explains the side-saddle. Women were not supposed to ride astride because it could break the hymen and render them an un-virgin. In fact, I'm sure I've read romance novels where horseback riding was given as the excuse to allay a grooms suspicions on the wedding night.
Alice V

8:58 AM  
Blogger Lynne Simpson said...

Wow, what a topic this would be for an RWA National workshop! ;-)

Thanks for the information, Kalen!

10:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks so much to Kalen for bringing the subject to light and all the others who expanded it and provided links to some really fascinating info and pics.

10:59 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Wow, what a topic this would be for an RWA National workshop!

Oh, god . . . I've already had to explain to a horrified room full of women what autoerotic asphyxiation is (in connection to the wearing of corsets), and I've had to have looooooooong discussion about how we really just don't know what women pre-1850 did when they had their periods. I'm not sure I could handle a workshop on hymens and foreskins, but it might be fun to propose all the same! LOL!

11:40 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Perhaps the location of the hymen on the outside explains the side-saddle.

I've never seen that argument put forth (at least not before the Victorian era). The main reason I've seen for why women “couldn't” ride astride was that their thighs were too round to grip the saddle (LOL!).

From what I’ve read sidesaddle became "the way women rode" in England simply because Elizabeth I preferred to ride that way, and when you've got a queen that powerful everyone else imitates her. By the end of her reign it had simply become entrenched.

I do know that one of the many ways that Marie Antoinette scandalized France was riding astride in breeches! She even had a portrait of herself done in this mode.

11:58 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

My friend Scott did some quick and dirty research and got back to me. He's going to do a longer, more detailed post on his own blog (which I'll post a link to) but here are the highlights of his email to me:

It seems that imperforated hymens (as in a complete seal) can open up during puberty, that there is a similar function with how men's foreskins attach to the crown and also loosen at puberty.

And here's a bit about "hymens" in other species:

I found journal articles identifying hymen-like membranes in elephants and rhinoceroses! I haven't looked to verify the claim that whales, lemurs, and guinea pigs also have hymens (or something similar).

Which would only make sense, as the embryonic forms of most mammals are very similar and the "hymen" is just a result of the embryo forming and becoming female. I honestly can’t imagine that formation of the perineum differs much from one mammal to another.

1:53 PM  
Blogger American Monarchist said...

@Kathrynn Dennis:

What I'm waiting for...that paranormal other-world where loss of the hero's virginity has a social stigma and consequences that are are life changing (and not necessarily in a good way)...

It's been written! The title is Ritual of Proof and it's very good and very amusing.

6:37 PM  
Blogger Charity Girl said...

Funnily enough, I read about this in Beyond Heaving Bosoms just last week & I'm ashamed to say it was news to me! So startling was the revelation that I ended up discussing the topic on a girls' night out and lo! It was news to all of them too. And everyone of them had been deflowered at some point without realising the external hymen thing. That's what comes of learning about your own anatomy from fiction!

1:41 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I'm frequently shocked by how many women this is news to (and I'd say it was news to almost everyone I've ever had this discussion with except the daughter of the sex therapist).

1:59 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Since I think it was Laura who brought it up -- trust me -- circumcised men also have very sensitive penis heads! It isn't just the uncircumcised who might get battered and bruised, as Janet pointed out.

I, too, grew up thinking that the hymen was some ephemeral barrier that somehow could get punctured or ruptured, but that of course that could happen due to exercise such as horseback riding, so there might be no blood even on a virgin's wedding night. And I attended a progressive private school and this would have been the sort of subject that I would NOT have slept through during 9th grade Biology class, so I'm fairly sure the topic was never covered and there was no mythbusting done, let alone explanation during any of the sex-ed classes in 7th or 8th grade, either.

I'm glad at least I've never written a scene with a bouncy bouncy hymen in it. But ... if the bysted hymen is a busted myth, where, then DOES all the blood come from (thinking of all the cultures, including all the centuries of royal marriages as well) that ran in to check the bedclothes on The Morning After?

2:33 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2:33 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

Soft tissue damage (exacerbated by not enough foreplay and hasty or rough intercourse).

7:15 AM  

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