This Is What A Hymen Actually Does And Doesn't Do

Gynaecologists assemble to bust some myths on the hymen, following rapper T.I.'s comments about his daughter.

Rapper T.I. made headlines recently following the revelation that he takes his teen daughter to the gynaecologist every year to “check her hymen” to ensure she’s still a virgin.

The father-of-six revealed on the Ladies Like Us podcast that he takes Deyjah Harris to see a gynaecologist after her birthday every year and proudly added that as of her 18th, her hymen was “still intact”. FYI, the hymen is a thin membrane located at the opening of the vagina.

T.I. said he kept up with this ritual to protect his daughter: “I think that most kids, man, in hindsight, looking back, they always thank their parents for not allowing them to damage themselves as much as they could have.”

The rapper’s comments went down terribly on social media. Several weeks later, during an interview with Jada Pinkett Smith, T.I. addressed the backlash, insisting his comments were “terribly misconstrued and misconceived”, adding: “From a place of truth I began to embellish and exaggerate.”

Gynaecologist Dr Jen Gunter, best known for debunking the health advice of Goop and other brands, described his comments as “horrible on so many levels”.

It’s clear we need to do some hymen myth-busting for T.I. – as well as anyone else who wants a little clarity on the subject. So let’s begin.

Myth 1: The hymen starts off entirely closed, then ‘breaks’.

People tend to think of the hymen as a flat bit of skin draped across the entire vaginal opening which “breaks” when penetrated. The reality is that some people don’t even have a hymen, while for others it’s actually more like a “fringe of tissue”, Carol Roye, a nursing professor at Hunter College and nurse practitioner, tells Our Bodies Our Selves.

Most hymens have a hole big enough for period blood to come out of and for a woman to use tampons comfortably. But just as people have different body shapes and sizes, hymens come in different shapes and sizes too, and some people naturally have hymens that are more open than others. (You can find an illustration of different hymen shapes here – but it most commonly looks like a half moon.)

The hymen can “stretch or tear”, says Intimina’s gynaecologist Dr Shree Datta. However, the hymen cannot regenerate.

Rapper T.I.
Rapper T.I.

Myth 2: The hymen exists as a marker of virginity.

This is incorrect. The hymen is actually a very important bit of tissue for babies.

As Dr Jen Gunter explains in a Twitter thread on the topic, it is more rigid at birth and, for the first three years of a child’s life, works to keep urine and faeces out of the vagina. This is needed because the infant vagina “lacks oestrogen so is very sensitive to irritants”.

As a child gets older, it becomes less important, says Dr Gunter. “When most children become continent coincides with the time the hymen starts to take on different shapes and flexibility because evolution no longer cares,” she adds, likening the hymen to baby teeth. “It served a biological purpose for a narrow developmental window and then, when no longer needed, is discarded.”

Myth 3: Sex is the only thing that stretches the hymen.

There are lots of activities besides sex which can stretch a hymen – these include riding bikes, doing sports or putting something in the vagina, like a finger, moon cup or tampon.

Myth 4: Checking the hymen is a sound way to tell if someone is a virgin.

Some people think you can tell if a girl or woman has had sex if the hymen is stretched open. That’s not the case. “If the hymen is not intact this does not mean that a girl or woman is not a virgin,” says Professor Janice Rymer, consultant gynaecologist and vice president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

What’s more, the practice of “virginity testing” – also known as hymen testing or ’two-finger” testing – to determine whether a woman or girl has had vaginal intercourse, is a highly problematic and patriarchal practice.

“There is no way of determining whether a girl or woman has had sexual activity. The harmful, intrusive and discriminatory practice of virginity testing is unscientific, medically unnecessary and unreliable,” says Professor Rymer.

“It is recognised by the United Nations as a violation of a girl or woman’s human rights and is harmful to physical, psychological and social well-being,” she says. “It is a social, cultural and political issue, and its elimination needs a comprehensive societal response, supported by health professionals.”