The hymen is a thin piece of tissue that a person might have at the opening of their vagina. For some, it hurts when their hymen stretches or breaks, while others do not feel it happen.
Many believe that the hymen breaks when a person has penetrative sex for the first time — this is not necessarily true. Some females do not have hymens. If a person has one, it may wear down gradually during other activities.
In this article, we describe the hymen, what can happen to it during sexual intercourse for the first time, and what to do if sex becomes painful.
The hymen is a thin piece of tissue located at the vaginal opening. The shape can vary. Also, not everyone with a vagina has one.
The hymen can break, tear, or stretch for a number of reasons, including sexual activity.
But before a person has their first sexual experience, the hymen may already have torn, stretched, or worn down to some extent.
Here are some types of hymen:
This type of hymen sits around the edges of the vaginal opening, with space in the middle for menstrual blood to flow. It is one of the more common types of hymen.
The half-moon or crescentic hymen is another common type. It forms a crescent shape, covering part of the vaginal opening. These vary in size.
A septate hymen is a thin piece of tissue that runs across the middle of the vaginal opening, creating what looks like two openings. A person with this type of hymen has regular menstrual blood flow, but they may be unable to use a tampon or menstrual cup.
An imperforate hymen completely covers the opening of the vagina. This is rare, occurring in 1 in 2,000 people. People with this type of hymen do not have standard periods.
A doctor may recommend minor surgery to remove the hymen, and the medical name for this procedure is a hymenectomy.
A microperforate hymen covers most of the vaginal opening except for a very small hole, through which menstrual blood can flow.
A person with a microperforate hymen may not be able to use tampons or menstrual cups.
This type of hymen covers the vaginal opening but has several small holes. Menstrual blood can flow out of the vagina, but a person cannot use a tampon or cup.
Some people mistakenly think that a broken or absent hymen can only result from penetrative sex. This is not correct.
The hymen can break, tear, or stretch during many activities. Some examples include:
- horseback riding
- using tampons or menstrual cups
- a gynecologist conducting a pelvic exam
Also, some people believe that the state of a person’s hymen indicates whether they are a virgin. Neither the size of the hymen or the vagina reliably shows whether someone has had penetrative sex.
It is important to remember that virginity is a social construct, not a medical term. It tends to refer to penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex between males and females, and it leaves out other forms of sex, and so, other sexualities.
Myths about virginity can cause damage. In the past and the present, people have used virginity as a measure of how morally pure or valuable females are. In some communities, failure to prove virginity can have serious consequences.
What happens to the vagina the first time someone has sex depends on several factors, such as:
- whether they have a hymen
- the shape of their hymen
- whether it has already stretched or torn
- the type of sexual activity
If a person has a hymen, it may stretch or tear the first time they have penetrative sex. But it may not, especially if it has already worn down due to other activities.
If the hymen does break or stretch, this can hurt, and it may cause minor bleeding. But many people have a pleasurable first experience with this type of sex. It all depends on the person and their body.
It is also important to recognize the other factors that can cause pain during sex, including:
- low levels of lubrication
- nervousness, which can cause the muscles around the vagina to tense up
- allergic reactions to condoms or lubricant, which can cause burning or stinging
- urinary tract infections
- other lower genital infections, such as yeast infections or sexually transmitted infections (STIs) — some of which can transmit through oral sex
Feeling comfortable and prepared for the first time can help prevent some potential causes of pain.
Below are some ways that people can get ready for their first sexual experience. These strategies do not guarantee a painless experience, but they can help people feel more comfortable, relaxed, and prepared.
Masturbating can help a person become familiar with their body and what they like and dislike. This can help them communicate with their partner during sex.
If someone’s partner has had sex before, it is best to use a barrier method as a precaution. This might involve using a male or female condom, both of which also prevent the transmission of STIs.
Voice any concerns
Anyone who feels nervous should discuss it with their partner. The partner may be able to provide reassurance or may feel nervous too. Being open and honest can help put people at ease and bring them closer together.
Get enthusiastic consent
Sex should be a fun, enjoyable experience for everyone involved. A person should be sure that they want to have sex before they begin and get enthusiastic consent from their partner.
Foreplay and lubrication
Foreplay can help stimulate the vagina to secrete a liquid that provides lubrication. Some refer to this as “getting wet.” A person can also use store-bought lubricants.
Both natural and synthetic lubricants reduce the friction of the penis entering the vagina. They also make it easier for the penis to slide in and out.
For people who use condoms, it is important to choose water-based lubricants because oil-based lubricants can break condoms. An older study, from 1989, suggests that exposure to mineral oils can cause a latex condom to break in as little as 1 minute.
Take it slow
Getting into sex gradually and slowly can help the vaginal muscles relax, and help the person get accustomed to the sensation of penetration.
If the hymen breaking or stretching causes pain, a person can try:
- wrapping an ice pack in a clean cloth and placing it near the vaginal opening
- sitting in a cool bath
- taking over-the-counter pain medications, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol)
- avoiding having penetrative sex until the pain has faded
If the pain persists, it may indicate a health issue that requires treatment.
If a person has difficulty using tampons or menstrual cups, they should talk to a doctor.
This may indicate that the person has a small vaginal opening due to a less common type of hymen. The doctor may recommend a hymenectomy to make the opening bigger.
Also, anyone who has severe or persistent pain or bleeding during or after sex should speak to a doctor.
In addition, it is important to discuss any symptoms that may indicate an STI with a doctor. These include:
- itchy genitals
- genital sores or a rash
- unusual vaginal discharge
- painful urination
The hymen is a thin piece of tissue that partially covers the vaginal opening. There are several types of hymen, and not everyone with a vagina has one.
The hymen can stretch or tear during a range of activities, such as doing gymnastics or using tampons. An absent, stretched, or torn hymen does not show that a person has had penetrative sex.
Some people with hymens have pain during their first penetrative sexual experience. Others do not. Taking it slow, engaging in foreplay, using lubrication, and having open communication can help people relax and enjoy their first time.