Background information


How can you tell if a woman has had sex? «You can’t,» says sex therapist Dania Schiftan. A conversation about the absurdly high value of female virginity and the myth of the hymen.

Whether you’ve had any sexual experiences or not is your business alone – or so you’d think. Many women are, in fact, not granted this privacy. Sexologist and psychotherapist Dania Schiftan explains how the concept of female virginity is instrumentalised to this day, the devastating consequences this can have on those affected, and how they try to cope.

Dania, come to think of it, what exactly is a virgin?
Dania Schiftan: In the past, the term was used synonymously with «maiden», meaning an unmarried woman. At the time, it was assumed she hadn’t had sex. Today, we use the term «virgin» colloquially to describe a person of either sex who hasn’t yet had any sexual experiences with another person. When speaking about women, this is often coupled with the concept of being untouched, of sexual innocence or immaculateness.

That all sounds quite antiquated.
That’s because it is. After all, female virginity is a cultural concept with no medical basis. It arose from the religious-patriarchal intention to control female sexuality. The suppression of the sexual autonomy of women and girls unfortunately persists to this day and can be found in virtually all world religions.

To what extent is the medical basis missing here?
Anatomically, virginity can’t be proved at all. Nevertheless, the so-called hymen is often mentioned in this context and is supposed to make it possible to tell if a woman has already had sexual intercourse. By the way, the hymen is sometimes referred to as the virginal membrane.

What’s the issue with the term «virginal membrane»?
First, it suggests that the hymen is a kind of skin, and second, that only virgins still have one. Neither is correct. The hymen is not a piece of skin that seals the vaginal entrance like cling film.

So, what is it?
You can think of the hymen as a thin ring of tissue that serves no specific purpose. Similar to a scrunchie. The hymen normally has a stretchy opening that can adapt to a tampon or penis, for example. Without this opening, women wouldn’t be able to menstruate. This is why the hymen can’t be used to prove whether a woman has already had sex or not.

That really doesn’t have anything in common with a piece of skin. How come some women bleed the first time when nothing’s tearing?
Only about half of all women bleed the first time they have sex. And, contrary to the prevailing misconception, the hymen ruptures during the first time only in 30 per cent of all cases – what’s more, it doesn’t disappear. The hymen remains with the woman throughout her life. The bleeding can have many causes. For example, it often occurs due to tears in the vaginal wall or when there’s too little lubrication.

So, virginity isn’t a physical quality?
Correct. If we continue to speak of the virginal membrane, we’re giving it a meaning it doesn’t have. And we’re keeping alive a myth with far-reaching consequences. Namely, one that hampers equality and puts pressure on women worldwide.

What are the consequences of this kind of leverage on women?
In many parts of the world, virginity still defines a woman’s value. And I mean literally – for example, in the form of high bride prices. Furthermore, the high value placed on the concept of virginity encourages forced and child marriages. Until recently, for instance, the Indonesian military used a two-finger test to screen female recruits for virginity. An absolutely absurd practice. This obsession with virginity prevents women from exploring their sexuality, discovering it for themselves and living it out freely. For fear of irrevocably breaking something, many women don’t dare to use tampons, try vibrators or even simply insert their finger into their vagina. Not to mention the more drastic measures women take in their distress to provide supposed proof of their virginity.

Such as?
In India, women work with blood capsules. They’ll insert these into the vagina before their wedding night to release a red fluid. And there are women with a Muslim background in this country who even undergo hymen reconstruction.

How can you reconstruct something that doesn’t even break during sex?
In so-called revirginisation, the opening in the hymen is artificially made smaller to make it bound to tear during sexual intercourse. So, in fact, it’s not a reconstruction, but a new construction.

On the other hand, no one seems interested in whether a man has already had sex ...
For them, it tends to be the other way around. If they have too little or no sex, they’re called «limp-dick» or «faggot». We women, on the other hand, are considered pure and untainted. But if we sleep with several sexual partners, we’re dubbed «whore», «hooker», «slut», «tramp», «easy» and so on. Men, in that case, are «players», «playboys» or «womanisers».

Sounds like there’s a bit of pressure on men, too?
Many men feel worthless or ashamed if they haven’t had any sexual experiences by a certain age. Some then consider paying for sex in order to finally feel a part of the conversation and like they belong.

When I was a teenager, my favourite Disney stars would wear so-called purity rings to keep up their image. In the context of the Christian faith, this kind of ring represents the promise to save yourself for marriage. Things have changed a bit since then. In your opinion, what meaning and symbolism is still attached to sexual «innocence» in Western society today?
Expressions that remain common in our vernacular say a lot about us as a society. Let’s take «innocence» – it contains the concept of guilt. In other words, the notion of sexual morality that’s been shaped by Christianity.

Wow, I’d never noticed that.
Sex is something dirty, lewd; something to be ashamed of and to take place in a committed relationship only; something to «save yourself» for. True to the Christian motto «true love waits». Speaking of which, the white wedding dress is a symbol of this «purity». Just like the wedding ring is a sign of commitment to one person only and of sharing sexuality exclusively with that one right person. Even though we’re much more open and free today, such supposed values are still anchored in our minds. They’re passed down through generations.

For the last 15 years, Dania Schiftan has been working as a sexologist and psychotherapist from her own practice in Zurich. She also works as a psychologist for Parship. You can find out more about Dania and her job in this interview:

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Header image: cottonbro studio via Pexels

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As a massive Disney fan, I see the world through rose-tinted glasses. I worship series from the 90s and consider mermaids a religion. When I’m not dancing in glitter rain, I’m either hanging out at pyjama parties or sitting at my make-up table. P.S. I love you, bacon, garlic and onions. 

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