No, virgins don’t have an ‘intact’ hymen — that’s just one of the ‘facts’ set straight by two young doctors who’ve set out to educate women, writes Helen Rumbelow
It is nice that little boys are so proud of their penises. It’s an enthusiasm that never goes away: a lifetime bromance of “check out this little chap” swagger. Their wrinkly tube of erectile tissue gets to be a wingman, with a name, a personality and a lot of reflected glory. Could women ever feel this fantastic about their genitals?
They would, argue two young Norwegian medics, if only they knew the truth. The truth that the medical profession has not exactly covered up, but never bothered to uncover in the first place. So Nina Brochmann and Ellen Stokken Dahl have boldly gone where no man has gone before (I know, um, technically not true, this is a metaphor, bear with me).
In the 20th century male explorers finally reached the North Pole; the depths of the deepest ocean; and all the way to the moon. It has taken until the 21st century for two women to plant their little flags on the uncharted vagina.
“It’s almost as if men from different cultures and historical eras ganged up to find ways of limiting women’s sexuality,” they write in their new book, The Wonder Down Under.
We meet in a soundproofed meeting room. It looks to various nearby colleagues that I may be discussing sales with two fashionable Scandinavians. Instead I am having the most hardcore conversation of my life. At one point I preface a reasonably gross question with, “I don’t know if this is too much information, but...” and they shake their open Norwegian faces at me to signal “no such thing”.
Out of the corner of my eye I catch a senior executive walking by as they are estimating the true size of my clitoris, using hand gestures in the manner of fishermen describing their catch.
After an hour I stagger out of the room a changed woman. As if I’d been let in on mind-blowing secrets. How did I not know this stuff? Just for starters: the entire human race has been misinformed about the hymen. A body part we can easily look at, but have no idea how.
This ignorance seems on a scale with flat-earthism: not just silly, but dangerous. It has been used for millennia — and still is — to judge women’s “purity”, and the whole thing is just a stupid hoax. It would be funny if it wasn’t sad.
I immediately give my colleagues a pop quiz that includes, among other fun sub-categories (you can borrow this for your next family Christmas), female erections. Only one point is scored, and that is by the only vagina-free person in the room. No wonder their TED talk, The Virginity Fraud, which manages to be hilarious and angry and features a hula hoop getting laid, has been viewed more than two million times.
“We were sexual education teachers,” says Brochmann, who is the dark-haired one, and at 30 is a qualified doctor and mother living in Oslo, “and we were spreading the same old myths.” Dahl nods. She is 26, blonde and about to qualify as a doctor. “We misled women by following a medical curriculum that was incorrect even though it was written by doctors. That’s the reason we wrote this book. We started to question these ‘truths’ that get handed down.” Together, they took a deep dive into the research.
The clitoris and the hymen are the sort of north and south of the ignorance, with a lot else in between.
The pair had, during their medical training, spent years volunteering as sexual health teachers in high schools and clinics. They had taught the clitoris “as a little knob”.
“It was only quite far into medical school we realised it was this huge organ,” Brochmann says.
It is about 7cm to 12cm long, extending under the skin in — if I am allowed a poetic bit of symbolism — the shape of a wishbone. Any rumour of a G-spot is actually just feeling the gigantic clitoris from within. If only we could see it, little girls might be boasting about their whoppers in the shower.
It’s the same size as a penis.
“Yes. Exactly the same,” Brochmann says. “And women have seven or eight erections while they sleep, and often have ‘morning glory’ just like men do. They are mostly unaware of this.” Dahl says: “It shows we still focus too much on vaginal sex. It is very empowering for women to understand they have this extremely large erectile organ only to give them pleasure.”
How many doctors, I ask, are aware of the true size of clitorises? Well, says Dahl, “it was news to us. Perhaps most younger doctors know.”
“No,” Brochmann says. “I don’t think they do. And ignorance about the size of the clitoris among doctors is a good symbol of the problem — how women have been under-prioritised in medicine. These things have been known in the medical community for a long time, say 150 years. But it has been taken out of the anatomy books. They are not interested in female sexual health, it is not considered prestigious or important. As long as we are able to produce children, it doesn’t really matter what we can do down there.” It is a theme of their book that female physiology is actually more similar to the male than we understand.
For example, it is a trope of every school biology lesson that the egg waits to be fertilised, while millions of sperm compete to claim her. In fact to be fertilised the egg itself must compete with a thousand other eggs within the ovaries to win the first prize of ovulation, in a close mirror of the sperm’s ordeals.
“We are so happy to view the female as the passive sex, receiving the male,” Brochmann says.
“It’s very easy to talk about the heroic sperm, rushing off into the battlefield to reach the waiting maiden. But the egg is herself an athlete, she is the best egg. Our bodies don’t fit the stories we tell about them. The same with clitorises and hymens.” Ah yes, we come to the nub of it. The hymen. As an example of the greatest misinformation spread by the most experts, it is hard to beat. Present sexual education programmes describe the hymen as some kind of membrane: in their TED talk the pair hold up a hula hoop with clingfilm stretched across to illustrate. That’s what we are constantly told — “We also succumbed to the hymen myth,” they say. There was so little credible research on the hymen they had to consult forensic medical examiners to establish the truth. Medical textbooks are, they say, riddled with errors. It is “hair-raising to think that doctors have shown so little interest in a structure that can cause modern women to lose their honour or their lives”, they write in the book.
In fact, the hymen is a seal formed in female embryos, possibly a redundant piece of evolutionary tissue from our aquatic ancestors. The seal then dissolves before birth, leaving a residual ring. For those who believe — and millions do — that hymens equate to virginity, this means that women lose their virginity in the womb. If a girl has a hymen that looks anything like a “seal” they have a serious medical problem. It looks like a frill around the vagina entrance: in their TED talk they illustrate it with a stretchy scrunchie.
Bizarrely many textbooks describe the hymen as deep within the vagina. “I have no idea why they say that,” Brochmann says.
It’s only further proof of ignorance; the same with the ideas of “breaking” it by riding a bike and all the other things whispered about in sleepovers across the globe.
“The myth is still everywhere,” Dahl says. “We have a list of TV shows and films that talk about the hymen in the wrong way. Everything from Girls to True Blood, Outlander, Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s crazy.” Dahl says she frequently has patients approach her worried about seeing “uneven bumps” and are shocked to be told it is their hymen, there plainly on view. The upshot of all of this is that any kind of “virginity check” is plainly pointless. In 1906 a research study was conducted to test the hymen myth: a doctor examined lifelong prostitutes and virgins and could tell no difference in their hymens. Men, the pair say, love the idea of “popping” a girl: in the TED talk Dahl punches through the clingfilm on the hula hoop and says: “It is easy to say this hoop is not a virgin any more.” Women, though, are not sealed like jars of instant coffee.
Fewer than half of women report bleeding when they first have sex. No one knows which part of the vagina is bleeding — possibly an irritated hymen, possibly not — research is scanty. Possibly being told a fictional part of your anatomy is about to be ruptured by a battering ram makes things worse.
Anyway, why, they ask, is all this medieval absurdity still going on? After their TED talk, now much translated, they have been inundated with desperate messages from women from the Middle East, threatened with violence because their hymen didn’t behave as the textbooks predicted. In the UK doctors do a thriving private trade in “hymenoplasty”, to “re-virginise” women from repressive cultures. What are they actually doing, I ask.
“It’s actually really horrible,” Brochmann says. “They take some skin folds inside the vagina and stitch it so tight that even a small penis must do some damage, must rip it open. Many doctors keep these myths alive by providing these services.” That gets them on to other kinds of plastic surgery women have, such as the “Barbie”, to cut away a woman’s undercarriage to almost nothing.
“When we learn about puberty in school, we hear about how the penis grows. Boys even look forward to it,” Brochmann says. “No one talks about how female genitals get more dominant, change colour. If you saw an adult man with a boy’s tiny penis, you would think, ‘Oh no, what happened?’ But with women it’s the other way around. The ideal of the surgeon is to make labia small, hairless, like a child’s.”
All this doesn’t quite convey the tone of the book. They like to refer to the vagina as the “mouse”, as it is nicknamed in Norwegian (probably more accurate in scale anyway than a cat), and in entirely fond terms. They believed Norway was an open-minded audience — the Norwegian cover displays a full-frontal crotch — but then came the book’s first review.
“The reviewer wrote that after reading this book he never wanted to have sex again,” Dahl says. “I think it was the word ‘discharge’.” They erupt into laughter.
“Lots of women got angry with him, which turned into a kind of PR stunt. But he illustrated the need. If you want to have sex with women, you have to appreciate we are human beings and this is how we are made.”