A hymen by any other name

Swedish sex educators rechristen religious fundamentalists' favorite female body part

By Kate Harding
December 8, 2009 10:09PM (UTC)
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"The mythical status of the hymen has caused far too much harm for far too long," begins a press release from RFSU, the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education. Indeed it has. Broadsheet has written before about the Artificial Virginity Hymen -- a kit that helps a woman fake bleeding when she has intercourse -- and hymenoplasty, in which the hymen is sewn up, so that any man still ignorant enough to believe a hymen can only be broken during sex and that a woman will always bleed the first time will be reassured that he is participating in a deflowering. The popularity of virginity faking highlights the devastating consequences of "the mythical status of the hymen," especially among religious fundamentalists. As Tracy Clark-Flory said in the former post, "If a woman in the Middle East fails to bleed on her wedding night, she can face shame, abuse and even death" -- and as Carol Lloyd said in the latter, "lest we get too high on our horse (equestrian sport being another common hymen-ripping recreation) we should invoke our own recent cults of the virgin -- most notably thousands of Christian youth pledging to become 'Reborn Virgins' and then pretending that they never took the oath." The importance of an intact hymen is a cross-cultural crock.

Last spring, RFSU produced an educational booklet aiming to dispel misinformation about virginity, which gave the hymen a new, more precise, Swedish name. According to Åsa Regnér, the organization's secretary general, "many people commented that it was good to finally have a word that accurately described this body part." So when the RFSU folks decided to translate the book into three other languages -- Arabic, Sorani and English -- they also decided to rechristen the hymen in all of them. Says the press release, "Etymologically, the term hymen comes from the Greek word for membrane. In Swedish, the hymen used to be called mödomshinna, which translates literally as 'virginity membrane.' In fact, there is no brittle membrane, but rather multiple folds of mucous membrane. A vaginal corona, in other words."


So that's the new English name for the hymen: "vaginal corona." Hmm. I'll give them points for accuracy, but since the phrase is only slightly catchier than "multiple folds of mucous membrane," I'm not optimistic that it will stick. If we're lucky, though, the other information in the booklet will. Says Regnér, "The myths surrounding the hymen were created to control women's freedom and sexuality. The only way to counteract this is by disseminating knowledge."


Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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