The hymen is a very misunderstood body part. There are many widespread myths about what it is and how it works.

For example, a lot of people associate the hymen with virginity and assume the hymen “breaks” when you have penetrative sex for the first time.

However, your hymen naturally wears down over time. It typically develops openings that allow for penetration long before your first sexual experience.

And while stretching or tearing your hymen as a result of any activity — sexual or otherwise — can hurt, most people won’t feel it happen at all.

Here’s what you need to know.

The hymen is a thin piece of tissue that surrounds the opening of the vagina.

Although it’s often a socially expected part of an individual who has a vagina’s anatomy, many people are born without this piece of tissue.

In medical communities, the hymen is recognized as a vestige of vaginal development that lacks clinical purpose outside of the womb.

It’s basically impossible to see your hymen yourself, even if you’re using a mirror and a flashlight.

It’s the same color as the inside of your vagina, so it blends in. It’s also near impossible to feel it with your fingers.

Similarly, if a partner penetrates you with their fingers or penis, they won’t feel it either.

Your hymen doesn’t “pop” or “break” when your vagina is penetrated for the first time. But it will stretch or thin over time.

This means it’s probably already open, even if you haven’t engaged in penetrative sexual activity or used an insertable menstrual product.

Think about it: If there was a piece of tissue covering the opening of your vagina, how would you be able to menstruate? Blood wouldn’t be able to exit the vagina.

If it’s totally closed, it’s called an imperforate hymen. This is a rare medical condition that surgery can treat.

The hymen has usually thinned by the time you first experience vaginal penetration — whether with tampons or something else — so sexual activity will have little to no effect.

It might, however, cause the vaginal opening to stretch and tear. (More on this later.)

There are a number of things that can cause your hymen to tear or wear down. Certain physical activities and sports, for example, can stretch the membrane and cause it to thin.

This includes:

  • horseback riding
  • riding bicycles
  • climbing trees or jungle gyms
  • playing on obstacle courses
  • gymnastics
  • dancing

It’s also important to remember that not all vaginal penetration is sex!

Your hymen may also wear down during nonsexual forms of penetration, such as:

Sometimes the hymen bleeds when it tears. The amount of blood will vary from person to person.

It’s also possible that you won’t bleed when your hymen tears, just as it’s possible that you won’t bleed the first time you have vaginal sex. Many people don’t.

The state of your hymen — or lack thereof — has nothing to do with whether you’ve engaged in sexual activity.

Nobody can tell whether you’re a virgin based on your hymen. Virgins certainly don’t all have “unperforated” hymens.

In fact, your hymen shouldn’t be “intact” when you have partner sex for the first time.

It’s also worth noting that virginity isn’t a medical or biological concept. There’s no accurate medical way to test virginity.

There are a number of reasons why sex might hurt the first time. For example:

  • If you’re anxious, your muscles may be tense, making your vaginal area tighter. This can make penetration uncomfortable.
  • If you haven’t had enough foreplay, you may not be “wet” enough. Your vagina produces its own lubrication to make sex easier, but sometimes it doesn’t produce enough.
  • Your vagina might be dry. Medical conditions or certain medications may cause this.
  • You could have a urinary tract infection or other underlying condition, which may cause pain.
  • You could be allergic to the ingredients in the lube or condom you used.

Fortunately, you can avoid many of these issues.

Painful sex isn’t inevitable the first time around, and although many people experience some pain the first time they have sexual penetration, you don’t have to be one of them.

Even if it’s not your hymen that hurts, sex can be painful, particularly if it’s the first time you’re doing it.

But there are a number of ways to reduce pain around sexual activity — and it is possible to have sex for the first time without feeling pain.

If it’ll be with a partner, talk to them about how you’re feeling

It’s always a good idea to talk to your partner. Talking to your partner about sex can reduce your anxiety. It’s also essential for setting healthy boundaries around sex.

Unsure what to say to your partner? Here are a few ways to start the conversation:

  • “I’m feeling nervous about this. Can we talk about it?”
  • “I’d like to talk about our boundaries before we get started.”
  • “I’d like to try X and Y, but I don’t want to do Z. What would you like to do?”
  • “Let’s start gently and spend some time on foreplay.”

Make sure you spend some time on foreplay (whether solo or partnered)

It’s good to indulge in a little foreplay before penetration. Not only is it fun, but it can help calm your nerves and get your body ready for what’s to come.

During foreplay, your body realizes it will be having sex, so it starts producing its own vaginal lubricant.

Your muscles will also relax more so they can accommodate penetration.

Foreplay doesn’t have to be complicated. It could include:

How long should you spend on foreplay? That’s hard to say. Foreplay itself can be a fun experience, for both you and your partner.

So, take your time and figure out what you like. Ten minutes is a good goal to aim for, but you might simply wait until your vagina is wet enough for penetration.

Use plenty of lube (whether solo or partnered)

Whether you get wet easily or not, lube is always a good idea. The lubrication makes penetration easier and less painful.

Keep some on hand and apply it around your vagina, as well as on fingers, sex toys, your partner’s penis, or whatever you’re planning on inserting.

Do some research before buying a lube that works for you.

Reconsider your position (whether solo or partnered)

If one sex position feels uncomfortable for you, change it up!

When it comes to penis-in-vagina sex, missionary position is often comfortable. This is where the person with the vagina lies on their back while the person with the penis lies facedown on top of them.

You can prop a pillow underneath your hips to make the position more comfortable and pleasurable for you and your partner.

If your partner is penetrating you with their fingers or a sex toy, try lying on your back with your legs spread slightly apart.

And “positions” aren’t just for sex with a partner. You should be just as mindful of the positions you use when you masturbate.

For example, if lying on your back feels uncomfortable, try squatting, standing, or kneeling on all fours.

Whether you’re having sex with a partner or masturbating on your own, experimentation is key. Try different positions until you find one you enjoy.

There are a few ways to soothe the pain. You can try:

  • having a warm bath
  • using a warm cloth as a compress over your vulva
  • taking an over-the-counter pain reliever, like Advil or Tylenol
  • using an ice pack that’s wrapped in a towel over your vulva

In many cases, discomfort will fade within a few hours.

A little discomfort during sex isn’t anything to worry about, medically speaking. However, extreme or persistent pain might be a sign that something is wrong.

It’s a good idea to see a doctor if:

  • The pain feels excruciating or unbearable.
  • Your vagina or vulva feels so sore that you’re struggling to walk and go about your day.
  • You’re having unusual discharge.
  • You’re bleeding long after sex is over.
  • The pain lasts for more than 1 day.
  • You’re in pain every time you have sex.

Also see a doctor if you have other questions about your reproductive health, such as options for contraception and safer sex.

The hymen seldom “breaks” in one event. Rather, it’s thinned, stretched, and torn over time.

Although stretching or tearing your hymen can hurt, most people won’t feel it happen at all.

Sian Ferguson is a freelance health and cannabis writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. She’s passionate about empowering readers to take care of their mental and physical health through science-based, empathetically delivered information.