Bicycles, Horses, and Hymens

Cristen Conger

Horseback riding is one of many, many ways hymens can tear. (L.Willinger/Getty Images)

A high school listener wrote Molly and me with a perplexing inquiry that probably every girl has pondered at some point: How can your hymen break outside the bedroom? To be precise, she asked whether bike riding could tear that cultural anxiety-inducing tissue, which also brought up a similar question of whether horseback riding could do the same thing.

Despite the hymen serving no biological purpose whatsoever, it's probably the most controversial part of the female anatomy (although not all women are born with hymens). The amount of hymen tissue also varies from person to person, much like almost everything in that general body region for women and men alike. And although we associate a broken hymen with initial intercourse, there are myriad manners for that tenuous tissue to tear, as Discovery Health explains:

But it is scientific fact that the hymen can be separated for reasons quite unconnected to sexual intercourse. It can separate when the body is stretched strenuously, as in athletics; it can be separated by inserting a tampon during menstruation or through masturbation; and sometimes it is separated for no apparent reason.

See that? "No apparent reason."

Go Ask Alice! adds to the laundry list of activities that could affect the hymen:

...hymens can break without women knowing it. Strenuous activities, such as bicycle riding, horseback riding, stretching, or dancing, can also cause the hymen to break. Lastly, a woman's hymen could have already been broken or stretched by sexual activity, even if she has not had a penis inside of her.

So could riding bikes and horses break a hymen? Sure! But so could plenty of other things, such as pap smears, which is why the best answer might be to advise girls to ignore the hymen hype and go right ahead with whatever cycling or equestrian pursuits they desire.

And as for whole hymen-virginity issue, here's a knowledge nugget to tuck away for a rainy day: Women can get pregnant while their hymens are perfectly intact. Sperm anywhere near the vaginal canal can potentially travel inside and say "Howdy do!" to a egg, et voila. As Discovery Health says, "An intact hymen should not be considered a form of birth control."

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