A New Name for Your Hymen?

Photo is public domain, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons. Originally by Theodoor Hendrik van de Velde.

How much can a name change do to lessen the impact of millennia of misogyny?  That’s the question the Swedish Riksförbundet För Sekuell Upplysning (Swedish Association for Sexual Education, or RFSU) is trying to answer with its campaign to rename the hymen. Rechristening these tiny leftovers of the process of vaginal development as the slidkrans—literally the “vaginal crown” or “vaginal corona”—will, the RFSU hopes, help provide a more accurate understanding of the much-mythologized scrap of tissue.

So far so good. Renaming this anatomical landmark in a way that is more reflective of its actual nature (as historian Kathleen Coyne Kelly of Northeastern University has pointed out in her book on virginity, it is no more a specific bodily organ than the instep of the foot) is a good thing. The RFSU’s helpful diagrams of just a few of the many forms and shapes in which the vaginal corona can appear are likewise sturdy, practical sex ed. 

Ditto the completely accurate and scientifically more-than-proven insights that despite centuries of “common knowledge,” these tiny bits of  mucous membrane are not a proof one way or the other of anyone’s virginity and do not necessarily break, tear, pop, rip or bleed so much as a drop when a woman’s vagina is penetrated for the first time. (For more on this, see Chapters 2, 3, and 6 of my book Virgin: The Untouched History.)

How much the name change can do to change the mythos of the hymen in regard to virginity, though, remains to be seen. Particularly dubious is the question of whether it will make any difference in the arena of “honor” crimes. The RFSU, which has chosen to translate its literature on the vaginal corona into English, Arabic and Sorani Kurdish, is putting a clear priority on reaching populations with a reputation for oppressing women for perceived violations of family or sexual honor.

One understands the impulse to try to educate others out of this particularly nasty form of misogyny, to be sure.  Honor crimes are appalling by any metric.  (They are additionally unIslamic, as has been increasingly recognized by leading religious authorities like Syria’s Grand Mufti Ahmad Badr Eddin Hassoun.)

But virginity and hymens, whatever names they go by, are only one part of the picture when it comes to the ways that female honor gets constructed, construed and enforced by those who use it as an excuse to persecute, punish and even murder women.

Honor crimes, as prizewinning Jordanian journalist Rana Husseini has often discussed, may well center around Westernization and assimilation, religious conversion or, as in the high-profile case of immigrant Swede Fahidme Sahindal, murdered in cold blood in Uppsala by her father in 2002, forming a relationship with someone from outside a woman’s familial culture.

I’m not saying that I think the slidkrans campaign is out of place or not worth the effort.  It is an excellent and long-overdue correction to an ancient, hoary and often hurtful collection of misinformation about women’s bodies and women’s sexuality. “Vaginal corona” is a neat, concise, accurate, and usefully corrective phrase, well worth the work of popularization.

But I dearly hope that no one, including the RFSU, has been deluded into thinking that the cure for honor crime is to teach potential perpetrators that virginity cannot be determined by the absence, presence or behavior of any particular bit of flesh.

Not all honor crime is connected directly to issues of sexual behavior, whether actual or imaginary, accurately understood or totally misinterpreted.  It is the sexed body, the fact of femaleness, that is at the root of honor crime, not any of its individual parts.

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Hanne Blank is a writer, a historian, a cook, and a domestic worker. She is the author of various books including Virgin: The Untouched History (Bloomsbury, 2007), Unruly Appetites (Seal Press, 2003), and the forthcoming Straight (Beacon Press) and Homework: Sex, Politics, and the Soul of Keeping House. A Midwesterner by birth and inclination, she currently lives, works, and teaches in a nineteenth-century stone millworkers' cottage on a dirt road in Baltimore.