Blood-stained bed sheets on a wedding night, for many cultures, are indicative of a consummated marriage. The symbolic loss of innocence springs from the idea that a woman is no longer a virgin when her hymen, or “cherry,” has been “broken.” The myth, however, is false since the hymen does not break; it stretches open.

When a girl is born, her hymen is thick and contains a small opening, which allows for menstrual flow when the time comes. The membrane thins out over the years as she reaches adolescence, while the opening enlarges. Some of the tissue is worn away or torn during strenuous exercise, tampon use, and masturbation, among other forms of penetration. By the time a young woman loses her virginity, the hymenal tissue’s elasticity and widened hole allow for stretching when the male enters. 

It’s also important to note that the hymen almost never covers the entire vagina. When it does — a rare condition known as imperforate hymen — a doctor must surgically remove excess tissue. Therefore, for most women, the membrane is simply stretched out or torn. The idea of the hymen “breaking,” then is just a poor choice of words. So is “cherry” and “deflowering,” for that matter.

Watch the video below for a detailed breakdown of what happens to the hymen when a girl loses her virginity: