By Naledi Mashishi, Africa Check
Do you have a vagina? If you do, you’ve likely heard old tales about how to keep it “clean” or “tighten” it. Or you’ve been warned that a partner will be able to tell how many people you’ve had sex with by looking at its shape.
Over the past year we have come across several viral social media posts that make claims about vaginal health. These claims, previously shared in hushed whispers, can now reach hundreds of thousands of people – some young and impressionable. They spread shame, stigma and, in some cases, could cause physical harm.
We spoke to two gynaecologists about some of the most common and dangerous myths about the vagina shared online.
Does sex change the size and tightness of a vagina? Is labia size linked to sexual history? Can herbal and vinegar baths be used to clean and tighten vaginas? And can you test for virginity? We have the answers.
MYTH 1: Multiple sexual partners can change the vagina’s size and tightness
Can sex change the size and tightness of a vagina? Several online posts make this claim.
A viral Facebook message shared more than 3,500 times says that while penises remain unaffected by sex with multiple partners, the “shape, tightness, and looks” of vaginas are permanently changed by sex.
“You will then go around saying so and so has a small dick, forgetting that you have a stadium between your legs and one man can never fill up the whole stadium,” the message reads.
But Dr Denise Armatas, a specialist in obstetrics and gynaecology at Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town, says there is no basis to this claim. She told Africa Check that while vaginas widen during sexual intercourse to accommodate a penis they usually go back to their normal size within an hour.
She said two processes may alter vaginal tightness and size more permanently. These are menopause, during which the drop in estrogen can lead to vaginal muscles becoming less firm, and childbirth.
“If you have more children your vagina might become less tight because of the muscle damage and it’s more prone to having natural prolapse,” she explained. Vaginal prolapse is a condition here the vagina moves from its normal location in the body.
MYTH 2: Frequent sex can change the length of the labia
Many sexual partners may not change the size and tightness of a vagina, but what about the labia? The labia, also known as the lips, are folds of skin around the vaginal opening. There is an inner pair of lips, and an outer pair.
Stigma about labia size has been a factor in the increasing popularity of cosmetic labiaplasties. These are surgical procedures that trim inner labia tissue.
But in recent years larger labia have been linked to perceived promiscuity. This is particularly the case in incel – “involuntary male celibate” – circles where the term “roastie” is used to degrade women seen as promiscuous. Graphics comparing vaginas with long labia to roast beef in order to disparage women have been posted online.
Dr Linda Rogers is a senior specialist at the University of Cape Town’s department of obstetrics and gynaecology. She told Africa Check that labia size and length is not related to sexual history.
“The shape of the labia minora and majora develop embryologically, and have nothing to do with the number of sexual partners,” she explained.
In other words, people are born with vaginal lips of various shapes, sizes and lengths. To combat stigma about labia size, Australian nonprofit organisation Women’s Health Victoria started the Labia Library, which has a photo gallery of different labia to show the diversity in their appearances.
MYTH 3: You can clean and tighten the vagina with special washes
Posts about herbal and other “remedies” that can be used to tighten vaginas are widely shared online. We’ve seen messages advising people to use a mixture of cloves, salt, and water to clean and tighten the vagina, while others recommend aloe vera mixtures and vinegar.
But, according to Rogers, these don’t work.
“The size of the vagina depends on the individual woman, and whether there has been any nerve, fascia or muscle damage as a result of pregnancy, childbirth, trauma or surgery,” she explained. “Herbal treatments have no bearing on this.”
Armatas told Africa Check that these remedies were not just ineffective, they could also be dangerous. They can disrupt the pH balance of the vagina and kill naturally occuring bacteria that protect the vagina. This leaves it more susceptible to infections like thrush and sexually transmitted infections.
“You’re really running the risk of damaging that internal flora which will then lead to more infections. Using products that have vinegar can damage the vaginal mucosa,” she said.
This also applies to intimate washes and vaginal cleansers, which have been linked to an increased risk of bacterial and urinary tract infections.
“You should not be putting anything in your vagina or washing your vagina with anything except what a doctor has prescribed,” Armatas said.
MYTH 4: The presence of a hymen is an indicator of virginity
The final vagina-related myth is perhaps the most pervasive.
The hymen is a thin membrane of skin at the opening of the vagina. In some cultures the presence of a hymen is believed to indicate virginity. “Virginity testing”, in which a female’s vagina is inspected to see if a hymen is present, is still practised in at least 20 countries.
Bodies such as the United Nations and World Health Organization have called for the practice to be banned, calling it a “human rights violation” with “no scientific basis”.
Africa Check investigated the “science” behind virginity testing in South Africa and found it was “not a reliable way to test virginity”.
Armatas agrees. “Children are born with a hymen that is complete and non-perforated and then, as you grow and play and have normal daily activities, it can break,” she said.
Sports like ballet and horseback riding as well as using tampons or diva cups while menstruating can perforate a hymen over time, she added.
“It’s really not an indication at all of whether you’re a virgin or not. It’s just natural progression of life.”
Dr Michelle Moorhouse, senior clinician at the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute, previously told Africa Check that the definition of virginity itself isn’t strict, as sexual intercourse is not limited to a penis in a vagina. This, coupled with hymen tissue differing from person to person means that hymens are not reliable indicators of virginity.