I wanted to take my 12-year-old daughter to an amusement park, but a friend told me that since she just hit puberty, she shouldn't ride roller coasters or anything bumpy because she could lose her virginity. Is this true?
This isn't a question you expect to hear in 2014, and honestly it would have struck me as a little retro in 1973. But never mind. Let's talk about nature's virginity test.
To start with the obvious: Virginity is the state of never having had sexual intercourse. It's not possible, therefore, to lose your virginity riding a roller coaster unless you have sex while en route. Your friend is referring to the risk of damaging the hymen, the traditional marker of virginity. The hymen is a thin membrane that partly covers the vagina, leaving an opening permitting menstrual discharge to escape. Commonly—though not always—the hymen ruptures during a woman's first penetrative intercourse, producing some pain and blood flow.
Female humans are said to be unique among primates in having a hymen, although similar structures have been reported in other mammals, including elephants and llamas. How evolution came to gift them with a freshness seal of sorts is unclear. Possibly it served to protect the vagina from contaminants. Historically, it's been used to enforce chastity.
For a long time—and in some cultures even now—a bride who flunked the virginity test was shunned or even killed. Conceivably women over the course of evolutionary time who weren't naturally endowed with hymens and thus couldn't produce the requisite bloody sheets, bearskins, or whatever on their wedding nights suffered the same fate and were removed from the gene pool. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The hymen is far from infallible as an indicator of sexual activity. Sometimes it survives penetration intact, and in rare cases grows back during pregnancy, which may be the basis of some "virgin birth" stories.
More commonly the hymen tears prematurely, often as a result of physical activity. This has been known for centuries: an 1825 medical textbook warns against using the hymen as a proxy for virginity, as it can be ruptured by jumping, horseback riding, bicycling, accidents, various medical conditions, "artificial manipulation" (masturbation, presumably), or "lesbian delights or Sapphic pleasure."
Reported causes of early tearing in more recent times include inserting tampons, stretching and participating in vigorous sports. Falls onto bicycle crossbars, playground equipment or fence rails have caused broken hymens, as has doing particularly energetic splits. A careless physician can tear a patient's hymen during a routine gynecological examination.
While premature tearing of the hymen is in most of the developed world an annoyance at worst, there are plenty of places where it's a disaster. In many Muslim societies in the Middle East and South Asia, virginity is mandatory for an unmarried woman and must be demonstrated by bleeding when the hymen is torn on the wedding night. To determine the hymen's status beforehand, young women may be browbeaten into undergoing "virginity testing" via manual exploration of the vagina.
Even where it's no longer common to publicly display a stained sheet after the wedding night, as in Israeli-Palestinian communities, many women still place a cloth on the bed beforehand and keep it afterward for the husband's viewing. Elsewhere, mothers, mothers-in-law or aunts may demand to see the bloodied sheets. Unfortunately, after puberty the hymen has few blood vessels and is often flexible or very thin, so even if the bride has been chaste, there may be no perceptible blood. One source claims only one in four virgins bleed on first intercourse.
And so medical science has provided a solution: hymenoplasty, or hymen reconstruction surgery. Performed on brides who face embarrassment, shunning, violence or even murder if they can't produce the expected blood, hymenoplasty is typically done on the eve of the wedding and involves stitching the torn ends of the hymen together. If the available fragments are insufficient, vaginal skin is used instead. Since bleeding can't be guaranteed, some doctors insert breakable packets of a bloodlike substance behind the hymen that split open upon penetration.
Now to your question. We scoured the medical journals for reports of hymens ruptured by roller coasters but found no definitive accounts. Anecdotes abound online but don't constitute proof. It's not obvious how a roller coaster would stress the hymen—while high g-forces are involved, premature hymen rupture due to external causes typically involves some kind of impact or the legs being pushed in different directions, neither of which normally happens on roller coaster rides.
I won't say it's impossible for your daughter to damage her hymen at an amusement park. But assuming she won't be considered a ruined woman if she does, why should anyone care?
Send questions to Cecil via StraightDope.com or write him c/o Chicago Reader, 350 N. Orleans, Chicago 60654.