What It's Like Growing Up with the Belief that Tampons Take Virginity

As a teen, I felt stuck in a miserable balancing act: hiding tampons from my family or being shamed by friends for not using them.

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Jul 27 2018, 2:04pm

As my 16th birthday approached, I spent my days fantasizing about getting my driver’s license. That seemed normal enough—all my friends felt the same about theirs. The difference was why I was so excited to get my driver’s license: I couldn’t wait to drive myself to the store to buy tampons.

Before I could drive, getting my hands on tampons meant taking them from friends’ bathrooms or catching a ride to the store during lunch. It meant spacing out which friends I asked for an extra, too embarrassed by the prospect of repeat-requesting someone who’d realize I never had any and ask why.

I didn’t want to explain the answer: that, in my Moroccan immigrant household, tampons were taboo. Some members of my family thought that if you used them, you were no longer a virgin, which seemed too absurd—too foreign, too weird—to explain to my white friends. (Of course, these were the same white friends who shamed me for using pads: “Gross.”) My mother didn’t use them, I read her puzzled expression when she found out my friends were using them, and the fact that she had never asked me if she should pick up pads or tampons at the store did not go unnoticed. When my cousin told me that her dad said there would be no tampons under his roof, I assumed the same rule extended to my family. I knew tampons were off-limits not because we talked about them, but because we didn’t.

Using pads until I no longer lived under my parents' roof wasn't an option: Adding to my stress, I was a cheerleader (and a flyer, at that). Pads weren’t exactly conducive to tumbling across a mat or holding a heel-stretch with my crotch nearly on display, and especially not in our standard spandex and miniskirts. It wasn’t a matter of if I would use tampons, but how I would get them, which became an ordeal I dreaded every month.

At the time, I thought I was the only one navigating two cultures’ very different approaches to tampons. Later, I learned that the notion that tampons take virginity exists in numerous cultures throughout the world, and that plenty of other girls continue to go through the same thing I did. Religious and cultural conservatism about tampons has existed for as long as they have. Shortly after tampons were invented in 1929, Catholic priests denounced unmarried women's use of tampons because they believed tampons compromised virginity. Similar to masturbation, using tampons became frowned upon or considered sinful in cultures all over the world, and it's still taboo in various Christian denominations and many strictly religious Jewish and Muslim households.

For the majority in the US, however, tampons are generally accepted for women and girls of all ages—though the public didn’t get there without a little push. In her book Virgin: The Untouched History, author Hanna Blank writes, “While tampon manufacturers have occasionally felt moved to publicly allay fears that tampon usage threatens virginity, as in a 1990 Tampax ad that showed an introspective, white-shirted teenage girl beneath the question, ‘Are you sure I’ll still be a virgin?’ (the ad’s text made it clear that the answer to the question was ‘yes’), on the whole it has become relatively rare for contemporary First World women to question the suitability of tampon use for any women of menstruating age.”

But there I was in the “First World” at 15, stuffing tampons into the back of a drawer I was sure my mom wouldn’t go into (but still taking care to roll them into T-shirts) as I thought with frustration about my hymen. I'd harbored a strong interest in feminism since I was 10, and I also spent way too much time on Tumblr, so I was well versed in the idea of virginity existing only as a concept and not a tangible, measurable thing. Having been a gymnast since I was a toddler, I was sure my hymen was no longer intact, but since hymens aren’t reliable ways to gage “virginity,” that didn’t matter much to begin with.

Hymens are often misunderstood, so here's the deal: The hymen is the thin membrane that surrounds the entrance to the vagina and normally has a crescent shaped hole, though hymen shapes and types are very diverse. Some people with vaginas are born without a hymen at all. The hymen is elastic, and hymenal tissue usually erodes when a person is young because of numerous physical activities like horseback riding, yoga, gymnastics, and, yes, sex. Even so, it may very well stay intact during all of these activities, including sex.

On an episode of the podcast Strangers , a guest named Becca describes her experience appeasing her Persian and Orthodox Jewish mother with a virginity test after her mother found a box of tampons in her apartment. “She freaked out on me and decided not to talk to me for ten months,” Becca says in the episode. It wasn’t until she agreed to visit a Persian gynecologist to get her hymen checked out that her mother began speaking to her again—and only because the doctor promised to tell her mom that Becca was a virgin (which she was).

My mother was nowhere near this hardcore. She never actually forbade me from using tampons or expressed her view on them explicitly. In retrospect, I realize I never even asked my mom if I could use tampons. We did not talk about sex, and the idea of bringing them up which in turn meant discussing virginity with her, was unsettling enough for me to prefer sneaking them around the house until I was off to college.

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Eventually, my mom found out I was using tampons, but it’s hard to remember exactly when or how—I just stopped hiding them. I no longer waited until everyone had left the house to bring them in from the car. When I went swimming and my mom asked, “But aren’t you on your period?” I'd say something cryptic and rude as I headed out the door—“Mom, it’s not 1785.” Neglecting to hide my tampons wasn’t laziness; at a certain point, I wanted her to know I used them. I was confident in my understanding of both the hymen and feminism, so I didn't care anymore.

Part of me hoped my mom would ask me about the tampons so I could share with her what I had learned about our bodies, and dispel the myths her family upheld, but I was still relieved she never made it a "thing." She never freaked out or asked me to stop using them the way I had imagined she would when I first started hiding them.. I eventually moved the tampons out of my drawer and into the bathroom cupboard underneath the sink where she frequently restocked our toilet paper and kept extra soap.

My mother and I didn’t discuss tampons until my younger sister got her period a few years ago and I sternly called my mom to tell her that she had to buy them for my sister. “She’s a dancer, mom. She’ll be mortified if she has to use pads in a leotard.” I didn’t want her having to sneak around the way I did. My mom complied.

I don't harbor any resentment toward my mother for perpetuating the myth that tampons take virginity by way of never talking about them. I did as a teenager, but I have grown to realize that she's as much a product of her upbringing, time, and culture as any of us. I'm sure I'll project outdated, harmful ideas onto my own kids one day, and I can only hope they'll come to that same realization quicker than I did.

Since that phone call with my mom, I haven’t really thought much about the taboo surrounding tampons, because I (thankfully) don’t have to confront it once a month anymore. This past spring, it was brought to my attention again. Visiting family in Morocco with my mother and a friend, I unexpectedly got my period because the travel and time difference messed with my birth control. My mom moved mountains helping me find a store that carried tampons, which are still not commonly used in Morocco, all the while keeping everything under wraps from my aunts and family. (Maybe they would’ve been understanding, but I was cramping and didn’t want to deal with it.)

That night, frustrated with how hard it was to get my hands on a box, I sat my 17-year-old Moroccan cousin down to talk. She told me that almost no one her age uses tampons (or any insertable menstrual products), so I made a makeshift hymen using a toilet paper roll and some tissue paper and we discussed virginity.

Later in the trip, I was at a restaurant with my friend, mom, and two married aunts. Before my friend got up to use the restroom, she asked if any of us had a tampon. My aunt handed her one, but once she was out of sight looked at us and said, “Oh my god, she uses those?” I was about to jump in when my mom started speaking: “No, no, it’s okay. We were taught wrong. Tampons don’t take virginity.”