Vagina, Vulva, Whatever …?

Society seems to have an obsession regarding female bodies: their shape, size, colour and whatever could be considered a flaw. Either one is too thick or too thin, too muscular or too scrawny, too short or too tall. If a womxn is confident in her body and shows it, words such as “bitch”, “slut” or “whore” are thrown around in an attempt to bring her down. One is either dressed too much or too little, and womxn’s dress-codes have even turned into an explication and excuse for assault and rape. 

 

 

This is a D***’s World

Given this deep and callous interest, it is surprising how uninformed the majority is when it comes to female genitalia. Nowadays, it still is considered a taboo topic, which is why there is so much misinformation around this. Just saying the word “vagina” or “vulva” causes discomfort in many, a raise of the eyebrows or an upset remark. But why? Half the population on this world has a vagina – marsupials like koalas, kangaroos and wombats even have three – and we cannot even call them by their name? Besides, it is not like saying “vagina” to the mirror three times would cause some sort of sex drive monster to appear suddenly and haunt you.

Furthermore, there is no holding back when it comes to penises, dicks, cocks, phalluses or whatever other names we give the genitalia of those assigned male at birth. They even turn into a tolerated aspect of the furniture of school classes. So why is talking about “vajayjays” or “nature’s front pocket” or “finger warmer” such an unthinkable topic for many? And why do so many people with a vulva themselves not even know what their “lady parts” look like? Everyone seems to know what the external gonads look like – I suppose it is no hard to draw two balls and a shaft – but that is not the case for vulvas.

 

101 Biology Lesson on Genitalia

Before I dive deeper into the topic of stigmatisation and tabooing of vaginas and vulvas, let’s talk about the basic biology to counteract any confusion later on. 

No, not only women have vaginas, uteri and vulvas. Gender is a spectrum, and some are born with genitalia that matches their gender identity, while others are not. Because of this, I try to use gender-inclusive language as much as possible as not to exclude those with other genders. 

No, “vagina” and “vulva” are not synonymous terms. First merely describes the, on average, 7 to 15 cm long inner passage to the uterus, the latter is used as an expression for the collective external parts of the genitalia, as seen in the simplified diagram below.

It is crucial to note that diagrams are not an accurate representation of what a real vagina or vulva should look like. Since society has made sexual imagery such a taboo topic, the only source for real human visual information for many people has become pornography. Considering that the vulvas in porn often are shaved and stylised a certain way, they should not be deemed the gold standard. Vulvas and vaginas come in a variety of shapes and sizes. 

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Top Things to Know

For some more information on vulvas for your biology crash course, here are some interesting facts:

  • The clitoris is the only sexual organ designed purely for pleasure, located right above the urethra. It has about 8.000 nerve endings dedicated to pleasure, and its stimulation can result in an orgasm. 
  • When stimulated, Bartholin glands, a pair of pea-sized glands situated on either side of the vaginal opening, secrete a thick fluid that supplies lubrication for intercourse. 
  • The hymen is a thin piece of mucosal tissue that surrounds or partially covers the external vaginal opening and has not proven any specific physiological or medical purpose. During puberty, estrogen causes the hymen to change in appearance and become very elastic. Normal variations range from thin and stretchy to thick and somewhat rigid or even totally absent. In some cases, it may rip or tear the first time penetrative intercourse happen. However, it also can occur before or after that due to other causes like sports or riding a horse. Therefore, against still common misconception, it does not indicate if someone is a virgin or not. Especially since the concept of virginity is a very old-fashioned lie that was created by men who believed their penises were so important they would change who a woman is. Furthermore, it is based on the assumption that virginity only is lost during the intercourse of a penis and a vagina. Nevertheless, this is only a limited perception of coitus, as there are many other possibilities to have sex.
 
Pussy Pairs

Because of my interest in vulvas, I got in contact with Gloria Dimmel, known as g.sus.christ on her social media platforms, who is an artist from Vienna who offers workshops for womxn in which she makes casts of their vulvas. Since 2017 she has been working on this project to make the topic “vulva” visible by producing, collecting and exhibiting those vulva replicas from plaster. What began as a self-testing has turned into a solidarity movement thanks to numerous supportive participants, who break the taboos around this topic by talking about their thoughts on sexuality, body images, gender equality and injustice while creating their vulva casts. As a result of a diverse collection of labia, Gloria Dimmel has also created “Pussy Pairs”, a Match-Up game published by Achse. 

At the beginning of this year, she was kind enough to answer some of the questions I had in a written statement. I wondered how the stigma around the external genitalia came about since people – to my knowledge – are not openly “vulva-shamed” as they are “body-shamed”. Gloria Dimmel wrote: “I think, culturally the stigma round the vulva and vagina has been around for a really long time and is part of the oppression of womxn. Now it just has its peak in the rising labia reduction surgeries which is easily explained by the capitalist system where the exploitation of insecurities of womxn – who are taught their self-worth depends solely on appearances and their accommodation to other people’s needs – is a major issue.” 

The depiction of diverse vulvas is rare, even in materials explicitly intended for sex-education, therefore the recourse of many to pornography. In saying this, however, I do not intend any hatred towards porn or porn actors themselves. I only perceive it as necessary to mention, that sexually explicit materials seldomly reflect the real world. “Thus womxn’s sexuality only deems relevant when it is of use to somebody else – whether sexually, reproductively or when it comes to selling a product. Sexual expression on womxn’s own terms are feared and thus shamed, mystified and tabooed”, so Gloria Dimmel’s words. 

 

Dangers of Tabooing 

By not conversing about the reproductive organs of those mostly assigned female at birth, they are eradicated from our perception. And in many cases, when they are talked about, devaluation surrounds that topic, perpetuating feelings not only of shame but also disgust. Gloria Dimmel told me: “If you can’t go to your doctor out of fear and shame to get your cervical smear or to find out where your pains during sex come from, or use endless uncertified treatments for cleaning your vagina, rejuvenating your vulva and changing its looks, it can’t be an improvement to womxn’s health – not to mention the practices of female genital mutilation or hymen reconstruction.” 

(Fun fact: Vaginas are self-cleaning. By creating discharge, they clean themselves and carry dead cells and bacteria out of the body to prevent infections. Therefore, any “vaginal wash” is, in essence, useless.)

The embarrassment around talking about the genitalia often results in a delay to seeing a GP or gynaecologist, which in turn could lead to a progression on cancer or some other disease. Gloria Dimmel also raised the concern that the inability to name certain parts of one’s own body, especially as a child, would make it difficult to tell one’s caregivers if a person is touching you inappropriately. 

 

Wet Ass Pussy

The vulva is not It-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Only breaking the taboo around it can lead to a healthy relationship with this genitalia. We need to be able to talk openly about all aspects of owning a vulva and vagina. For example – little fun fact vaginas are self-cleaning. Is that not great?! By creating discharge, they clean themselves and carry dead cells and bacteria out of the body to prevent infections. Therefore, any “vaginal wash” is, in essence, useless and not worth the money. 

 

Related to this, you should watch the following excerpt of the show “The Bold Type”, which, if you have not seen yet, you should definitely binge-watch:

 

 

  1. McGarrigle, N. (2017). What Biology Class Didn’t Teach You About Owning A Vagina. Available at: https://www.headstuff.org/topical/science/owning-your-vagina/ [Last Accessed: 17.11.2020]
  2.  Tuohy, J. (2018). Bartholin’s cyst. Health Navigator New Zealand. Available at: https://www.healthnavigator.org.nz/health-a-z/b/bartholin-s-cyst/ [Last Accessed: 17.11.2020]
  3. Kudtson, J., McLaughlin, J. (2019). Female External Genital Organs – Women’s Health Issues. MSD Manual Consumer Version. Available at: https://www.msdmanuals.com/home/women-s-health-issues/biology-of-the-female-reproductive-system/female-external-genital-organs [Last Accessed: 17.11.2020]
  4. Davenporte, B. (2012). Kangaroos Have 3 Vaginas & 4 Other Creepy, Cool Animal Sex Facts. LA Weekly. Available at: https://www.laweekly.com/kangaroos-have-3-vaginas-4-other-creepy-cool-animal-sex-facts/ [Last Accessed: 17.11.2020]
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