My friend didn’t know where her clitoris was. This happens to me. A lot.
A grown woman of 26 and she couldn’t tell me definitively where this mystery organ is. “I think I’ve touched it. No, I know I’ve touched it. Well, I’m pretty sure someone else has touched it before but I could not point it out to you if I tried.” I pulled a book off my shelf and opened it up to a diagram of the labia and pointed out for her where her clitoris is. Studiously, she examined the picture and balked, “But, my labia doesn’t look like this. I looked at it once and it looked really messed up. I think there is something wrong with it.” Next I showed her various pictures of labia- some long and dark, some pink and puffy, some with dark shades of purple and red. Her eyes widened, “Wait, that’s what mine looks like! It’s supposed to look that way?”
And so it goes.
I’ve been in Vagina Science for some time now. First, as a childbirth educator and Doula. Next, as a student Midwife and now as a woman’s health researcher. But most of all, as a feminist. I read Cunt for the first time when I was 18 years old and it changed my life, sending me on a mission to educate and inform all women about the reproductive and recreational collection of organs that are usually lumped together and dismissively regarded as “The Vagina.” It’s been a source of constant awe to me that so many women, openly or privately, do not possess an intimate knowledge of even the most basic aspects of their sexual anatomy- the clitoris, the labia, the urethra, the vagina, the cervix, the uterus, and the fallopian tubes and ovaries. Furthermore, the physiological dimensions of ovulation, menstruation, vaginal flora and pH, and female orgasm remain even more subtle and baffling to many women.
Sure, we all read The Vagina Monologues (or we’ve been meaning to). Maybe we’ve even seen it on stage a few times. Pussy power and all that, right? But, other than knowing you have a vagina, what do you really know about it? Do you know what it feels like when you ovulate? Or what the difference is between normal vaginal mucous and an infection? Do you know why you feel moody before your period or why the smell changes after you have sex? Did you know your vagina has the same pH as a tomato?
It’s not like getting to know your anatomy is as simple as whipping it out and comparing it with your friends, so don’t beat yourself up if you’re in the dark about it. I would never dare to label male sexuality as “simple” but at least the penis and testicles are easy to access. Feel like seeing your dick? Unzip your pants and wonder at all its magnificence. Female sexual organs are far more elusive, mysterious and plain ol’ hard to reach. You have to make viewing it an event- mirror, light, and privacy. It’s a big production, and that’s only to see the external anatomy. If you want to take a gander at the vagina and cervix within, you have to use a speculum and who the hell has speculums laying around their house? (I do, but that’s besides the point.) For Christ’s sake we have things to do. So, months pass, years pass, and all of a sudden you’re not even sure what your doctor is poking at during that annual exam or why you even need to have that exam at all.
Beyond not being able to access our intimate anatomy easily, we live in a world which is wholly dismissive of female sexual anatomy when it’s autonomous. Our vaginas and their accessory organs are largely viewed though the context of making sex more enjoyable with our partner or as a passageway for babies. While that’s all fine and dandy, and I certainly endorse great sex and healthy vaginal birth, it implies that the value of the vagina lies only in its ability to provide for someone else. In this context, any knowledge we gain about our own bodies is merely coincidental and mostly a utility for someone’s pleasure or passage into the world. When we focus solely on the utilitarian aspects of the vagina, we lose sight of how important this part of the body is for a woman’s overall, individual health.
Knowing how that damn thing works is central to understanding your reproductive, emotional and sexual health. An event as pedestrian as menstruation, for instance, is far more than inconvenience, bloating and ruined pairs of underwear. Menstruation carries with it a complex hormonal orchestra spanning many weeks and creating inside you a storm of mysterious emotions and motivations that effect your mood, relationships, and how you perceive the world. Understanding the delicate hormonal shifts provides insight into how you feel and why you feel it. Similarly, ovulation is a powerful, dynamic force which influences the sound of your voice, the softness of your skin and how aroused you feel.
Our ignorance about our own bodies is supported by a medical community, which instead of advocating for women to understand their fertility and control it accordingly, would prefer that we manipulate our bodies with artificial hormonal birth control that comes with risks like nausea, high blood pressure, bone density loss, and mood swings. Our sexual selves are so dynamic and powerful that they’re kept from us, controlled and regulated. Breaking free from that cycle of ignorance puts us firmly in charge of our vaginal destinies, and consequently, our overall health and well being.
So, there I am. I’m watching my friend realize her labia is average instead of horrifyingly deformed and her clitoris is not located up inside her vagina. I put a few books in her hand and send her on her way home to study. The next morning we share breakfast and I notice she looks different. Her hair is coiffed and styled, as opposed to the harried pony tail she usually sports. Her skin looks aglow, and she wears a big, broad smile. “So,” she begins slowly. “I found my clitoris last night. I feel much better now.”
Moments like that are what sisterhood is all about- one woman to another, sharing what she knows, do it yourself because damn it we don’t need to be kept in the dark about our vaginas. I’m looking forward to continuing that dialogue here at Persephone- email all your baffling vaginal queries to firstname.lastname@example.org.