Me, You, and Your Vagina

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 msvaginascience@gmail.com.

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msvaginascience

Feminist, Mother, Lover, Fat Babe, Student and Case Worker Extraordinaire, serving high risk women and families in Seattle. My background is in Midwifery, Public Health Research, Sexual Education and Childbirth Education.

20 thoughts on “Me, You, and Your Vagina”

  1. SOOO glad to see you writing again Amber.  Its one of those things in life that make me happy.

    I couldn’t agree more with this piece.  But then, I know you and how you think, so I know that you are speaking in generalities and not looking down your nose at anyone.  Keep on keepin’ on, sweet sister!

    Can’t wait to read your future endeavours!

    *Hugs*

    Yvonne

  2. I would love to hear more about cyclical irregularities and possible treatments for it. I have a super infrequent period (and after some trial and error am on the pill and a type that works the best for me) but I do have two close friends both with endometriosis, and the process around their diagnosis was rather awful. Lots of different types of pills and often little or no effect, one of my friends bled for eleven months straight, before her doctor suggested for her to get an IUD. I think HBC is one of the best things and worst things to happen to women’s health, it’s given us freedom and control over our sexuality and made it our own, something we can control if we choose, rather than depending on a guy to put on a condom. But at the same time, I think the pill has been used as a catch all solution, if my friend had been given an IUD when she had first researched it as a possible solution, at age 18, she would been spared about 8 years of suffering. Instead, she had pretty much every birthcontrol pill on the market foisted upon her.

    1. I will absolutely make a point of addressing some of the very good issues you bring up here- endometriosis, amenorrhea, and the very complicated implications of hormonal birth control. I have a lot to learn about menstrual irregularities, but I look forward to consulting my texts, pouring over the research, and discussing the issue with my peers in health education. Thank you for the suggestions, and I hope I’m able to deliver some answers that help!

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed this–well written, humorous, thoughtful. I’ve got to say, I am very thankful that my parents had a copy of the book “Where There Is No Doctor” when I was a kid. Most of what I learned about female anatomy I learned there! Looking forward to more of your posts. :)

  4. I was totally with you until this part:

    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.

    It seems to me that in order to fully support women making informed choices, you have to accept those choices, even if you don’t agree with them. I find equating hormonal birth control with ignorance problematic to say the least. I know a good chunk of the stuff you talked about (except the tomato thing, that’s neat) and I use hormonal birth control (Mirena IUD). Actually, the process of researching and getting it was in itself pretty educational. I don’t understand what form of birth control you’re advocating, exactly, beyond non-hormonal.

    1. I’m not advocating for a any certain method of birth control per se, but rather a foundation of understanding when it comes to the cyclical way our bodies work without birth control so women CAN make informed choices. I know lots of women who began taking hormonal birth control as teens and continued on into adulthood, oblivious to how their reproduction works on a baseline level. With artificial hormones masking our cycles, we are able to remain unaware of how our bodies really work.

      I bring up birth control because I know many women suffer by taking it. They are moody, experience all sorts of unpleasant side effects, and feel powerless to control their fertility any other way. I will be writing an easy to understand guide to understanding fertility though fertility awareness, an alternative which has empowered me and many women I’ve worked with.

      I do accept and respect the choices of other women, especially regarding their reproductive health. Nowhere did I insinuate otherwise, nor did I suggest that women are ignorant or uninformed for taking hormonal birth control (hell, I’m on the Nuvaring). Ignorance, after all, is defined as, “Lack of knowledge or information”, which many of us are when it comes to really understanding our reproductive health. If you’re not, that’s fine. Kudos. But, if I can inform, educate, or empower another woman by helping her to understand her fertility and avoid taking a medication that makes her miserable, I’m sure as hell going to give her all the information she needs.

      I’m only suggesting that basic information about our fertility- including the knowledge that you can (GASP!) avoid pregnancy without hormonal manipulation, is possible, and IS kept from us by the medical community. I think- no, I KNOW, that lots of ladies would like to know that there are alternatives to HBC. And, well, if you aren’t one of those ladies..that’s fine, too.

       

      1. I have to agree with you on this – “just go on the Pill” seems to be the chorus for most period-related ailments. It’s not always the best answer, nor should it be a blanket answer, but it’s an easy answer.

        More education on the causes of cyclical irregularities and options for correcting them would go a whole lot further.

      2. You actually do imply that taking hormonal birth control is ignorant when you state when you state,  “Our ignorance about our own bodies is supported by a medical community, which […] 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.” The implication here is an unspoken “instead of controlling for pregnancy naturally” at the end of the sentence, as the sentence is constructed in such a way as to say that birth control is one method the medical community uses to support women’s ignorance.

        I agree with Madeline, as being on birth control is not a sign of ignorance about one’s body. I was a peer sex educator for  four years and am highly educated about the functioning of my genitalia, and I have also been on hormonal birth control for 6 years.

        I also find your assumption that all women have the privilege or desire to regulate their fertility naturally to be highly privileged. I know several women who have medical conditions like PCOS and endometriosis, including my own mother and sister, and many of these women would not be able to live lives free of constant, excruciating pain without hormonal birth control, let alone regulate their fertility. Moreover, because of rape culture and domestic violence, many heterosexual women are not in relationships where they feel they can say no to their partner when he wants to have sex. I include both rape culture and domestic violence as causes because rape culture instills in women a conception of gender roles wherein there is no legitimate reason for women to turn down sexual advances from their partners and partner rape is a common aspect of domestic violence. In both of these cases a woman may have sex or be raped during a peak in her fertility and would not be able to prevent pregnancy without hormonal birth control – especially if her partner refuses to wear a condom. Also, I find it troublesome that you speak as if natural and hormonal birth control methods are equally effective – hormonal methods range from 91-99% effectiveness while natural methods are usually only about 75% effective. I would think that as a sexual health educator you would be aware that even if a woman abstains during ovulation the hormones produced during sex may cause the ovaries to release an egg, resulting in natural methods’ comparative lack of effectiveness. Not only that, but not every woman wants to abstain from sex for a portion of the month. If a woman desires to have sex whenever she wants and also does not want to get pregnant she should be able to, which natural birth control methods do not allow for.

        While I agree that women should be more educated about their reproductive systems  in order for individuals to make the best choices regarding their bodies, I really think that you need to consider all the factors before maligning what is for some women a literal life saver.

        1. I think the syntax or structure is perhaps misleading here and leading people to conclusions that Amber did not intend.

          The implication is not that hormonal birth control methods and their use are negative, stupid, or signs of foolishness, but rather, that the medical community uses the tool of hormonal birth control to perpetuate (knowingly or not) the general ignorance of our society about female bodies. Think “ignorance” in its more classical definition (lacking in knowledge about a certain subject area) rather than its more contemporary, negative sense (illiterate, stupid, et cetera). She never mentions that people should not use hormonal birth control methods, but does point out that they do entail additional risks – risks not typically associated with natural methods.

          Obviously not everyone has the luxury of doing without the pill. I have a condition myself that, for the time being, necessitates its use. But I feel like Amber was speaking generally here, to the majority of women whose bodies do not require the hormonal pill to function.

          In short, I don’t see Amber actually drawing negative associations to the pill here; rather, I see her simply pointing out (and rightly) that hormonal “interventions” come with a laundry list of possible side effects, whereas natural methods (like the rhythm method) do not.

          Great discussions, though. I’m so tickled to see these kinds of thoughtful responses to articles. So refreshing from the usual fare on women-oriented sites, amiright?

  5. I agree with the vast majority of this article, and I think your friend is definitely lucky to have you. However, I was confused by some of your views on science. For someone who so adeptly critiques how the medical community views and treats women, you seem weirdly fixated on this same medical discourse as the only legitimate way of knowing about vaginas. I think learning about pH and hormones and anatomical labels is fine, but it’s not like these are universal, stable concepts. People who a) lived before the late 1900s b) don’t spend extensive time learning science/medicine in the U.S. are not necessarily more “in the dark”  than contemporary American scientists.

    1. I agree with you! Things like Ph and flora are NOT common or universal knowledge. I am of the belief, however, that they should be. That’s was why I choose to, and will, write about these issues here at Persephone. Hopefully these concepts will become more universal and less medicalized as we discuss them. I don’t intend to imply that a scientific lens is the only lens to view your vaginal health though, but I feel it’s worthy of discussion.

      With that in mind, I’d love to hear what other, perhaps less medical, issues surrounding vaginal health interest you. Perhaps I could write about them!

      Thank you :)

      1. I guess that’s where we differ…I would argue that there is no real universal knowledge. Instead, I’d view even the most seemingly factual scientific information as laden with ideologies and situated in a specific culture.

        Like you, the “way of knowing” that I’m most familiar with is a contemporary, American, scientific/medical perspective, so I’m not intimately familiar with other lenses. I just am sure that they’re out there.

  6. Yay for this article!

    I hope you get tons of questions because I cannot wait to see you answer them. I’ve often wondered about the experiences of doulas – I bet you guys have some great stories to tell. Looking forward to reading a few of them in the near future, maybe?

     

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