People...my vagina prefers male pronouns. I’m not being glib here, I legitimately feel fucking weird about referring to my vag as “she” or “her”. Part of this came from growing up queer and being afraid of anyone finding out. It felt gayer to refer to my lady-parts as an actual lady, since that would mean when I was masturbating I’d kind of be having girl-on-girl sex, right? Whereas if my vagina was a dude, then having a wank kind of became semi-hetero. I’m not saying any of this is healthy or well-adjusted. It’s not. But it gives you a good insight into the kind of complex relationship I have with my vag. I like to think of us as a buddy-cop duo.
The point of my brief vagina monologue is to highlight that vaginas and our relationships with them are incredibly complex, and no two are the same. A large amount of this is influenced by systemic and social attitudes towards them. So today I thought I'd introduce a new series where we focus on just some of the issues that face vaginas in the 21st century. I hope you'll join me as we dismantle myths, tackle stigma and stare down some entrenched biases; welcome to part one of The Vagina Burden:
The Burden of the Double Standard
As I just mentioned, a person’s relationship with their vagina is a complex thing and can be dictated by all sorts of experiences, such as body dysmorphia, sexual identity, gender identity, sexual assault, genital mutilation, religious guilt or shame, or just the usual unattainable beauty standards laid down by society. That last one is probably the most common source of contention between most vaginas and their owners. We live in a society that reinforces at every turn what a pretty vagina is meant to be - white, tight, clean and hairless.
Vaginal Beauty Standards
Despite surrounding myself with sex positive feminists, I still have several friends who’ve admitted to feeling shame about how their Whisker Biscuit looks, or smells, or tastes. A few have even confessed to wanting labiaplasty to rectify perceived flaws with their Cave of Wonders. I myself, upon first squatting over a mirror, realised that one side of my labia minora (the smaller, inside lips) was larger and protruded outside my labia majora. I wanted to trim it back, so it was neat, tidy and attractive. I was personally offended by this imperfection, and it made me start asking how anyone could want to spend time down there if my Pink Palace was such a hideous monstrosity. I have since reconsidered my stance and I now see my escapee labia lip as like a fold of tissue paper popping out of a very expensive gift bag. But it was a hard journey to get there.
There’s been a lot of conversation lately about women’s rights to their bodies and the politicisation of female reproductive organs. I don’t want to dive into abortions or even menstruation at this point, because they deserve their own dedicated space. But I do want to explore the experience of owning a vagina, and examine some of the things that vagina owners are subjected to. The first step to achieving change is understanding, so let’s dive face first into this Muff Menagerie and try to understand why owning a vagina in the 21st Century is still such a burden.
We live in a world that thrusts overwhelmingly unattainable beauty standards in our faces. This is especially the case for female presenting people. This isn’t to say that male presenting people don’t also experience something similar, but the difference is that as a society we see men as having value beyond their appearance. A man can be overweight and conventionally unattractive, but if he’s also funny then he's proven his value (see almost every American family based sitcom). If a woman is overweight and conventionally unattractive, it doesn’t matter if she’s funny, charming, kind and intelligent, her value in society is significantly less. Not convinced? Have a look at any opinion about female politicians, comedians, scientists, etc. Women whose value isn’t, and shouldn’t be, based around their appearance will still be judged on how they look, what they wear and how fuckable they appear. Have a look at the comments section on most media produced by women and it won’t be rational discourse about how their argument is flawed.
So what does this have to do with vagina ownership? Well that unreasonable beauty standard extends to our genitalia. More and more vagina owners are opting in to labiaplasty to try and conform to a socially mandated standard of vaginal beauty. From 2001 to 2013 the number of people having the surgery more than doubled, and those statistics are only for patients having it done through the public system. If you really want to make yourself sad, check out this study that was conducted and revealed that most patients put forward as candidates for labiaplasty don’t actually have “abnormal” labia (clinically speaking) and that even when advised of this, they would still seek surgery. Some of the patients put forward were as young as 11 years old, and 61% of study participants had never had sexual intercourse before, which given one of the side effects of the surgery can be reduced sensitivity and sexual function, is more than a little disconcerting.
Ultimately, it’s an individual’s choice about whether or not they want surgery. But when increasing numbers of women are presenting to doctors to request serious and irreversible surgery, we have to examine why, and where this trend is coming from. Surgical follow up studies have found that patients do not experience an improvement to their general psychological well-being or to the quality of their intimate relationships.
One commonly held theory about the origins of this vaginal beauty standard is a combination of subpar sex ed, and the plethora of porn made for the male gaze. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of porn, but comparing your vag to the ones you see in adult movies is kind of like comparing your hair to Disney Princesses. It’s just not a fair comparison. Realistically, there is no such thing as a “good looking” or “normal” vagina, there’s only a standard that’s been established by a society (of predominantly straight, white men) that is hell bent on making women conform to be the most pleasing version for said men.
This beauty standard becomes even more harmful when it’s then attached to the idea that vaginas are inherently dirty or disgusting if they don’t live up to porn star standards. Our social revulsion towards our Closet to Narnia translates to a physical revulsion for many vagina owners. It extends to the point that people are afraid to get familiar with theirs on any level. This can result in situations where strangers are more intimately familiar with your genitals than you are; where your sexual partner knows more about how your vag works than you do.
This in turn leads to a whole heap of misinformation floating around, which can be fucking damaging. Like for instance the clean panties challenge, wherein people took photos of their knickers in an attempt to prove that they don’t have any form of vaginal discharge. Because we all know that vaginas are revolting caverns of filth, and if we want to attract the opposite sex or outdo our vagina-owning rivals, then we need to keep our Magic Carpet Bag sparkly clean. When you’re not educated about the fact that your vagina has a delicate pH balance, which impacts things like thrush and yeast infections, it’s easy to resort to unsafe home remedies, or using douching products in a misguided attempt to make your vagina “cleaner” or to “detox” it. Vaginas are self cleaning, it’s how they survived for thousands of years without chemical cleaners, deoderants, and douches. But there’s not too many companies out there that will let science get in the way of shaming you into shoving chemicals up your Batcave in an attempt to get it squeaky clean.
Vaginal sexual standards
But the vagina improvement market doesn’t stop at keeping them clean. If you own a vagina, it’s not enough that you should feel ashamed of how it looks, you should also be paranoid about how it feels for others who are using it. Thus we have a whole host of, often unsafe, products marketed as ‘vaginal tighteners’. The idea of vaginal tightness is an interesting one. Many penis owners will point out that they also run the risk of being shamed for not being big enough, or that the size of their dick is equated with their sexual performance. While this absolutely happens, it’s not on the same socially institutionalised level as the shame that occurs around vaginas. Implying that someone has a small dick or is bad in bed is not the equivalent of suggesting that a sexual partner was loose or a sloppy fuck. A man who is bad in bed does not experience the same stigma as a woman who is accused of being a slut, which is essentially what the vaginal tightness argument boils down to.
Tightness is just one more arbitrary and harmful standard for vagina owners to try and live up to, and has no basis in reality. For a start, even if vaginal looseness were a thing (and it’s no more a thing than getting a loose face-hole after too many big yawns), it wouldn’t affect the actual owner of the vagina. Tightness is literally all about penis pleasure. It’s a physical standard that demands that we be more pleasurable for our sexual counterparts, with no thought to the actual person who owns the vagina in question. It comes from a place of unapologetic slut-shaming. Despite the fact that a vagina owner in a monogamous, long-term relationship is likely to have a LOT more sex than their single, sleeping-with-strangers counterpart; society will make jokes about someone who sleeps around, but not about a devoted and faithful partner. Apparently vaginas have their own laws of physics and will only lose elasticity when not in a committed relationship.
The great irony in all of this is, vaginas are actually designed to get moderately looser when they’re aroused, to allow for painless and pleasurable entry of the penis. This becomes especially heartbreaking when you realise that most google searches relating to vaginal looseness are men worried their partners are cheating on them, when in fact it means they’re just really turned on. One day I hope to live in a world where hetero-cis men brag about how loose they managed to get their partner, like “Nah bro, I’m so fucking good in bed, her vagina was looser than RBGs judicial robes when she’s presiding over the Supreme Court. BAM!”
For most of history, the idea and concept of being penetrated has been considered a weakness. One of my favourite experiences in school was studying pottery from Ancient Greece that depicted the Greeks butt-fucking the Persians after winning a war. It’s a source of constant amusement to me now that we refer to anal sex as “Greek”, but that the Greeks themselves considered having penetrative sex with other men abhorrent. To them it was fine to have a romantic relationship between two men (the erastes and eromenos), but if you penetrated your lover you were emasculating him to a state of womanhood...and even back then, there was nothing worse than being a woman.
Clementine Ford articulated it well, when she said,
“...Consensual sexual encounters are reframed as women allowing men to degrade and use them. Our bodies are discussed via metaphors. We are cars whose resale values plummet as the number of our owners increase...Even the act of heterosexual consent is frequently discussed as a kind of relenting: we "let" men f--- us and "give in" to pressure...The practice of shaming cisgender women for having heterosexual, penetrative sex (whether vaginal or oral) has always perplexed me. Throughout history, the phallus and what it supposedly represents (power, strength, beauty) has been revered. And yet, penetration with this powerful, beautiful, revered object is akin to being defiled. What a curious paradox that is.”
It is often argued that there’s no gender divide between male and female genitalia, that society shames all genitals equally in a puritanical attempt to enforce standards of modesty. This might be true to an extent, but if you think that there’s an equal amount of shame around male and female genitalia, consider the propensity of dick pics. Consider the sheer volume of penis owners who are so comfortable with their genitals that they will photograph it and send it to complete strangers, or post it online. Dick pics are so ubiquitous that, if you’re female presenting, you can’t really engage in online dating without expecting to be sent them at some point. When asked about why they send these images, most men admit to not really believing that women wanted to see their cock, implying that they did it for themselves; either because they’re proud of their mighty member, or as a power play and assertion of dominance.
By contrast, if you’re female presenting, and spend any amount of time on the internet, you will quickly become accustomed to the catchcry of “Tits or GTFO”. Women are expected to sexualise themselves for the attention and approval of men, because men feel entitled to women’s bodies (and will then slut shame them for providing said bodies). But unlike dick pics, women’s naked selfies are rarely taken for their own pleasure, pride or power. They’re taken for the approval and judgement of straight men. This is why women will rarely send unsolicited pussy portraits to a potential date.
If you want a perfect example, behold the Vagina Beauty Contest. Seriously though, watch that fucking video, as a straight, white man who manufactures sex toys for men, tries to demonstrate different vagina types with cold cuts of meat, before going on to encourage women to submit photos of their (hairless) vaginas so random men can vote on which one they’d most like to fuck in the form of a masturbation machine. Not sure it gets more objectifying than literally turning you into a disembodied object to be fucked.
While we’re on the topic of masturbation, much as there’s the taboo around straight men owning sex toys, there’s still a huge bias in our attitudes towards vaginal masturbation. As children, we’re almost all taught that it’s wrong to touch our genitals in public. But as we grow the attitude towards boys is that it’s inevitable that they’ll be wanking away while no one is looking. Girls on the other hand...it’s considered dirty, gross, and downright weird for a young girl to be playing with her genitalia on the reg (because vaginas exist solely for male pleasure, not for self-pleasure).
This attitude further impacts any attempts at self-spelunking in our South Hole, since there’s no information available on how to do it effectively or safely. This is how we end up with young vagina owners attempting to use electric toothbrushes, hairbrushes, deodorant cans, and an assortment of other ill-fitting, unsafe objects, to get themselves off. The attitude towards grown women masturbating has improved somewhat in the past decade, but we’re still stuck with a lack of information and education around early pubescent masturbation, but then an expectation that “healthy, well-adjusted” women will know how to rub one out when they’re in their 20s (without ever addressing where this education is supposed to have come from).
Even in the language we use, we’re reinforcing this genital inequality. If someone is being a bit mean, or a bit inconsiderate, or just generally acting like a bit of a tool we might refer to them as being a dick, or a cock, or a knob. When someone is irredeemably hated, we’ll call them a cunt, because using the word cunt is the equivalent of a verbal K.O. Unless you start getting really creative with your insults, it’s hard to find a worse word than that.
When we’re telling someone to be strong we tell them to “grow a pair” or “nut up”. If we want to highlight how weak and pathetic someone is being, we’ll call them a pussy or make a joke about when the last time they changed their tampon was. Because, for most men, they’d rather submit to doing something they don’t want to and won’t enjoy, than own or become a vagina. In fact some men are so uncomfortable with even hearing the word vagina, that they banned its use during a House discussion about abortion legislation. Pack of cunts.
All of this, dear readers, is before we look into the expense, pain and discrimination that goes into physically maintaining the health of a vagina. So I hope you'll join me next time when we take a closer look at the vagina burden.
That is all.
You may go now.
[Banner image vagina by B. Damm from the Noun Project