The Vagina Burden: Part Two

People...my vagina and I, we've been on some adventures. I've been relatively lucky in terms of the health of my reproductive anatomy; with the exception of crippling period pain, some ovarian cysts, and an allergy to semen, my vaginal health is pretty low maintenance. Not everyone is so lucky though. Depending on where you live and what your life holds in store, it can get a lot worse...

Even in the developed world healthcare is not exactly supportive of vagina ownership. A recent study by ResearchGate revealed that there are more than five times as many studies for erectile dysfunction as there are for PMS, you know, despite that fact that 90% of women report experiencing symptoms of PMS as opposed to the 19% of men who have had issues with wang failure.

We live in an age where there’s a pill to get your dick hard for 8 hours, but there isn’t one to increase the female libido. The implication being, it doesn’t matter if women want sex or not, all that matters is that we can get a man hard enough to have sex for as long as he wants. This inequality was highlighted in spectacular fashion by a South Carolina representative, Mia McLeod, who put forward a new bill regarding men’s access to Viagra. The bill aims to highlight the bullshittery that women have to go through to obtain an abortion. If passed, it would require that all patients pursuing Viagra are submitted to the following caveats:

  • Wait 24 hours to access the medication
  • Submit a notarized affidavit from at least one sexual partner affirming that the patient has experienced symptoms of ED within the last 90 days
  • Be examined by a state-licensed sexual therapist to make sure his ED isn't "attributable solely to one or more psychological conditions."
  • Attend three sessions of outpatient counseling within six months, "including sexual counseling and resources for patients to pursue celibacy as a viable lifestyle choice"
  • Submit to cardiac stress tests to ensure they are able to manage the physical stress of sexual intercourse

The attitude towards health care for vagina owners leaves a lot to be desired. We still don’t have effective or satisfactory treatment for the symptoms of polycystic ovaries, endometriosis, menopause, menstruation or a variety of other vagina related health issues. But we have entire months devoted to saving breasts from cancer. We have sexualised cancer campaigns (which is probably the most nausea inducing sentence I’ve written lately). Campaigns like Save the ta-tas and marketing that encourages people to donate based on how much we all enjoy tits, help to create a standard in health care where we only fund the things that are directly useful to straight, cis-men. Straight dudes don’t need to worry about the crippling pain and debilitation of menstrual cramps, ovarian cysts, uterine fibroids and the like. But they sure as shit don’t want to live in a world with less tits.

We see genital inequality reinforced in social attitudes towards contraception responsibility. Taking contraceptive pills, getting IUDs, marinas, implanon, diaphragms or the assortment of other variously invasive, uncomfortable, expensive and life affecting preventatives, is the considered the responsibility of the one who can get pregnant (and yet reproductive legislation is predominantly the responsibility of people who will never get pregnant...go figure). Even condoms are less a penis-responsibility and more of a joint effort from both parties to ensure that one is worn (and after working in the sex industry I can tell you for a fact that a lot of men are quick to eschew that responsibility if they think no one is looking).

Not convinced? Then consider the fact that the contraceptive pill was originally created to be taken by men, but the side effects were considered too extreme for men to tolerate so the onus moved to women. Those side effects are still there by the way. Men might not put up with a massively lowered sex drive, bloating, weight gain, tenderness, headaches or mood changes, but women are expected to shoulder it and be grateful for the privilege.

It doesn’t get any better if you opt out of contraception and have kids either. Sure, you go in expecting Itchycoo Park to be torn asunder in the most excruciating way possible, but you get a baby at the end of it, so it’s all worth it, right? Many people who give birth don’t talk about the trauma of the experience because they’re meant to be grateful their child is healthy and safe. But to give you an idea of what can happen, consider the case of Catherine Skol. When she went into labor her regular obstetrician was on leave. Dr. Scott Pierce took over and proceeded to complain about having to come into work (while Skol was having contractions), refused to give her pain relief for several hours of her labour, positioned her in a way that put pressure on the herniated discs in her spine and refused to let her move. He refused to answer any questions she had about how the birth was progressing, or the health of her baby. At one point, in the middle of a contraction, he decided to do a vaginal exam. Catherine cried out, literally saying “No! Stop!” but he ignored her and proceeded to do a rough vaginal exam that exacerbated her pain. It gets a lot worse, and if you’re interested I recommend reading the full article. But Skol is by no means alone. Many people go through experiences like this. It can leave psychological scars around something that society expects people to be jubilant about. As Birth Trauma Truths puts it,

A vulnerable woman, who is powerless to leave the situation, is at times held down against her will, has strangers looking & touching at private parts of her body...perhaps she has fingers or instruments inserted without her consent, and sometimes against her consent, invading and crossing decent boundaries. She is fearful of what is happening to her and perhaps for the wellbeing of her baby, and receives no reassurance that either she or her child are ok.

The trauma doesn’t stop after birth. Even in developed countries, there is little to no publicly provided education around vaginal health, post-birth. A fact that is highlighted by France’s recent decision to subsidise la rééducation périnéale, a public initiative providing up to 20 sessions of physical therapy to help restore pelvic floor health after birth. According to one participant,

There haven’t been extensive studies done, but what studies exist show that la rééducation significantly reduces incontinence and pelvic pain at nine months after giving birth.

Of course this is mostly motivated by a desire to get wives back in shape so their husbands don’t go looking for a mistress, but it’s still an improvement on the lack of support most new mothers receive regarding their pelvic floor health. One particular friend, after complaining to her doctor about experiencing incontinence post-birth, was informed that she’d just have to live with peeing herself every time she laughed, sneezed or coughed...for the rest of her life.

And all of this, dear readers, is if you’re fortunate enough to live in a Western country, in a family with Western values and culture. Depending on where in the world you’re born, and what religion or culture you’re born into, owning a vagina can be an automatic subscription to genital mutilation. You’ve possibly heard of “female circumcision” before. Depending on the region and the cultural or religious role of the practice it can include anything from surgically scratching the clitoral hood to complete removal of the clitoris and cauterising the nerve endings behind it.

You might have assumed that the practice was limited to more regional areas in Africa or the Middle East. You’d be wrong. World Health Organisation (WHO) data indicates that there’s 60 million victims of FGM (female genital mutilation) in Indonesia alone. They consider FGM an act of violence against women and are calling for the global eradication of the practice. This seems like an easy enough thing to achieve in countries like America, Australia and Western Europe, right? Not so much. According to this 2015 report by Dr Nawal Nour, (founder of the African Women's Health Centre at the Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital),

Many girls and women who are born and raised in western countries are taken to the countries from which their families originate, on the pretext of a holiday and then circumcised in hospitals under the supervision of medical practitioners - a practice often referred to as "vacation cutting"

According to the report, more than 125 million girls and women globally are living with female genital mutilation, and three million undergo such procedures every year. While there are some medical practitioners out there trying to aid in reversing the procedure it still constitutes a large out of pocket expense for victims, and is mostly only available in America.

If all of this has you feeling pretty heartbroken and despondent about the world...I’m sorry. I wish I could tell you that I made this whole thing up, and that equality was achieved centuries ago. I also wish I could tell you that Hogwarts is real and your owl is arriving any day now. But sadly both of those things are equally untrue. But what I can tell you is that we can make a difference. It won’t be overnight, and it won’t be easy, but we can change things.

Regardless of what you have between your legs here’s a few things you can do.

 

Learn about the anatomy of the vagina and vulva. Take some time to educate yourself about what they do, how they work, and what they’re all called. Explore your own, explore others (if that’s your thing), or try and find some sex-positive educational websites that have good videos or images. Dedicate yourself to comprehending the diversity of them. Acknowledge that any beauty standards ascribed to them are a statistical anomaly that only a few magical vaginas live up to, rather than something that can be attained by just anyone. To this end, I can not recommend the Labia Library enough, but there’s also a heap of other brilliant galleries on the internet, that are devoted to collecting images of other people’s Mufflers.

If you’ve ever felt like your vagina is more weird than wonderful, have a browse through galleries of other people’s Golden Snitches and remind yourself that vaginas are as vast and varied as human brains - each one is utterly unique.

Take some time to reflect on the language that you use around vaginas. Try not to use vaginal slang as insults (unless you’re making cat puns, in which case never stop). And try not to indulge in childish euphemisms like “hoo-ha”, especially around kids. For a start, it makes you sound like someone who no one should legally be allowed to have sex with, and second, it reinforces the idea that there's shame around owning or talking about vaginas. Refusing to correctly address vaginas turns it from Voldemort into He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

If you’re going to speak in euphemisms, do it with pride, let it become part of the language that reclaims genital equality. Refer to your vag as Her Vajesty, not because you’re afraid to say vagina, but because she is a goddamn Queen and shall be addressed as such.

Keep yourself informed. If you have a vagina, take the time to read about vagina ownership, how to look after yours, and some self-care practices for reminding your vagina that it’s loved. If you don’t have a vagina, try and keep up to date with the things that are happening to vagina owners, and use any privilege you have to work against that. This might include calling out a friend or coworker for making jokes about a “loose fuck”, or making the effort not to allow conversations about vaginal health to be shamed or shut down in any way. If a co-worker, family member, or friend complains about painful period cramps, ask if you can heat them up a wheat bag, or offer them some pain killers. And penis-owners, if you really want to be a bro, have a packet of tampons or pads in your desk drawer or in the office First Aid kit in case anyone ever needs them. Not saying you have to, just saying it’s a nice gesture.

If you’re in a cis-hetero relationship, and you have a penis, consider taking responsibility for contraception. Research some different options and make an effort to take some of the burden off your partner, if they’re open to that. Things like attending appointments for implanon or IUDs (or even pap smears), going to the pharmacy to pick up the script for the pill, or looking into a vasectomy if you’re considering longer term options.

If you’re in a position to contribute financially, or through volunteering, here is a list of 16 charities that are fighting to end female genital mutilation across the globe. It might feel like an insurmountable problem, but every contribution makes a difference. Throwing money and support behind organisations like these helps to remind governments that these are issues we care about, and can help to contribute to legal and cultural reform.

The most important thing you can do though, is listen to the experiences of vagina owners; regardless of whether or not you have one yourself. Every person’s experience is different and if someone is telling you that they were traumatised by their experience of giving birth, or that they’re self conscious about the appearance of their vagina, or that their menstrual cycle leaves them physically or emotionally distraught...listen. Validate their experience and let them know that you support them.

 

My fellow vagina owners, you are brave, you are beautiful and you are magnificent. You, and your vagina, deserve to be treated with respect. You do not deserve to feel shame or pain as a result of vagina ownership. I dream of living in a world where buildings are uterus shaped, where men complain about receiving unsolicited pussy pics, and everything related to vagina healthcare is painless and fully subsidised. Until then though, I’ll continue to tell my vag that he’s a handsome devil, and will remain committed to supporting causes that support vagina ownership.

 


That is all.

You may go now.