Vagina: A Re-education by Lynn Enright – teaches us what schools wouldn’t
Ranging from biology to anecdotes the book explores, informs and empowers
“It reminds us that when it comes to our bodies, knowledge really is power.” Artwork: The Great Wall of Vagina, by Jamie McCartney
Vagina: A Re-education
Allen & Unwin
If it weren’t for Just Seventeen magazine, I don’t know when I would have first encountered the word “clitoris”. It certainly wasn’t mentioned at my relatively progressive north Dublin convent school in the early 1990s, where our sex education consisted of the basic biological facts and, in sixth year, a description of various contraceptive methods with the caveat that they were all unreliable and that we really shouldn’t use them anyway.
In fact, no one really bothered to tell girls about the intricacies of our own genitalia, about how our bodies could be a source of pleasure as well as pain, blood and babies. Things clearly weren’t much better in more secular Britain. In a 2016 study of 1,000 British women, 44 per cent couldn’t even identify the vagina in a diagram, and 60 per cent couldn’t identify the vulva. As Irish writer Lynn Enright’s superb new book Vagina: A Re-education reminds us, this ignorance and confusion has serious consequences.
Vagina: A Re-education is a passionate, personal polemic for greater understanding of a part of the body that, despite the fact that half the world’s population possesses it, is widely ignored and imperfectly understood. Despite the title, Enright acknowledges that today, the word vagina is frequently used when what is really meant is vulva, and that this linguistic confusion makes it even harder for women to discuss their own bodies. As the psychologist Harriet Lerner wrote, “what is not named does not exist.”
And so the book explores everything from the labia to the hymen, from the vagina to the clitoris, and there will be surprises in store for many readers, whether they have a vulva or not (the chapter on the hymen was a revelation – basically, it isn’t what most of us think it is). Enright strives, rightly, to make this book as inclusive as possible. She stresses that she is writing from the point of view of an able-bodied heterosexual cisgender woman; she acknowledges that not all women have vaginas, that not everyone with a vagina is a woman, and highlights the lack of data on those people’s experiences while also talking to trans women and men. And she argues, rightly, that everyone benefits from more openness and knowledge about what it’s like to have a vagina.
By saying the unsayable and by being open about our bodies women make things easier not just for themselves, but for everyone else who is going through the same thing
What comes through most strongly throughout this fascinating, moving and sometimes enraging book is that lack of knowledge and its effects. Millions of women are suffering both physically and mentally because of issues relating to their genitalia. And, they are convinced that this suffering is inevitable. They think sex is meant to be painful, so they never go to a doctor or therapist to find out why; they think their labia should be perfectly symmetrical, so they feel bad about themselves and/or go to a cosmetic surgeon. They are unprepared for the changes caused by menopause so they suffer in silence. They feel too ashamed or inadequate or embarrassed to seek help; many women are unaware that help is even possible.
Beginning with the basic biological facts, Enright looks at how cultural attitudes, fears and prejudices have affected women’s relationships with their bodies. She points out that even today, in both Ireland and the UK, teenagers learn about wet dreams (irrelevant to reproduction) but not about the clitoris, the one organ in the human body whose sole function is to provide pleasure. She writes about pain during penetrative sex, something experienced by an estimated 30 per cent of women at some stage, and how it is misunderstood and dismissed. She writes about periods and orgasms, endometriosis and menopause.
Although Enright uses multiple interviews and scientific data to back up her points throughout this extremely readable book, she also shares her own story, one that will ring true for many women, especially Irish women. She writes about infertility, sexual assault, bikini waxes. And she reminds us that by saying the unsayable by being open about our bodies and our experiences of living in those bodies, women make things easier not just for themselves, but for everyone else who is going through the same thing, and they themselves discover that they are not alone.
The word “empowering” is overused these days; But Vagina: A Re-education is a genuinely empowering book. It reminds us that when it comes to our bodies, knowledge really is power. “There are entire industries and systems that flourish and prosper when our knowledge of our vulvas is compromised and undermined,” writes Enright. I wish this book had existed when I was a teenager; I’m very glad it exists now.