International Women’s Day: We need to talk about vaginas and vulvas
There’s an irony that Ireland is famous for Sheela na gigs - naked figures showing their vulvas
Sheela na Gig carving on White Island, Lough Erne, Co Fermanagh. Photograph: Getty Images
There is a shift occurring and if you have a vagina, maybe you’ve felt it – just ever so slightly. It’s still a modest movement but this International Women’s Day, it’s time to consolidate it, revel in it and spend some time talking about vaginas and vulvas.
I say vaginas and vulvas because the words aren’t interchangeable. The vagina is the muscular tube inside the body whereas the vulva is the exterior genitalia, including the glans of clitoris, the outer and inner labia, and the urethral and vaginal openings. It may seem pedantic to insist on differentiating between the terms, but actually it’s imperative. When it comes to sex and health, we empower girls and women by teaching them the correct words. And no, “front bottom” isn’t ever the acceptable term.
There is an irony involved in discovering that Ireland has a particular wealth of Sheela na gigs, medieval stone carvings of naked women showing their vulvas. It seems perverse, and almost darkly funny, that a country that has for centuries oppressed women and female sexuality – incarcerating unmarried mothers in institutions and outlawing abortion until a historic referendum – should have such an abundance of Sheela-na-gigs.
For years, they were neglected, or even hidden, by outraged and ashamed locals, and now, as Ireland embraces a new feminism, it’s seems like a good time to talk about Sheela-na-gigs.
And it’s not just stone vulvas: in Ireland, and in other parts of the world, vulvas and vaginas – the flesh-and-blood versions – are enjoying a wave of attention. My own book, a memoir and guide to female health and sexuality, Vagina: A Re-Education, is published this week; artist Laura Dodsworth’s refreshingly frank documentary 100 Vaginas was shown on Channel 4 last month; the 2019 Oscar in the short film category went to a documentary about periods; and TV shows such as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Russian Doll include jokes about bacterial vaginosis and uterine fibroids.
We have to talk about vaginas and vulvas because the consequences of not doing so are too dire. A squeamishness around female genitalia plays into a squeamishness around female desire, health and empowerment. It creates a vacuum of information. Harmful myths fill the gaps in knowledge and stigma flourishes. And that leads to a situation where a whole lot of girls and women feel bad about their vaginas.
When people know the basics, they can get a handle on more complicated notions like consent and gender equality
Stigma leads to women seeking labiaplasty – thought to be the fastest-growing type of cosmetic surgery in the world – an operation to “correct” asymmetrical labia even though it’s completely normal to have asymmetrical labia.
Stigma leads to women forgoing orgasms because they have never been encouraged to seek them out. It leads to women experiencing health problems because they’re too embarrassed to talk to a doctor or healthcare professional and it leads to doctors failing to diagnose and treat endometriosis. Stigma leads to the president of the United States boasting about grabbing women by the pussy before cutting funding for family planning clinics and abortion providers. It leads to the vagina – and people with a vagina – being undervalued.
So many of us know that it is urgent that we have conversations relating to sexual consent; plenty of us recognise that gender inequality is a scourge that impacts every aspect of our lives, from our orgasms to the economy. Talking about vaginas and vulvas is key to tackling these issues. When people know the basics, they can get a handle on more complicated notions like consent and gender equality. When they are comfortable talking about vulvas and vaginas, they are more comfortable talking about taboo issues such as menstruation, miscarriage, painful sex and gynaecological cancers.
Whenever there is a shift, there is pushback – and there will be people who will lament the days when women were made to feel ashamed about their own bodies.
There will be people who think: “Hey, what’s wrong with women stuffing tampons up their sleeves on the way to the loo out of embarrassment that anyone will see? What’s so bad about the fact that straight women have significantly fewer orgasms than any other demographic?” There have always been people who recognise that they can gain from a system that teaches girls and women more about shame than about their own anatomy.
In the Middle Ages, it was transgressive and mortally dangerous to educate women about their bodies. Midwives were accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake, the church and medical profession conspiring against them. During the Victorian era, gynaecology became a medical specialisation, with male doctors medicalising women’s sexuality, performing unnecessary, sometimes pernicious operations.
Throughout most of the 20th century, the health system remained wretchedly misogynistic, neglecting the safety, sexuality and autonomy of women. And in the late 2010s, we still have more to do: more to learn and teach, and more to question. We must build on the hard-won gains made by pioneering women who have fought for abortion rights, an end to female genital mutilation and better sex education. We must acknowledge the progress that has been made while addressing new challenges posed by the internet, by tech companies seeking to profit from our bodies, by the rise of the far right.
The Sheela na gigs were created at a time when midwives were murdered, when dying during childbirth was not uncommon. It would be naive to assume that these carvings were a clear-cut celebration of sex, fertility and womanhood and yet their legacy can surely encompass that sentiment.
I like to think of the Sheela na gigs as ancient feminist forebears of women everywhere, imparting an important message about the need for the visibility of the vulva. We must discard the squeamishness that surrounds the vulva and the vagina this International Women’s Day. It is what the Sheela na gigs would have wanted.