Vagina monologues: Why we need to be educated about women's sexual organs

Lynn Enright says sex education teaches boys and girls that male sexuality is more important than female sexuality.

Taking us on a post #MeToo journey through female sexuality, Lynn Enright’s brave book is timely and important, says Suzanne Harrington

Where to start with vaginas. Anatomically, culturally, socially, sexually, lady parts have long been short changed. We can’t even get their names right.

We call the vulva the vagina, then infantilise it with daft names or pornify it with porny names, whereas in real life, the vagina is the internal muscular bit that links the vulva to the cervix, and the vulva is the external area of the labia and clitoris, which can still remain as undiscovered as a distant planet.

Why? Because sex education, reflecting the larger culture, is all about the penis, and how it causes pregnancy, and how to avoid that. The clitoris doesn’t get a look in, despite being the only area of male or female physiology that exists purely for pleasure.

How timely then is writer Lynn Enright’s new book, Vagina A Re-Education, which takes us on a post #MeToo trajectory through female sexuality, looking at everything from how we name the sexual parts of our bodies, through periods, masturbation, and orgasm to miscarriage, infertility, abortion, endometriosis, menopause, labioplasty, period poverty, FGM, trans rights, and the myth of the hymen.

She leaves nothing out, her voice clear and honest and true. It’s the kind of book you wish that you — and everyone else — had read when you were first making friends with your sexual self.

Lynn Enright, who is from Dublin, wrote this book because she believes there is significant appetite to talk about issues related to female sexuality, yet a squeamishness in mainstream outlets — you’ll rarely find anything properly in depth and unfiltered in women’s magazines.

And while there have been other books written on the subject — Naomi Wolf’s 2013 title, the seminal 1960s Our Bodies, Ourselves, dozens in between — Enright says that each generation has to start from a place of ignorance, and that although our biology is a constant, the surrounding culture and politics remains in constant flux, rather than following any linear evolution. That even now, we remain removed from our own bodies.

“Progress is not straight forward,” she tells me. “Repeal The Eighth and MeToo have connections to our basic biology.

Thanks to the rise of the far right, abortion rights are under threat, even as young people see gender and sexuality as less fixed and less binary.

Yet despite these cultural fluctuations, we remain often alienated from our own bodies. “Girls’ orgasms are never discussed,” she writes.

“In a lot of sex education, the male orgasm is pretty much framed as the point of sex and vaginas are there as a sort of receptacle. And that focus on the male orgasm leads to a situation where girls — and boys — see male sexuality as more important, more dominant, than female sexuality.”

Even basic biological information can be incorrect. The clitoris is not a ‘button’, but a network of nerve endings which extend inside the body. The labia are not symmetrical, unless you have undergone labioplasty, and the hymen is not some magic lid that covers the vagina like cling film over a fruit salad, but a made-up idea that has been used to control women’s sexuality forever.

And then there’s consent. Enright writes with distilled clarity about her own sexual assault as a teenager. “It’s a very common experience,” she says.

“It was really horrible at the time, yet almost everyone has some kind of experience like this — we don’t recognise it as wrong until later. We are still disempowering girls when we educate them because it’s all about the male experience and avoiding pregnancy.”

She cites the Dutch model of sex education — sex positive, unambiguous, shame free — as effective, because the more knowledgeable and empowered people are, the later they start having sex, resulting in less unwanted pregnancies. And yet we remain squeamish. Key issues, from budding sexuality to postmenopausal sex, remain ignored, undiscussed, taboo.

We have, for centuries, ignored or mislaid the clitoris. “The cultural history of Western anatomy does not reveal any parallel continual misplacement and ‘forgetting’ of the location, role or function of other organs on the human body,” notes Naomi Wolf in Vagina: A New Biography.

This is because, writes Enright, while the penis has been given centre stage in human sexuality, “the clitoris has been seen as frivolous, like some sort of decorative, slightly ridiculous accessory…worn by feminists.” In some cultures, its mutilation has been normalised.

Also, female orgasm has not been helped by the kind of cluelessness perpetrated by Freud and his suggestion of clitoral orgasm as ‘immature’. This myth aligns with nothing except patriarchal values, yet for years, we swallowed it. Along with futile search and rescue missions for the elusive — perhaps non-existent — G-spot. No wonder we were frustrated.

What is frustrating in a differently awful way is cultural attitudes to female pain. Female pain is treated differently from male pain. We tax sanitary wear — and ignore period pain. If men got endometriosis, which is common, agonising, and currently incurable, there would be institutes dedicated to its eradication. Instead, we have Lena Dunham writing and talking about it, because nobody else is.

Vulvodynia is another chronic pain condition that you’ve never heard of unless you suffer from it, and even then, you may not have. You may have been sent home with some paracetemol, or suggestions that you get counselling.

Instead, our attention is being diverted to the physical appearance of our vulvas, so that they become another area of anxiety, like the face, hair, body, nails, etc. “It seems bizarre and disheartening to me that the vulva is becoming another body part for women to fret about and spend money on,” writes Enright.

Labial puff, anyone? Or how about the Barbie, a procedure that removes the inner labia completely to create a ‘clamshell’ look? Because we must all be porn stars now.

“Stigma leads to the vagina — and people with a vagina — being undervalued,” concludes Enright.

We need to smash that stigma… and take a long, hard look at what’s in our knickers. You can take that literally or metaphorically — it’s really up to you.

    THE FACTS

    In 2016, a British survey found that 60% of women were unable to identify the vulva.

    In the US, only 13 states require sex education to be medically accurate.

    Sex education is too focused on the mechanics of pregnancy avoidance and needs to be more sex-positive and relationship-oriented.

    Labioplasty is currently the fastest growing cosmetic procedure, and involves surgery to make the labia appear symmetrical and ‘neat’.

    There is no cure for endometriosis.

    Clitoral stimulation is how most women orgasm, yet 200m women live daily with the consequences of FGM.

    The hymen is a myth.

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