**TW: mentions of rape**
There are a wealth of products designed specifically for genitals. Some for aesthetics, some for convenience, some for hygiene, some for pleasure. It’s certainly true that there needs to be less stigma around products to help with basic bodily functions and/or sexual pleasure. Take the stigma surrounding period products for example – literally decades of advertising aimed at showing us how unacceptable and dirty periods are. However, not all products are equal. Some things that are sold to help your genitals are unnecessary or problematic. Here are four of (what I think are) the worst!
Femfresh (other brands exist).
Femfresh is a range of products for ‘feminine hygiene’ – e.g. washes and scented wipes. The vagina is self cleaning and the only thing you need to use to keep a vulva clean is warm water and unscented soap. However Femfresh and its ilk push an agenda that they are vital, with their vagina friendly pH balance giving them the edge over soap (which is the same for water, which is free and comes out of the tap). The Femfresh website promotes the products using a smiling face of a gynaecologist, ‘Dr Sara’, with a list of advice on how to ‘care for down there’. Much like the period adverts, euphemisms abound – the implication being that your vulva is smelly and dirty and only buying this type of product can fix that. The branding is phenomenally successful. As a facilitator for Sex Ed classes to young people, I am often asked about this product, by name. It can be quite difficult to assert that it is unnecessary and a person’s genitals are completely normal and healthy in the face of such advertising and branding.
Like Femfresh, but super-charged! Vaginal douches are devices and products that ‘flush out’ the vagina – unfortunately taking all of the natural bugs and secretions that keep the vagina health with them. Just say no!
The Consent Condom
This is definitely one from the ‘road to hell is paved with good intentions’ department. Sold with the tagline ‘consent is the most important thing in sex’, this is a condom that requires two people (or at least four hands working together) to open the packet. It received quite a backlash when it came out. People were quick to point out that flaws – such as rapists not necessarily caring about using condoms, or having the ability to work in pairs. The consent condom also implicitly buys in to the idea of consent as a single moment of ‘yes’/ ‘no’. Consent should be reversible and always up for discussion. Even if you’re in a long term relationship and sex is something you do regularly. Even if you said ‘yes’ at first and then changed your mind. Even if you helped someone open a condom packet holding two of the four pressure points.
This is underwear marketed as only being able to be removed by the wearer. It is reinforced to prevent cutting and tearing off by an attacker. Originally designed and crowdfunded by a victim of sexual assault, this is probably again something made and marketed with noble intentions in mind as well as profit margins. Given the state of the world, fear of sexual assault is very understandable. However, I just don’t want to live in a society we focus our efforts on designing things to make people less rapeable. We need social and structural change, not ‘rape-proof’ clothing. Additionally, anti-rape wear reinforces the idea that sexual attacks are committed by strangers when a person is out and about in the world. In fact, most victims of sexual assault know their attacker – be it a family member, friend or partner. It is hard to see how anti-rape wear will be of much use unless it is worn at all times and in all places – except for those brief moments when you need to either pee or have penetrative sex with someone and definitely won’t change your mind at any point (which we’ve already established you have a complete right to do).
These are my four. Tweet me if you think of any more or disagree – @squisquasque…
The clitoris used to be represented and thought of as a small ‘pea’ like structure, sitting above the urethra (Enright, 2019). It wasn’t until relatively recently when Professor Helen O’Connell fully investigated and modelled the full extent of the clitoris in 1998 (Fyfe, 2018). O’Connell is a Urologist (a type of doctor, who specialises in surgery in areas of the body including the bladder and urethra). She used cadavers to map fully map out the clitoris, demonstrating that it was a much bigger structure. Like this:
It includes structures that are hidden deep to other tissue, such as the corpus cavernosum and the bulbs of the clitoris. As you can see from the diagram the bulbs of the clitoris are very close to the vagina – even more so when a person is aroused, as they become swollen and more erect by blood being diverted to them, just as the penis does (Drake et al. 2010).
There is an excellent and short French cartoon about the structure, function and history of ‘Le Clitoris’- the only organ that is just for pleasure – here.
Drake, R. L., Vogl, A. W. & Mitchell, A. W. M. (2010) Gray’s Anatomy for Students. Second Edition. Canada: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier.
Enright, L. (2019) Vagina a Re-Education. Croydon: Allen & Unwin.
Fyfe, M. (October 2018) Get Clitorate: how a Melbourne doctor is redefining sexuality. The Sunday Morning Herald. Accessed online on 21.03.2019 at [https://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/health-and-wellness/get-cliterate-how-a-melbourne-doctor-is-redefining-female-sexuality-20181203-p50jvv.html}
Pubic hair and body positivity can be a tricky issue. On the one hand, people absolutely have the right to cut, shape, dye, remove or in any other way sculpt their own personal body space! I get how it can be liberating and a way of taking control of your own body and quite literally shaping your intimate identity.
On the other hand, there seems to be a growing repulsion for body hair that isn’t manicured. A dislike for ‘natural’ hair, particularly (but not exclusively) when it comes to vulvas. Some people specifically find it ‘unhygienic‘. This despite the fact that pubic hair, like the hair on your head, has specifically protective functions.
So trim and go as bare as you dare around your nether regions if you want to. But maybe think about why your doing it!
‘Labia Minora’ is latin for ‘smaller lips’. It’s the word used to describe the flaps of tissue that sit inside the larger labia majora (‘large lips’) and surround the innermost structures of the vulva – like the clitoris and the vagina.
Exactly what an individual’s labia minora look like in terms of shape and size vary hugely. Some have fairly minimal tissue, which doesn’t tend to be visible unless the labia majora are spread (i.e. legs akimbo!). Some people have much larger amounts of tissue. When people talk about having cosmetic surgery to the vulva, they often call it a ‘designer vagina’. However, it is surgery to the labia minora (a ‘labiaplasty’ or ‘vulval surgery’) that they are in fact referring to, not surgery to the vagina itself. Some people feel that this type of surgery is almost always unnecessary and related to unfounded fears that people have about larger labia minoras being ‘abnormal’.
This week, artist Laura Dodsworth’s latest piece hit the news. This is a collection of photographs of 100 vulvas. One of the reasons this is great is that it taps into and challenges taboos around vulval genitalia. One of the misconceptions very publicly elicited was the language and terms use- Dodsworth correctly uses ‘vulva’ to refer to the externally visible parts of this type of genitalia:
That ignorance around this exists became very evident, very quickly. One twitterer tried to ‘correct’ it. I’m doing so, he used the term ‘vagina’ which, although a common mistake, refers to the passage between the cervix (entrance of the womb) and outside of the body. These bits can be photographed, but it’s rather tricky and involves specialist equipment!
Professional and amateur vulva and vagina owners alike were swift to correct him. I really recommend reading this link, with popcorn.
Rounding off the year, let’s have a look at penises! We (the societal ‘we’) tend to be a bit more familiar with the constituent parts than we are with vulvas…
Glans: This is the tip or ‘head’ of the penis.
Foreskin: This is a fold of skin that covers the glans of the penis. It can be removed, either at birth or later in life, for either medical or cultural reasons in a process called circumcision. Rates of this practice vary across the world and it isn’t as common in the UK as in other parts of the world.
Urethra: The opening of the penis. Semen, urine and discharge can leave the body here. As with discharge from the vagina, this can be normal. Changes in the discharge (e.g. smell or colour), especially when accompanied by other symptoms (pain, itchiness) can however indicate something’s not quite right and might need checking out.
Shaft: This is the main bit of the penis. Internally are found the tubes that carry urine and semen out of the body, as well as blood vessels supplying the penis – this is part of the mechanism that causes the penis to become hard and bigger during an erection.
The average penis size is 9 cm when not erect, although there is a fairly large and health variation in this.
We seem to sometimes fall in to the habit of talking about ‘discharge’ from the vagina as if it’s always bad thing- for example as a sign of an infection. It can be easy for forget that it’s also a healthy part of how this bit of your vulva works. The vagina produces a mucousy discharge that helps keep it clean and protects from infection. But what is it ‘meant’ to look like?! Healthy discharge should be:
It’s perfectly normal for it to vary a bit with age and during different bits of the menstral cycle, but as long as it’s within these parameters, it’s all perfectly normal… so now you know!
Thrush is one of the causes of unusual vaginal discharge. Usually not ‘offensive’ smelling, it is often described as ‘cottage cheese’ – it has that kind of lumpy and white quality. Or like the chest of the bird thrush, which is speckled and light compared to the rest of its body!
Unlike other causes of abnormal discharge, it is not a sexually transmitted infection. STIs are spread from person to person, through direct contact such as skin-to-skin or bodily fluids (saliva, mucous, semen, blood, etc). Thrush however, is an overgrowth of a type of fungal yeast (candida albicans) that ordinarily lives in other parts of the body, without causing an infection.
As well as the discharge, it is usually accompanied by an itching feeling. Thrush proliferates in damp parts of the body. As well as being able to cause infection in the vagina, in can therefore cultivate under the foreskin of the penis, or in skin folds around the rest of the body.
Vaginal thrush is treated with a cream, a pessary (i.e. a ‘tablet’ that comes with a device to be put straight in to the vagina), an oral tablet or combinations of these. In the UK, this treatment is available ‘over the counter’ – you can go to a pharmacy and get it without a prescription. However, it’s a good idea to go to your GP if it’s the first time you’ve had thrush. They can then check that this is what it is. It’s important to get further medical help if you’ve had regular infections or tried the treatment before and it isn’t working. You may also need to see your doctor if you have other medical complications as well.
NHS, ‘Thrush in Men and Women’, accessed 14.11.2018.
Wikipedia, ‘Candida Albicans’, accessed online 14.11.2018.
Centre for Disease Control and Protection, ‘Candidiasis’, accessed 15.11.2018.
EMC, ‘Canestan Duo Patient Information Leaflet’, accessed online 15.11.2018.