Posted in Genitals: A User's Guide

Blue Waffle with a Side of Misogyny…

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Sometimes being a facilitator for Sexplain involves attempting to hold the attention of young people through wit, honesty and sheer confidence as you explain a specific curriculum point as your unembarrassable self.  At other times it involves asking questions your audience may not have considered before and standing back whilst a tide of answers hits you.

“Can anyone name any sexually transmitted infections?”  My colleague asked of a group of year 10 students just outside of London.  Three off us were delivering a workshop on sexual health.  This was definitely going to be one of the latter type of encounters.  Luckily, this group wasn’t a shy one and answers came flooding forward.

“Chlamydia”, “syphillis”,  and “gonorrhea” were proffered.  All good answers and affirmed as such.

“Mono” was suggested, the infection also going by the name of ‘mononucleosis’ or ‘glandular fever’ – the ‘kissing disease’.  By our extremely wide definition of ‘sex’ (any behaviour that someone finds arousing) completely valid and a good opportunity to bring this in.

“HIV” was another suggestion, to me offered surprisingly late.  Once seen as the sexually transmitted infection in the UK, hopefully this reflects a reduction in stigma and fear around this disease as treatment and prevention becomes so incredibly effective.

“Crabs” one pupil proffered- a nice segue in to talking about parasites.  Another good talking point.

And then it came. The complete surprise.

“Blue waffle” one student called out.

This caught me by surprise a little.  I had heard of this before, but only come across it in training and never actually in the classroom before.

If you haven’t come across it before, blue waffle is a fictional STI.  It was something that Amelia and Hazel, Sexplain’s Founders had come across when talking to children in their research original work.  The story doing the rounds at the time was that blue waffle was a disease contracted by women who had had a large number of sexual partners.  At the time a google image search would return pictures of vulvas covered in lesions- very nasty looking lumps and bumps.  To my clinical eye, some of the images looked to be lesions caused by genital warts.  Others looked like erosion and growths caused by vulval cancers.  Interestingly (and perhaps not surprisingly) the rumour ran that it was transmitted to people with vulvas and did not trouble penises at all.  Even though this is how the disease was said to be spread.  Turns out misogyny can be a powerful vehicle for keeping a lie alive – who’d have thought it!

This turned out to be the case for the young person who had introduced it in to the classroom in this instance.  He was quite resistant to my telling him that it was a made-up thing.

“But Miss, if you look on Google, there are pictures!”

I tried to gently unpack this, explaining what I thought these images were actually of.  It was a nice opportunity for a discussion about being critical of sources, particularly those on the internet.  However, I left with the distinct impression that I had only created an aura of doubt in this person’s mind.  I had not completely convinced him it was a total urban myth and an element of belief in blue waffle remained.

Posted in Genitals: A User's Guide

Hidden Depths

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:

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The structure of the clitoris, showing its relation to the urethra and vaginal opening (After Drake  et al., 2010).

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.

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3D printed, scale-sized model of the clitoris

 

References:

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}

 

Posted in Genitals: A User's Guide

Dare to Hair

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!

Posted in Genitals: A User's Guide

Getting Technical

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.

Posted in Genitals: A User's Guide

But, Am I Normal?

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:

  1. SMELL – not strong and/or unpleasant.
  2. COLOUR – clear or white.
  3. CONSISTENCY – thick and sticky or slippery and wet.

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!

 

Posted in Genitals: A User's Guide

Filling in the Blanks

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Every now and then I see an image of a penis whilst out and about.  Various public places lend themselves particularly to this, such as the back of loo doors or bus seats.   I bet you know exactly what it looks like.  In fact, you’re probably picturing what it looks like now, a sausage shape with two circles for testicles.  If the artist is paying particular attention to detail, you might get some strands of hair sticking out of them, or some ejaculate coming out of the top.

As yet, I’ve never seen a vulva presented in quite the same way.  Occasionally they are seen as a piece of more formally displayed art – The Vulva Gallery is my current favourite maker and curator of such images.  Why is this?  Is it the different social-cultural meaning that the different genitalia have?  Or maybe it’s just not being quite sure what to draw.

With this in mind, here’s my step-by-step guide to drawing vulvas.  I’m not encouraging you to draw on public property, but I’m wishing that more people could.

First, draw a leaf- type shape.

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This is the vestibule, the smooth bit that is usually covered by the labia.

Next, draw two ‘lips’ either side like so:

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These are the labia majora, the fatty pads of tissue that surround the vulva.  If you like, hair can be added here.  They often cover the rest of the bits that we’re going to draw, but which are still external.

Let’s add a bit more detail.  We now need to make two more ‘inner lips’, of the labia minora.

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These can be either hanging out beyond the labia majora, or can nestle within.  When people (incorrectly) talk about a ‘vaginoplasty’ or ‘designer vagina’ they are often referring to labiaplasty , or surgical reduction of this area.

We now need to start adding some detail.  First, let’s add a little round circle.  Let’s go wild and make it red.

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This represents, you’ve guessed it – the clitoris.  Or at least the bit of the clitoris that can be seen externally.  There are a lot of misconceptions about the clitoris.  Suffice to say, the bit that you can see here represents just a small part of the total structure of the clitoris. It is a sensitive area, which contains millions of nerve endings and is often overlooked because its main purpose seems to be sensual with no conventional reproductive function.

Moving on to another often over looked area of the vulva is the first of the two ‘openings’ in to the internal part of the body, the urethra.  Let’s draw another small circle in the vestibule to represent the area where urine comes out, running straight from the ‘storage’ area of the bladder:

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An important point to note is that this is a separate and distinct area from the vagina.   Urine comes out of this.  Babies, periods and discharge from infections of the internal reproductive tract do not.   They come from the second ‘hole’ in the vestibule, the vagina.  Of course, in real life it isn’t a hole that maintains itself and is ‘squashy’, although can accomodate being made larger – e.g. by neonates’ heads, tampons or penises, for example:

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So if it’s a bigger than this, or more squashy, that’s spot on.

You can stop here.  Because it’s often overlooked, I’m going to add some remnants of the hymenal tissue.  Note that in health, this is not a complete covering or seal.

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Voila!  And remember – this is only a schematic.  Vulvas you have seen may look completely different from this AND THAT IS ABSOLUTELY FINE.

Posted in Genitals: A User's Guide

Does My Labia Majora Look Big In This?

Today I was at a teaching session for trainee Obstetrician/Gynaecologists.  At one point, these words were uttered:

“If a woman’s been told by her boyfriend that her vulva looks abnormal, it’s YOUR job, especially YOU [points to the two men in the room] to say that you’ve seen far more than him & it ISN’T.”

Insecurities about genitals is the idea behind The Great Wall of Vagina (dull accuracy announcement: it’s actually vulvas, not vaginas, but still great).

There is a huge amount of variation in how external genitalia look.  Humans have a great variety in height, build and skin tone.  We are all so different that we find it remarkable when we find someone whose face is a little like ours.  Why would this be any different in your nether regions?