Every time I teach a group of women about their sexual bodies, genitals and pleasure, I am reminded how revolutionary it is (still) to talk about our bodies in a sex-positive way because we just do not have the role modeling for it. If you do not partner with other people with vulvas, when do you get to see others? Men see more genitalia in locker rooms than women can by nature of how hidden our genitals can be, though some are more evident from the outside than others.
Last weekend, I hosted a group of women who are a part of my sexual empowerment program and we did that work: we got specific in a way our textbooks, our biology classes and even sex education courses (if we even had any) probably never did, and we talked about our sexual bodies in a way our families and friends just don’t know how. It is indeed revolutionary.
The power of knowing the diversity of genitals, breasts and other hidden parts of the body cannot be underestimated. For decades, I have always shared Betty Dodson’s drawings of real vulvas with my groups when I discuss the body because it’s so powerful to see a range of what they can look like. As a skilled artist, she did line drawings of real people’s vulvas and they are beautifully variant. There are other resources like Betty’s website, the picture book Femalia (now out of print) and the Large Labia Project. Oh, and let’s not forget the Cunt Coloring Book. In 1999, when I produced my play, Vulvalution, in downtown NYC to sold-out audiences, we showed slides of real vulvas as part of a scene where the characters were looking at their own genitals, and it was radical to see those photographs as part of a play!
I taught college for many years, and I remember a young woman coming to me after class one day after I had shown Betty’s drawings and discussed the “normal” diversity of vulvas. She was in so much shame about her genitals and had convinced herself she needed surgery to “fix” them. She was 18-years-old, and already she had internalized so strongly the idea that her genitals were “not normal” that she felt surgery was necessary. This is what we’ve got young American women worrying about.
After we’d spoken awhile, the student asked me if I thought she should have the surgery. “No,” I said, “no one needs that surgery. You are perfectly normal just as you are.” She needed to have someone say that. She needed reassurance that she was okay. She needed permission to lift the shame she’d been carrying about her genitals.
Statistics are showing a continuing upsurge in American women who are opting for labiaplasty (a surgery that cuts the very sensitive inner lips to make them smaller or more symmetrical) and “vaginal rejuvenation therapy” (where the vagina is surgically tightened, supposedly to “help the woman feel more pleasure,” but it doesn’t take a genius to understand who that’s really for). We rail against compulsory “female genital cutting” or “mutilation” that is common in some countries (and does actually happen in some U.S. communities) and yet, women will pay thousands of dollars out of pocket to voluntarily surgically alter perfectly healthy genitals – risking loss of sensation, development of scar tissue and losing parts of their sexual body.
Having seen the power of education and how a little can go a long way in shifting women’s perspectives about their bodies and helping them to release the genital shame they carry, I believe education is the antidote. When we lack education or any real conversation about sexuality, genitals, desire or other parts of sexuality we tend to keep private, we end up in our own myopic spirals and myths about what’s normal or not and we tell ourselves we are not okay. We believe all kinds of lies about our sexuality, bodies and desire, and we internalize harmful ideas that would be gone with some support and facts. Instead, we are immersed in a culture that continually tells us how imperfect we are and a media that preys on our sexual insecurities to get us to spend big bucks fixing ourselves.
I’m proud to have been a part of the New View Campaign, which for years, has been led by Leonore Tiefer, with many incredible advocates working to end the medicalization of female sexuality and to challenge the unsafe and ineffectual drugs that have squeezed their way through the FDA and into the marketplace. We are meeting in Indiana at The Capstone Conference in just a few weeks to discuss the research and to strategize how to continue to lead public dialogue and advocacy. Please join us to as we continue to raise awareness about these issues so people stop buying into the shame-based messages that tell us we need surgeries and ineffective drugs.
Should you be interested in this issue, join us. And send a few links to some of the people in your life who might benefit from a greater understanding of our genitals. Education is the antidote to the sexual shame that comes from ignorance.