BY MAGGIE OLSON
I have ears. I have eyes. I have a belly button. I have a vagina.
Why does that last sentence make some people cringe, even to see it in print? Why is it so difficult to talk about vaginas or even to say the word “vagina” out loud?
Personally, I have no problem saying vagina.
Vagina. Vagina. Vagina.
Let’s dispense at the outset with any euphemisms like “private parts.”
A “private” vagina is a vagina you keep to yourself and the person or people you feel deeply connected to. A “private” vagina is shared with a limited audience because it is treasured, enjoyed and loved.
But sometimes when people talk about “private parts,” I feel like they mean “secret parts.” A “secret” vagina is not talked about. A secret vagina is purely functional. A secret vagina is only dealt with only when absolutely necessary because it needs to stay hidden.
Vaginas can be private, but they should not be secret.
America has made great leaps and bounds in terms of being able to publicly discuss genitalia, but the progress is slow when it comes to vaginas. And we need to talk about them.
On Thursday, MSUM’s Blackfriars will host “The Vagina Monologues,” a show that is part of a global movement to end violence against women. This will be my third time performing in “The Vagina Monologues,” and while I think the show is imperfect and limited in some ways, my favorite thing about “The Vagina Monologues” is the conversation it starts.
When faced with the daunting task of writing an article about vaginas for The Advocate, I asked my friends, many from the cast of “The Vagina Monologues,” what the most important things to say about vaginas were.
As we talked about menstruation, female ejaculation, birth, abuse, pubic hair, the clitoris, orgasms and sexual awakening, I was surprised how often someone said, “I thought I was the only one!”
Our culture presents a very narrow view of vaginas and limits when, where, and how vaginas should be discussed. Vaginas are not generally seen as an appropriate topic for conversation.
The cry for women to “keep their private parts private” often comes from those who claim they are simply promoting modesty as a virtue.
There is a huge difference between modesty and body shame. It is the difference between “private” and “secret.”
When the only vaginas we see are part of the predominantly male-focused porn industry; when the only time we talk about vaginas in public is to discuss birth control; when the very mention of menstruation shuts down a conversation, women become isolated. They become insecure about their vaginas, and they think they are the only one who feels that shame.
To eliminate that shame, we have to talk about it. So that’s what we’re going to do right now.
Some of the women I talked to said they felt shame about their pubic hair. Many felt pressured to shave their vaginas either partially or fully. When we talked about how pubic hair can extend past the anus, we started laughing and comparing stories about the amazing gymnastic routines we have performed on slippery bathroom floors trying to remove every trace of pubic hair.
For some women, it wasn’t just the pressure they felt to shave that made them feel shame. It was the double standard that seems to exist for men’s and women’s pubic hair.
Men with low-slung jeans who expose their pubic hair sometimes joke about it as their “treasure trail,” but women’s pubic hair is treated differently. One woman recalled a time at the beach when her pubic hair stuck out from her swimming suit. Someone told her it looked like a gorilla.
When someone brought up the way vaginas smell, the conversation exploded. One woman asked, “How come there are all of these products to make vaginas smell pretty, but you never see advertisements for stuff to make men’s penises and balls smell better?” Nearly every woman I talked to admitted she had felt ashamed of the way her vagina smelled. None of the women I talked to said their vagina naturally smelled like fresh rain, rose petals or baby powder.
Vaginal shame wound its way through our conversations, including discussions of female ejaculation.
This type of orgasm often produces far more ejaculate material than a male orgasm. Female ejaculation is fairly uncommon, so many women who ejaculate feel embarrassed when they find they have suddenly drenched their sheets.
Though uncommon, squirting is a natural and safe activity. It is not urination. Though it is a fetish across the Internet, it is not freakish or disgusting. It is just one type of orgasm.
In our discussions, orgasms were often cited as a source of great pride. When I asked, “When was the first time you felt proud of your vagina?” many talked about their first sexual experiences, either alone or with a partner.
Learning how to have an orgasm helped free some women from the shame they had felt for their vaginas. Others felt pressure to have an orgasm “the right way.”
This had nothing to do with figuring out which kind of stimulation was most likely to produce an orgasm; learning what feels good is simply a matter of practice. The pressure was cultural. Films, music, paintings, porn, etc. give an idea of what an orgasm is “supposed to look like.”
Movies make us believe that every orgasm is meant to be a sweating, screaming, convulsive, earth-shattering experience. Sorry, but that’s not how it works.
Some people are loud. Some people are quiet. Some people are loud right up until they cum, and then they go quiet and just get lost in the moment. Some people pant, moan, groan, squeak, swear, roll their eyes back or cry out to their deity. All of these actions are perfectly normal. There is no way an orgasm is “supposed” to look or sound, no matter what the movies say.
When engaged in sexual activity, moaning can be an effective way to let your partner know what you like, and what you don’t like. Unfortunately, many women feel pressured to shift their moaning from communication to performance because they feel they must have an orgasm in order to satisfy their partner. The pressure to have an orgasm often decreases the ability to have one, so faking it feels like the only option.
For women and men, a great deal of fun can be had without having an orgasm. An orgasm does not have to be the ultimate goal of sex, and it does not have to signal the end of a sexual encounter.
Some people enjoy post-orgasm sexual activity.
There is no right or wrong way to feel sexual pleasure. There is no need to feel shame about sexual pleasure.
When we talked about shame, no topic even came close to the shame associated with menstruation.
We whisper with embarrassment if we have to ask someone for a pad or tampon. We hide these products in our sleeves as we hurry to the bathroom. Even beyond adolescence, we fear someone will be able to tell when we are wearing a pad.
One woman told a story about a sexual encounter in her teens. She had been near the very end of her period, and a small amount of brown blood had stained her underwear. When her boyfriend asked if she had “sharted,” she allowed him to believe the stain was poop. She was more comfortable saying it was a skid mark than saying, “No, I just had my period.”
When we are children our mothers say, “Make sure you are wearing clean underwear in case you have to go to the hospital.”
Though our mothers don’t say this to shame us intentionally, many women grow up literally believing the state of their underwear should be an area of concern for them and the medical professionals who treat them following an accident.
Menstruation is a normal, biological function, and yet we still feel ashamed and dirty.
The conversations I’ve had this week about vaginas were with women on this campus and in this community. They are the women in your classes, in your dorms and in your local grocery store.
“The Vagina Monologues” is part of a global movement to end violence against women, but like all global movements, it has to start with individuals.
Part of the way to end violence against women is to recognize our worth, especially the worth of our hairy, smelly, menstruating, magnificent vaginas.
We need to be fearless and vocal to reach every woman who is sitting in shame and isolation thinking, “I’m the only one.”