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Vagina is not a dirty word 

Photo: Getty

But the stigma around it is putting women’s health at risk, says Everyday Sexism founder Laura Bates

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By Laura Bates on

Vagina is not a dirty word. It doesn’t matter how many times we say it, it still seems to need repeating. For years, feminists have argued that the stigma around vulvas and vaginas has a negative effect on women, from making it harder for them to access healthcare to hampering their sexual satisfaction.

But a new study makes it even clearer that these outdated taboos could have an incredibly serious impact. Research released by leading cancer charity The Eve Appeal reveals that over half of men are not comfortable discussing gynaecological health issues with their partner at all, with 21 of 18 to 44-year-old men describing it as “too embarrassing”.

It’s astounding to think that the societal shame and silence around vaginas is so great that even many men who have sex with women do not feel able to discuss these issues within an intimate relationship. The research, released to raise awareness for Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month, also found that four-fifths of those questioned wouldn’t feel able to mention a change in a partner’s vagina. In fact, the issue extends beyond awkwardness and into ignorance: fifty  of the men were unable correctly to identify the vagina on a diagram and nearly two thirds were unable to identify the vulva.

Clearly, this has massive potential health implications. When sexual partners feel unable to discuss one another’s bodies openly and highlight any changes, it decreases the chance that worrying symptoms will be flagged and checked as soon as possible. This is particularly important, as the Eve Appeal’s Chief Executive, Athena Lamnisos explains: “We know from the many calls that we receive at The Eve Appeal from men, that they can play a vital role in identifying the symptoms of gynaecological cancer, prompting their partners to visit the GP.  Early diagnosis really is key and can save lives.”

But beyond the obvious health issues, there’s also another important side to these revelations. If a whopping 61 per cent of men can’t even point to the vulva on a diagram and a huge number don’t feel able to discuss vaginas with sexual partners who possess them, how on earth are they going to be able to provide those partners with the sexual pleasure they deserve? This might sound flippant but I’m deadly serious. Recent research found that heterosexual women orgasm less than any other group when having sex, and notably less frequently than heterosexual men. The huge study of 52,000 Americans found that 95 per cent of heterosexual men said they usually or always orgasm when sexually intimate, but the figure for heterosexual women was just 65 per cent, representing a huge sexual pleasure gap. One important way to address the disparity might be to educate men about the basic anatomy of vaginas and vulvas, not to mention the importance of teaching people of all genders about the clitoris.  

Misogynistic norms that have long held women’s bodies to be dangerous, dirty and unspeakable might mean life and death. But they’re a serious problem even before it gets to that point

When I visit schools and universities across the UK to talk to young people about sex and relationships, it is clear that the myths and misconceptions about women’s bodies show no sign of disappearing. Girls are acutely aware of the sanitised and often unrealistic imagery of online pornography, which adds to the notion that there is something dirty or shameful about perfectly ordinary labia and pubic hair. (A fact also reflected in statistics showing a huge increase in enquiries about plastic surgery from girls as young as nine.) Stigma around female masturbation means that girls are less likely to explore and understand their own anatomy than boys, making it more difficult for them to recognise bodily changes later on, let alone confidently communicate about intimate issues with a sexual partner.

The idea that women’s bodies are somehow dirty or embarrassing also probably contributes to the sexual pleasure gap, with young women much less likely to receive oral sex regularly than their male peers (and less likely to feel able to ask for it).

What’s even sadder is that the study also reveals many women would be put off seeking medical help, perhaps because of the extent of the taboo surrounding vulvas and vaginas. When quizzed about particular symptoms, 19 per cent wouldn't go to see a doctor if they had abnormal vaginal bleeding, one of the key symptoms across all five gynaecological cancers. In fact, 42 per cent of 18 to 24 year old women would keep it to themselves altogether.

Half of women wouldn't seek help for persistent bloating and 15 per cent wouldn't even go to the doctor if they found a lump or growth in their vagina. This rises to 29 per cent among 25 to 34 year olds.

These issues will affect many of us in our lifetimes. More than 21,000 people in the UK are diagnosed each year with a gynaecological cancer, which equates to 58 diagnoses each day. Yet, as shown by this new research, awareness levels are startlingly low.

Misogynistic norms that have long held women’s bodies to be dangerous, dirty and unspeakable might mean life and death. But they’re a serious problem even before it gets to that point.

The Eve Appeal is raising awareness and funding research into the five gynaecological cancers. To help, donate here.


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