As part of #Sextember, it’s time we had a look at some of the myths and lies surrounding bodies and sexuality. Centuries of puritanism, misogyny and flawed research have created many misconceptions about the vulva – what it is, how it works and what makes it unique. So, in an effort to tackle this ongoing issue, read on as I dispel 5 myths about vulvas that everyone should be aware of (whether they have one or not).
MYTH #1: ‘Vulva’ is synonymous with ‘vagina’
TRUTH: they are related but not the same
This is one of my absolute pet peeves: when people say vagina but mean vulva. When Britney Spears infamously flashed the paparazzi with a wide-leg stance getting out of a vehicle, every tabloid inaccurately claimed she’d shown her vagina. To have seen Britney’s vagina the cameras would have had to be much more up close and personal, and she’d have to have had a speculum in. What those photographers allegedly caught was a glance at her vulva. If you’re not fully versed on these parts of human anatomy, it’s important to note that they are in fact, completely different. The vagina is the muscular interior canal that ends at the cervix. The vulva is the exterior area that surrounds the vaginal opening. It includes the clitoris, labia minora, labia majora, and the mons pubis. The vulva also surrounds the urethra, and is connected to the perineum.
MYTH #2: A hairless vulva is a cleaner, healthier vulva
TRUTH: there’s no hygienic benefit to removing pubic hair from the vulva
This is a myth that has become more pernicious in my lifetime alone, which frankly, worries me. I have no qualms with people removing their pubes, but it’s essential to know that there is no health benefit and the only ‘benefit’ is strictly cosmetic. Whether or not one removes the pubic hair from one’s vulva is a personal choice. There’s no right or wrong way to groom a vulva! For many, a hairless vulva is an aesthetic decision, for others it’s more comfortable, or feels cleaner and more manageable, especially during menstruation. Shaving, waxing, or epilating pubic hair may seem cleaner and healthier, but the fact of the matter is that pubic hair serves a function: to protect the delicate skin of the vulva from friction and unwanted bacteria. It also traps and distributes pheromones that can contribute to our, and potentially our partners’, arousal. Pubic hair isn’t dirty or bad, and what people do with it is entirely up to them.
MYTH #3: Only women have vulvas
TRUTH: People of any gender identity or gender expression may have vulvas because gender and genital anatomy are not the same thing.
Gender is a strange and fascinating intersection of science and culture. There is a growing cultural consensus (finally!) that gender is a social construct that is not bound by genitalia, whereas science sticks to discourse that is predominantly about a male/female binary with coordinating biological reproductive systems. If a person was assigned the female (gender) at birth (AFAB) based on their reproductive biology but they identify as something other than a woman, their genitals don’t go away or magically change, they are still a person with a vulva, they just aren’t a woman with a vulva.
MYTH #4: All vulvas look more or less the same
TRUTH: The human vulva is as unique and distinctive as any other part of the body with a wide range of variations in colour, size, proportion, etc.
The design and functions of a vulva are more or less universal (though people are born with variations all the time) but the details of how a vulva looks vary from person to person. I’ve written about ‘fat pussy’ and feeling shy about my vulva before, and my comfort level with who sees my vulva and how, continues to be an internal battle. Why? Because it’s not the ‘perfect’ pink peach-half that mainstream pornopgraphy represents, and as much as I shouldn’t care, I do. The sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s attempted to normalise looking at and learning about one’s own vulva as a form of reclamation of sexuality, power, and body politics. It seems we have lost some of that momentum but it is never too late to pull out the hand mirror and have a peek. And remember: comparison is the thief of joy. Embrace your vulva, dismiss the arbitrary ideals and revel in the unique beauty of it!
MYTH #5: Vulvas require a special cleaning regime
TRUTH: Soap and hot water is all you need.
When I first heard about Gwyneth Paltrow, among other celebrities/influencers, doing vaginal steaming, I rolled my eyes so hard I about lost them in my own skull. This steaming procedure involves adding herbs and botanicals to steaming hot water and sitting over it and it is touted as an ancient remedy that “cleanses the vagina and uterus”. Excuse me? How would that be possible? Firstly, steam burns are serious business and not something you want to risk on your crotch. Secondly, the vagina isn’t just an open tube that steam will flow up, and the cervix is like a clenched fist; it’s not letting steam into the uterus. Thirdly, and this is maybe the most rage-inducing part: that steam is only touching the vulva, not the vagina (see Myth #1).
Okay, steam-rage aside, vulvas (remember, we are talking about the exterior) need nothing more than soap and water, even just water if you’re in a pinch, to be clean. Furthermore, the vagina (interior) is self cleaning and has a very particular optimal pH and is filled with good bacteria and flora that is essential for its health. Vulvas, like vaginas, need no special cleaning care. Wipe from front to back to prevent fecal exposure to the vulva and maintain basic personal hygiene. That’s it.
So there you go: 5 Myths About Vulvas That Everyone Should Be Aware Of, debunked and dispelled! Misinformation and lack of information are dangerous things. Whether you have a vulva of your own or not, understanding these myths and the truths behind them is part of being sexually educated and sex positive. I chose these 5 myths about vulvas because they are some of the more frustrating misconceptions, but there are many, many more.
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