In the past few weeks I have been meeting with women’s health activist Carol Downer to collaborate on a new book. She shared with me a work published in 1969 that was a catalyst for her development of the self-help movement and feminist women’s health clinics – ‘The Abortion Handbook’ by Patricia Maginnis and Lana Clark Phelan – which is extremely hard to get hold of these days (Carol found her current copy on Ebay for a significant sum). This book has a strikingly contemporary tone- snarky, conversational, with a lot of black humor. It is also conspiratorial with very much an “us” (women) against “them” (medical establishment) tone. It’s something like ‘Sex and the Single Girl’ by Helen Gurley Brown, but with a recipe for a “home made hemorrhage” instead of a “fabulous dinner.” That is, the writers outline ways in which women could circumvent the restrictions on abortion access of the time in creative, guerrilla-style ways in order to have a legal abortion. One of these is getting an IUD inserted in the early stages of pregnancy.
In an chapter entitled ‘The Loop Can Be Your Little Friend’ the writers provide women who have missed a period with a plan for persuading a doctor to insert an IUD, when, at the time, it was required that this be done during a woman’s menstruation, in part, it is claimed here, to ensure that an abortion would not be the outcome. Firstly the woman makes the appointment as soon as possible, not waiting for a pregnancy test to confirm, as, they say, she can always pull the IUD out herself later if she doesn’t want it as a contraceptive. Then:
“Buy some raw, fresh beef liver…dip your well-scrubbed forefinger into the blood on the raw liver and rub this bloody finger into your vaginal tract. Go way up, beyond your cervix, not just the opening. Menstrual blood collects in the back of the vagina, so be sure and put some there to make it look more authentic…if you wear a tampon, use a bit more blood before you insert it so there will be discoloration on the tampon. Do not remove the tampon before you see the doctor or loop-installer…if you use an external sanitary napkin, smear a bit of beef blood down the center of the napkin just as your natural menstrual flow would be distributed…not side-to-side and end-to-end like butter on bread.
(Sorry if this makes you feel sick, but this whole business nauseates us. We’d like to get out of this whole trickery business, and we will, just as soon as doctors get out of the abortion business so all this planned deception can stop)
Be sure to smear your vaginal interior lightly also, as this napkin-evidence may be removed by a nurse, and it would be hard to explain you nice, bloodless vagina after that bloody napkin. For heaven’s sake, don’t douche before adding your bloody, dramatic “proof of period.” Keep yourself naturally revolting and smelly to get even for this humiliation.”
Once the IUD is installed the writers suggest the woman go about exercising vigorously, swimming, horse back riding, dancing, moving pianos and having sex in order to help the IUD act as a fertilized embryo remover. They conclude:
“This has worked many times for desperate women lacking money for proper medical care, and who hadn’t the stomach for self-surgery. It is certainly worth a trial. Except for your spiritual humiliation for being forced to deception, it is certainly harmless to you physically.”
Reading this I was reminded of how today we see menstrual activists stain white jeans with fake menstrual blood to confront the menstrual taboo in public or create accessories like the Stains by Chella Quint, that are an attachable fake period of sorts, in order to question the need to be secretive about this natural bodily function. On the television show ‘Nashville’ a main character used animal blood to fake a miscarriage for the observation of her husband in order that he remain married to her (it’s complicated, but a great show, you should check it out!). I was also reminded of the study from 2012 that claimed 38% of women have used having their period as a way to avoid an activity they did not want to do at the time. 20% said they have used their period as an excuse not to go into work. The study did not show how many women are actually having their period when they do this or how many are pretending to be having their period.
For me, that’s always the question.
Gross is a decision. It is a judgment based on a set of values derived from a particular perspective. And because of this slipperiness, some things are more widely deemed GROSS that some other things.
Readers of this blog are well aware that bleeding lady parts often end up in Grossland. And they end up there more often than other body parts doing their body part thing. So why is this?
It’s been a busy few weeks in Grossland— dizzying days upon days of seeing the obvious contradictions embedded in what we, as a culture, deem gross and what we see as just- bodies- being- natural-bodies. Sometimes these bodily functions are FUNNY and other times only mildly yucky, but still okay to talk about.And sometimes, in the case of menstruating bodies, we are socialized to keep the whole thing quiet and hidden.
My most recent trip to Grossland began with the uproar over the newly-released (and nearly sold out) American Apparel masturbation-period-vulva T shirt flap. The flap just barely died down when Kristen Schaal’s brilliant satire (on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart) delivered a bit on the proliferation of sexy Halloween costumes for women. In it, Schaal suggested that women “take it to the next level … get everyone thinking about sex (by) dressing up as the place where sex happens!” (and in walks a 6 foot high vulva! With Stewart-as-straight-man remarking “I don’t know if we can show that….” )I love what she did there, but the piece is not ONLY funny for its feminist take down of the hypersexualization of women’s bodies. The costume is outrageous because it is gross, right? “Sexy Vagina” (vulva, of course, more accurately, but this is not the time for anatomical correctness) is funny because who-in-their-right-mind-would dress-up-like-that? That’s disgusting. Welcome to Grossland.
Petra Collins, the 20-year-old artist commissioned to produce the t-shirt image for no-friend-to-women retailer American Apparel gets this (even if her check was written by a corporate entity who could care less about the social message she has in mind). Collins speaks compellingly about the objectification and containment of women’s bodies that her work endeavors to challenge. And she reports that the controversy swirling around a line drawing of a hand stroking a menstruating (and hairy!!!) vulva was “awesome” because
“it totally proves my point…. that we’re so shocked and appalled at something that’s such a natural state—and its funny that out of all the images everywhere, all of the sexually violent images, or disgustingly derogatory images, this is something that’s so, so shocking apparently.”
And appalled we are! One commenter on a TIME article about the t shirt controversy remarked: I….would equate her imagery with a straining rectum expelling a painful, post-digestion steak dinner.” And there it is. We can’t seem to have a menstrual moment without someone rushing in to equate menstruation with defecation. Liz Kissling has taken it on. Breanne Fahs has, too, more recently, but we still haven’t gained much traction in showing that
1) menstruating and pooping are not the same thing, and even if they were,
2) menstruating IS more shamed than pooping
Menstruation is gross (throw in masturbation and pubes to make it really beyond the pale) because we say it is. And those that hasten to compare uterine-lining shining with expelling feces are missing the fact that while the processes do overlap in some ways, we are NOT, culturally speaking, as hellbent on silencing the poop (or the farts and certainly not the piss) as we are the menses. and why is that? Perhaps it it matters who is doing the business. I assert that it ain’t no coincidence that bleeding LADY parts are the Grossest of Them All.
To wit, I submit the following:
A colleague put the new film Movie 43, a blend of edgy and puerile vignettes acted by a star studded ensemble cast, on my radar. The film includes the segment: “Middleschool Date” (written by Elizabeth Shapiro. Elizabeth: If you are out there, will you be my friend?).
Guest post by Kati Bicknell, Kindara
Now I know in the title of this post I say “Five things you probably don’t know about your vagina,” but really it’s about more than your vagina. The V Book, by Elizabeth Gunther Stewart and Paula Spencer, is basically the owner’s manual for all people who have any of the following V’s — vagina, vulva, and vestibule. Don’t know what a vestibule is? Read on, my good friend!
I am a bonafide vagina nerd myself, and when I read this book I learned a BUNCH of things that I did not know. Here are my top five:
- So we all know (now) about cervical fluid, but did you know that it’s not the only substance produced by your lady bits to keep things running smoothly? Your vulva actually produces a thin waxy substance, called sebum that lubricates the folds of your labia! It’s a blend of oils, fats, waxes, and cholesterol. If it didn’t, your labia and everything else would be all friction-y and chafe when you walked, had sex, moved, did anything really. That blew my mind. Thanks, body!
- Have you ever wondered how the vagina is simultaneously quite small, (i.e., sometimes even putting in a tampon might be uncomfortable and “stretchy”) and also somehow stretches to accommodate a baby passing through it? I definitely have. Well, it’s all thanks to your rugae! Rugae are small pleats that allow the vagina to be both very small and compact, and then to expand to many times its original size when necessary. Rugae is kind of like ruching! You know, the process of using tons of fabric and then scrunching it so it becomes a smaller form. I’m wearing a ruched jacket at this very moment, actually. It makes you think, if you wore this dress to the prom, are you subliminally broadcasting “HEY! THIS IS WHAT THE INSIDE OF MY VAGINA LOOKS LIKE”?
- Vestibule! (I told you we’d get here.) Okay! So the vestibule is important enough to be included in the three V’s of the V book, and yet I was like, “where the heck is my vestibule?” Well, it’s the place in between your inner labia. Here it is on Wikipedia, with an image that is ***not safe for work,*** unless you work in the field of sexual health, in which case, click away!
- Labia (as in the labia majora and labia minora). This word is actually plural. If you are referring to only one lip it’s called a labium.
Only in rare instances is a human female born with the hymen completely covering the vaginal opening. Most hymens are a little circle of very thin skin that partially covers the vaginal opening, but still leaves space for menstrual blood and cervical fluid to come out. Here is a hilarious and educational video explaining more about this. [Editor's note: Many sex educators today call it the vaginal corona, not the hymen.]
And there is a LOT more info in that book. Tons. Go pick it up today and learn more than you ever thought possible about vaginas, vulvas, and vestibules!
A surprising amount of my time last week was spent thinking about vaginas. In part, this was because I had plans to attend the Friday night show of The Vagina Monologues on my campus. It’s always a great show, and this year, one of my students was directing it. During the course of the week, however, a former student of mine also posted a news story about the use of the word vagina on my Facebook wall. All of this led to me reflecting a lot of people’s comfort and discomfort with this word.
The Vagina Monologues does address people’s comfort, or lack there of, with vaginas (or vulvas – although the way the two terms are conflated is a topic for another post) and women’s sexuality. My focus was a bit different. I was thinking about the word vagina itself….
In the late 1990s, when I was a senior in college, I had the wonderful opportunity to see Eve Ensler perform The Vagina Monologues as a one woman show on my campus as part of the dedication celebration for the newly funded Women’s Studies chair which would allow for the formal creation of a Women’s Studies major. Since I was one of the students most involved with the program, I was given one of the few tickets for students.
Since so few students attended the show, Sunday brunch conversation the next day largely consisted of a discussion of The Vagina Monologues over dining hall french toast sticks. One of my friends was very uncomfortable with the conversation because I was consistently using the word vagina “in mixed company”. I try to be respectful of others’ limits, but I couldn’t wrap my head around how to talk about this show without using the word vagina. Plus, it’s not a slang or pejorative term – it’s a formal anatomical name for a body part.
Given that The Vagina Monologues were part of my plans for the week, this experience immediately came to mind when my former students shared a Jezebel.com post about a tenth grade science teacher facing investigation and possible disciplinary action for using the word vagina in an anatomy lesson. Seriously? Once again, this is a formal biological term for a body part. Yes, it’s a body part associated with sex and reproduction, but we need to be able to use these words.
When I teach Psychology of Women and get to development, reproduction, and women’s health, I typically have to spend a few minutes just saying vagina repeatedly until the giggles stop, the discomfort dies down, and we can actually move on with the content of the class. Yes, words have power – but we don’t get like this about the words knee or forehead. People run around in “Save the Ta-Tas” t-shirts. Why can’t we say vagina?
One of the fundraisers the students staging The Vagina Monologues did this year was to sell buttons that say “I ♥ My Vagina”. Yes, we should love our vaginas and the vaginas of our consensual sexual partners. I also think we should love the word vagina. Let’s stop being scared of this one. Don’t shush people if they say it in public. Don’t try to come up with covert ways of referring to vaginas without using this word. Just say vagina.
Vagina. Vagina, vagina, vagina. Va-gin-a.
Give me a V, give me an A, give me a G, give me an I, give me an N, give me an A. What’s that spell? VAGINA!
Come on – say it with me: Vagina!
Be loud. Be proud. Love and respect vaginas, but also embrace the word. Some words need to be normalized. It astounds and saddens me that this has not yet happened with vagina. Let’s change that starting today.
My friend and colleague Patty Chantrill loves clever menstrual puns as much as I do, and recently snapped this picture of an area billboard from her car. I’ve edited the photo to try to highlight the sign, but there’s only so much one can do with a Blackberry in motion [clicking the image will show you a larger, slightly clearer version]. The sign features a photo of presumably female feet in high-heeled shoes, wearing a ball and chain, next to the words, “Does Your Period Feel More Like a Sentence? There’s Help.” This is followed by the name of a local women’s health clinic that shall remain unnamed.
The clinic offers numerous treatments for heavy periods, including NovaSure endometrial ablation, a process of permanently removing the uterine lining with radio frequency, and HerOption cryoablation, which removes the uterine lining by freezing the tissue. I haven’t yet researched these procedures enough to form strong opinions for or against them, but I do have strong opinions about some of the other procedures offered by this clinic. They are providers of what their website terms ‘aesthetic gynecological surgery’, which includes such mutilations as labiaplasty, G-spot augmentation, vaginal rejuvenation, and ‘radiofrequency tightening’. Check out the price list for these crimes against womanity:
- Labiaplasty: $4200 (surgery cost)*
- Vaginoplasty: $6000 (surgery costs)*
- Combined Labiaplasty and Vaginoplasty: $9400 (surgery cost)*
- *IV sedation is done by a separately contracted CRNA and is $150 per hour.
- Radiofrequency Tightening $999 (never covered by insurance)
- Initial G-spot augmentation (hyaluronic acid, lasts up to 4 months): $100 for initial 30 minute consultation, $850 for initial G-spot augmentation itself (never covered by insurance)
- Follow-Up G-Spot Augmentations (hyaluronic acid, lasts up to 4 months): $600 each (never covered by insurance)
May I recommend, again, Lisa Rogers’ documentary film, In Search of the Perfect Vagina? You can watch the film for no cost at all at either link, no insurance needed, and discover that you already have the perfect vagina.
Research by SMCR members Tomi-Ann Roberts and Nicki Dunnavan garnered a lot of attention this week. Stories showed up at Live Science – Why Why Women Should Bring Their Periods ‘Out of the Closet, popular ladyblog Jezebel – Your Period Is a Time for Deep Lady-Bonding, and the Daily Mail - Women, start talking about it. Period! Roberts and Dunnavan surveyed 340 religious and non-religious women about their experiences and attitudes about menstruation. As the Daily Mail reported: ”U.S. researchers say women across the world need to be more positive about menstruation – and that means talking about it in public.”
There’s been lots of public discussion about contraception, some might say too much! The birth control/medical insurance coverage brouhaha hit a boiling point last week with Rush Limbaugh’s egregious comments about Sandra Fluke, and the heated debate rages still. Maureen J Andrade at OpenSalon writes that Birth Control Is Not a Women’s Issue: It’s a Human Right, while Asma T. Uddin and Ashley McGuire, blogging at the Washington Post, insist It’s about religious liberty, not birth control. A group of crafters has come up with a unique protest action: sending “interfering” male government members a knitted or crocheted uterus, vagina or cervix, while feministing.com has invited readers to Talk About Birth Control For REAL.
Back to women’s experience of menstruation, Enith Morillo in Menses’ non-sense: Menstruation and the Muslim Woman’s “Red Tent” and Carolyn West in Menstruation – Celebration or Taboo?, explore different cultural menstrual traditions.
A friend shared this clip from stand-up comedian and actor Hal Sparks.
He leads with this “I disagree—vehemently—with the use of the word “pussy” to describe a weak person. Because the vagina is the tougher of the two genitals…. by a long shot!”
And later…”It bleeds every month and it won’t die.”
That puzzled reaction to menstruation is as old as time, say the cultural historians of menstruation. We know now, of course, that the monthly shedding of the uterine lining is no mystery. Nor does this regular occurrence suggest that women are necessarily witches or demons or otherwise intrinsically cursed or even blessed.
But his point is a good one.
It IS important to reframe the female body as POWERFUL. As RESILIENT.
And demonstrate how our language—especially the words we use to slur and to exalt—obscures this reality.
Thanks, Hal, for a good laugh and a better think. You are a REAL pussy.
If a product manufacturer or its advertising company, or both, cannot figure out which part of the female body their new line of feminine hygiene products can be used for, then both are in big trouble.
There has been much hoopla over the recently launched Summer’s Eve campaign. Links to stories about and response to the campaign can be found in my fellow blogger Elizabeth Kissling’s July 27th post. The most serious backlash to the campaign resulted in three videos perceived as “racially insensitive” being pulled from the campaign website late last week.
What rankles me about the campaign – beyond its patronizing, unsophisticated and euphemistically silly approach to the female genital area - is that it appears to target the vagina when it is clear that none of these products are actually intended for use in the vagina.
Regardless of what one might think about the value of or necessity for these femcare products, an advertising campaign for such products must convey accurate information. Like where to use them.
The product line includes: cleansing wash, cleansing cloths, deodorant spray, body powder, and bath and shower gel. Click on the OUR PRODUCTS box on the website home page and you’ll see this: Meet the products that love your vagina. Oh, really?
These products are not intended, I repeat, not intended for use in the vagina. One would think that the product manufacturer knows this. Why then did they choose a talking vagina, and across-the-board references to the vagina, to convey their product message on the website?
Interestingly, the print and TV ads hold no direct reference to the vagina. The website coyly advises viewers that they can call it “V” for short. It is this moniker and the tagline ” Hail to the V” that crosses over to print and television.
Maybe this was intended as a subtle reference to the other “V” word – vulva . It’s pretty clear this is the body part for which the Summer’s Eve products are intended.
I wanted to know why the creative team at The Richards Group, the ad company responsible for the campaign, chose to use the word vagina instead of vulva. My request for an interview to ask this question was turned down, so instead I asked two colleagues what they thought the reason might be.
Valerie Barr, veteran sexual health educator and training centre manager at Calgary Sexual Health Centre, suspects it’s because vagina is assumed to mean what is actually the vulva. She says, “I believe this assumption, or taken-for-granted use of the term, serves to avoid discussion of the clitoris and therefore, female sexual response.” Barr says she thinks it demonstrates that in our culture we continue to be unconsciously uncomfortable with women being sexual beings.
Rebecca Chalker, female anatomy expert and author of The Clitoral Truth, also believes that fear of the word clitoris has much to do with it. ”Clitoris is the most toxic word in the English language, and to this day is considered obscene and too offensive to be used in the media. Just try it on people,” she says.
“Eve Ensler (author of The Vagina Monologues) made the vagina safe for the general public – even she did not use the C–word. Vagina has now become the default reference for everything ‘down there.’ Those ad guys are no different. Perhaps they’re just using the default because that’s what they think people can relate to most readily,” Chalker says.
Although vulva is the accurate word to describe the female body part intended to benefit from the Summer’s Eve product line, Chalker says, “It would be a tragedy if vulva becomes the new default. In anatomical parlance vulva just means covering.”
All of this proves that Summer’s Eve Vaginaland is a minefield, and incredibly more complex than the silly campaign would have us believe. Marketing femcare products has always been a challenge for advertisers, but that’s another story.
In deciding to pull the aforementioned videos from the campaign, Stacie Barnett, Richards Group PR Executive, told Adweek that the backlash “had begun to overshadow the message and goal of the larger campaign – to educate women about their anatomy and break down taboos in talking about it….”
Well, the educational value of the ”Hail to the V” campaign is in question, and we’re still not talking about the right body part.