Vaginal Shame Is Real—so Here’s a Much-Needed Reality Check

Photo: Stocksy / Lucas Ottone
After I first heard of the concept of "vaginal shame," I found myself flipping through an educational (read: not sexual) slideshow called The Labia Library. It's exactly what it sounds like—a collection of close-up photos of labias belonging to various women, which made me realize that I'm a cisgender heterosexual woman in her 30s who doesn't understand the vast diversity of human female anatomy. "Your experience isn't uncommon," gynecologist Jen Gunter, MD, assures me.

Many women typically see so few vaginas in their lifetimes that aren't in porn—where the preferred aesthetic is decidedly narrow—that they're often vulnerable to suggestions from their male partners around what's "normal," or, more critically for a woman's self-esteem, "not normal." "I see so few gay women who are vulnerable to [vaginal shame]—in fact, I can remember just one—simply because they see all kinds of vaginas and vulvas," says Dr. Gunter, author of The Vagina Bible. "And gay women don't get that horrible destructive messaging of, 'You're not wet enough,' or 'What do you mean you can't orgasm with just my penis?' And so on, that so many straight women do from heterosexual men."

In other words, she says, the person who is the least educated about female anatomy—the man—may be the one telling you how your body should work or look. When his suggestions don't match your reality, the result is often shame, which is big business under the patriarchy that perpetuates it. (Consider labiaplasty that promises a "Barbie" vaginal aesthetic.) Entire industries are devoted to helping women achieve an impossible "ideal"—smelling fresh, feeling perpetually wet and tight, and looking like a doll down there.

This same system, says Dr. Gunter, is teaching women to be hyper-vigilant about their vaginas, aware at all times of what's happening below their belts. "I don't think about mine at all—and I'm a gynecologist!" she says. "If I don't have a symptom, I don't think about it, just like if I don't have a symptom in my knee, I don't think about my knee."

It's not just male-run big business contributing to this issue, either. Dr. Gunter distinguishes between what she calls Big Feminine Hygiene—the companies selling douches and wipes and sprays—and Little Feminine Hygiene—the companies selling women things like jade eggs and vaginal steams—but notes that both cause women to overthink things. "There's this [false] idea that the vagina is always one wrong pair of underwear away from mayhem," she scoffs.

I asked Dr. Gunter to shares her thoughts—or more accurately, her scientific analysis—on a number of shame-based issues she says are all in our brainwashed heads.

"Problem": Cleanliness

According to data reported in Dr. Gunter's book, 57 percent of women have cleaned the inside of their vaginas in the past year, and half of those women say they were encouraged to do so by their partner. Dr. Gunter asserts unequivocally that any vaginal cleansing beyond running a gentle cleanser along the outside of the vagina to clear sebum and feces is unnecessary, because the vagina cleans itself.

She's not a fan of more wellness-oriented cleansing practices, either. "Vaginal steaming is patriarchal nonsense—it cannot cleanse your uterus, as steam can't make it through the cervix into the uterus," she says. "It’s a practice derived from ancient times when they used to think the uterus wandered the body causing mayhem, and so the way that you’d get the uterus back in place is by putting fragrant herbs between the legs—it's a big scam, patriarchy wrapped up with a pink bow to call it feminism." (I didn't ask her what she thought of vagina facials, though I can probably guess as to her response.)

"Problem": Smell

Dr. Gunter tells me she has women coming into her office all the time convinced their smell is abnormal. "I'm like, 'I smelled your vagina, I put a swab inside your vagina and I put it up to my nose and I smelled it, and this is what a normal vagina smells like,'" she says. "And still, they can't get over it."

She doesn't blame them, either, noting that everywhere they go, they're confronted with shelves of products, media content, and often, derogatory comments from their partners. "It just takes one intimate partner to say one cruel thing to someone, and that can have huge ramifications," she says. Doctors aren't necessarily helping, either, Dr. Gunter says, because they'll prescribe a woman who comes in complaining of her smell a treatment for bacterial vaginosis, when the issue is more likely in her head than in her vagina. "It's a vagina, not a piña colada," she exclaims.

"Problem": Aesthetics

Between 2015 and 2016, there was a 39-percent increase in labiaplasty surgeries, Dr. Gunter states in her book. "We see young girls coming in requesting labiaplasty, and they’ve never even had their labias touched by anybody—they don’t even know how they work," she tells me. This is not something Dr. Gunter saw 25 years ago, and she attributes the increased requests to early access to pornography and other mainstream nude imagery—much of which, as I mentioned earlier, adheres to a uniform aesthetic—and to brainwashed moms who come in concerned that their daughters' labias are too big.

In her book, Dr. Gunter points out that the typical labia minor is 2-10 cm in length and 0.7-5 cm in width, and that one study of women in the U.K. who were consulted for reduction noted that the average width was around 2.5 cm. In other words, there was absolutely nothing abnormal about the labias of the women going under the knife. Dr. Gunter also notes that though 50 percent of women have labia minora that protrude beyond the majora, 75 percent of them think it's abnormal to be built this way. (Raises hand.)

In some cases, women may have issues with longer-than-average labia minora, in which case surgery might be an advisable option; however, Dr. Gunter notes that this is a sexually responsive part of the body with erectile tissue and nerve endings, and that the long-term repercussions of messing with it, from a sexual enjoyment perspective, are unknown. And again, more often than not, women seeking surgery are perfectly normal aesthetically. Disturbingly, Dr. Gunter cites research noting that male doctors are more likely to recommend labiaplasty than are female doctors, so getting a second opinion is key.

"Problem": Feel

Desirable vaginas are supposed to be tight and wet, right? So when mine experienced some dryness, I went to my doctor very concerned I was "drying up." He recommended—after a five-minute conversation—a so-called vaginal rejuvenation laser.

Dr. Gunter is horrified by this anecdote on many levels. For starters, she tells me that if a woman comes to her complaining of vaginal dryness, she will engage in a 30-minute conversation asking the patient about a variety of factors. "I get a sexual history—what is it like in your relationship, what is your foreplay like, is this what it’s always been like in your relationship, do you have any itching or any other symptoms, where exactly do you feel the dryness, do you have pain with sex, do you have yeast, etc." she says, noting she'll then do an exam. More disturbingly, she says, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends against such laser procedures for all women because they are understudied. "The idea that someone would suggest that for vaginal dryness in a 30-something year-old is peak predation to me," she says. When I tell her my therapist at the time suggested maybe my vagina just wasn't that into my deadbeat boyfriend, she emphatically agrees with this opinion, telling me that this is again why she takes a full background before making any treatment suggestions.

Part of what's driving women to these procedures is, again, male misunderstanding of the way female anatomy works, and the effect that has on a woman's psyche. "Women have been told they shouldn't need to use lube, but no one says there's something wrong with you if you need glasses. Your boyfriend would never say to you that you don't see him correctly because you need glasses. What's wrong with needing some lube? Who cares? Because it offends his sense of... whatever... about his penis?" she says, noting that she finds the resistance odd given how commonly-used lube is.

Meanwhile, when it comes to tightening up, she says, perineoplasty—surgery that reconstructs the vaginal opening—can be a valid procedure when scars incurred in childbirth heal poorly. If you're just feeling "looser" after childbirth, however, Dr. Gunter recommends Kegel exercises instead.

"Problem": Abilities

In a relatable anecdote, Dr. Gunter tells me she watched all of the consensual sex scenes in Game of Thrones and noted that three seconds after penile penetration, the women depicted were having an orgasm. "Obviously, that's not reality, but if that's all the imagery you see, you might think it's reality." Her book debunks quite a few misconceptions in this arena.

A big one concerns vaginal orgasms and the so-called G-spot, concepts which she says misunderstand the female body. Orgasms in women can be achieved by various means, she says, but all are connected to the clitoris, whether accessed internally or externally. Women also don't squirt the way you may think they do if you watch porn. There is a pair of glands on either side of the urethra, explains Dr. Gunter, which can emit at most 1 to 2 milliliters of ejaculate. Dr. Gunter says if fluid is spraying, it's likely urine or, in porn, water inserted to later be expelled for the cameras. It's a parlor trick, in other words, which has led to more than one partner asking me if I can squirt, and then looking disappointed when the answer is, "I don't think so?"

Ultimately, Dr. Gunter advises combatting shame in all its various forms through education. She says her book was written for this purpose, and that you can consult a doctor or compare your experiences with those of your friends to get a sense of whether or not you should be worried. "If it's appearance, it's almost always going to be normal because there's a huge range," she says, which is a comforting thought that seems to extend into all things vagina-centric, and great ammunition to use against an uneducated sex partner.

It's important to remember that your partner should feel fortunate to be anywhere near your vagina, says Dr. Gunter. "This idea that your partner is judging you for how your genitals look... they should be so f**king lucky to be touching them," she says. "They should be thinking, 'I can’t believe this glorious woman is letting me near her.'" And while I know this is true, I can't help but remain somewhat insecure about the whole package (box?). So, I asked a different kind of expert—my gay best friend—for her opinion: "They're wonderful." "All of them?" I pressed. "Yes," she replied. "All of them."

Before you acquaint yourself with the full spectrum of vaginas, try taking an in-depth look in the mirror at your own.

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