An Evening at Vulvas In/Formation

Did you know that the word ‘vagina’ refers to one specific part of a person’s genitalia? Can you guess which part? It may not be quite what you think.

According to Yougov, in 2019, half of Brits do not know the correct answer to the above question. Until recently, I would have included myself in that statistic.

This Sunday I attended ‘Vulvas In/Formation’ – a fascinating feminist discussion at the Railway in Winchester. Vulvas In/Formation consisted of a short film about the damaging effect of labiaplasties (a procedure involving slicing away parts of a woman’s labia for cosmetic reasons), AKA the most popular vaginal procedure around. There was also a brilliant panel discussion by speakers Emma Rees, Elliott Watson and Sarah Creed. It was an enlightening evening that explored the myths, shame, taboos and secrecy surrounding women’s bodies. Colourful vulva art rotated on a projector as we sat as an audience and listened very quietly. Perhaps we were all stunned and subdued by the truths unfolding before us.

And I can’t help but wonder…

At 26-years-old, why is it only now that I am coming to understand my own body? And what does this say about women’s sexual health in 2019?

The definition of the vagina is, ‘the muscular tube leading from the external genitals to the cervix of the uterus in women and most female mammals’– or in other words, the canal opening used for sex and birth.

Did you know this? Or did you assume, as many do, that the word ‘vagina’ is a blanket term for the external and internal parts of our reproductive organ?

Colloquially, the word vagina is often considered synonymous with the vulva – the external part of the female genitalia. The vulva protects our sexual organs, urinary openings and vagina. The vulva is the centre of much of a woman’s, (and those with vulvas who do not identify as women), sexual responses and experiences of pleasure.

But why does any of this matter?

As someone with a literature background, I am naturally drawn towards the origins of words and their wider cultural implications.

If we are referring and reducing our genitalia –without even knowing — to the canal of penetration, what does this mean?

The word ‘vagina’ originated in the late 17th century and is a Latin name, meaning ‘sword-sheath’.  Not the best way to refer to our genitals, is it?

And if you still aren’t convinced – then may I draw your attention to the fact that there is only one word in our dictionary to describe the whole of our genitalia – inside and outside. And it just so happens to be one of the most offensive words in our dictionaries – ‘cunt’. It seems that there are plenty of derogatory words floating around to describe female genitalia, but not a single ‘normal’ word.

It is evident to me that there is still a lot of misinformation, shame and discomfort surrounding the topic of our bodies. If wish to move on in society and better educate the next generation, it is time that we undress these issues. Literally.

Thankfully, The Vagina Museum will be opening permanently in London from November. The museum seeks to educate us on vagina myths and how to fight them. It is indeed a much-needed step in the right direction towards creating a society where everyone has bodily autonomy and knows what their parts are.

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