I’ll never forget the first time I saw my own menstrual period start. I was seated on the floor in a circle of women, legs bent in front of me, soles facing each other, a mirror resting on my feet. The flashlight directed at the mirror illuminated my vagina, which was held open by a plastic speculum. There, at the end, sat a little pink mushroom, my very own cervix. A single drop of ruby-colored blood emerged from its center.
It was just like in the Berkeley Women’s Music Collective song “The Bloods”:
“Get a speculum at your neighborhood clinic
Learn about your cervix and what’s in it
There’s a new day coming when you’ve got the bloods again.”
In those days, the women in my collective lesbian household celebrated our periods. We recorded them on a calendar in the kitchen, so we could see how well we synchronized with each other. We thought the old euphemisms (“I fell off the roof today,” “My Aunt Flo is visiting,” or my mother’s favorite, “the Curse”) were worse than silly. We were proud of being mysterious creatures who bleed but do not die.
We may have gone a little overboard.
It was certainly ridiculous to celebrate menstrual cramps, which can be pretty awful. One of my lovers used to vomit monthly from the pain. But then Stewart Adams invented ibuprofen and millions of women rejoiced. (Dr. Adams’s death this January didn’t receive the media attention many of us — whether weekend warrior athletes or women “of childbearing age” — think it should have.)
We had some other silly ideas about our vaginas: we thought that if you inserted carefully peeled garlic cloves in them you could cure a yeast infection. (As far as I know, it didn’t work, but if you nicked one of those cloves with the knife as you were preparing it, it sure would burn!) Plain yogurt may have worked a little better, by creating an acidic environment inhospitable to yeast, but boy was it messy! And don’t get me started on using sea sponges as tampons. Let’s just say that they act like any other wet sponge when you squeeze them. Not the moment to practice your Kegel exercises.
Our Bodies, Our Lives
If we were sometimes silly, we were also wise enough to know that understanding and taking control of our bodies was a first step to taking control of our lives. In 1973, the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective turned its 193-page, 75-cent pamphlet “Women and Their Bodies” into the book Our Bodies, Ourselves, and for the first time, women all over the United States could read about our own mysterious inner (and outer) workings. (Today, resources based on OBOS exist in 30 languages.) That same year, the Feminist Press reissued Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English’s booklet from Glass Mountain Pamphlets, Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Female Healers, about the hidden European and American history of medicine by and for women.
Taking control of our bodies went beyond reading and writing, though. Feminists opened their own clinics in the 1970s, where women could get healthcare and information from practitioners who didn’t condescend to their patients and who made experiences like getting a pap smear, a test for cervical cancer, as comfortable and non-invasive as possible.
And in the days before home pregnancy tests and before the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision made abortion legal, feminists learned how to end unwanted pregnancies as safely as possible. They also learned and taught each other how to perform “menstrual extractions” (terminations of early pregnancies) and even full abortions. In Chicago, the underground Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation (better known as “Jane”) provided referrals to illegal abortion providers and later learned how to do it themselves, performing perhaps as many as 11,000 such procedures. A film about Jane’s work is still available today.
These days, when you can Google pretty much anything, it’s hard to imagine just how challenging it was back then to get information about women’s health. There just wasn’t much out there when it came to gynecological well-being, and even less about women’s sexual pleasure.
And what was available was often simply wrong. Nobody’s high school sex education classes even mentioned that women possess an organ called a clitoris. You couldn’t find it on the pull-down drawings of genitalia we boys and girls were shown in our separate “health” classes either. I remember having to look the word up in the dictionary at about 14, while reading the “racy” novel Candy. (“Oh, that’s what that is!”)
In college, my friends’ therapists were giving out copies of The Power of Sexual Surrender, a pernicious little book which claimed that “the problem of sexual frigidity in women is one of the gravest problems of our times.” Its chapter on “The Normal Orgasm” assured them that real women achieve orgasm through vaginal penetration alone and that, “in the fully mature female, this sensitivity [of the clitoris] often diminishes, giving way to the vagina as the primary source of the greatest sexual pleasure.” (Just to be clear: this is a lie.) All a woman needed to do to achieve a “mature” orgasm, we were assured, was to recognize that “the sexual act in its purest form expresses the essential passivity associated with women and the aggressiveness of the male, the actor and the acted-upon.”
Imagine, then, the life-changing revelation in Anne Koedt’s 1970 essay, “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm.” She confirmed what some of us had figured out for ourselves: “Actually the vagina is not a highly sensitive area and is not constructed to achieve orgasm.” (Not that many women don’t enjoy penetration, but the vast majority of us need something more.) Maybe, it finally occurred to us, we weren’t immature, frigid women; maybe we were just having bad sex.
Information about our bodies was hard to come by in the 1970s. When it was my turn to give a talk at my monthly lesbian support group meeting, I chose to research the physiology of women’s orgasms. This required a trip to my local library and rooting around in some pretty obscure medical textbooks, where I learned about the pubococcygeus muscle, which stretches between the pubic bone and the coccyx, and whose contractions are responsible for the wave-like experience of orgasm. You wouldn’t discover that, even today, simply by Googling the term.
Now You See It, Now You Don’t
Nor would you encounter a fact that students of human anatomy have discovered, then forgotten, then rediscovered over the centuries: that the clitoris is much bigger than that bump above the vagina. That’s just its top. The rest of it is inside and it’s huge — as much as four inches across — shaped like a double wishbone, with two inner bulbs and two outer wings. Who knew? Well, the Dutch anatomist Reinier de Graaf got part of the story. In 1672, he produced the most complete depiction to date of the thing but missed its internal workings. The curtains of ignorance were then redrawn until 1844 when the German scientist George Ludwig Kobe produced the first known drawings of the external and internal clitoris.
And yet, more than a century later, the whole organ had disappeared again. In the 1947 twenty-fifth edition of Gray’s Anatomy, that primary text and medical student’s bible on the human body, it was missing in action . For reasons now lost to history, that edition’s editor, Charles Mayo Goss, simply left it out. (It’s back in the current forty-first edition, even if with half as many index entries as “penis.”)
It took another 50 years, but in 1998 Australian urologist Helen O’Connell published a definitive description of the clitoris, with an accurate drawing, including all of its internal and external structures, revealing that it has three times the nerve endings of the homologous structure in men, the penis. That’s right; it was only a couple of decades ago that the true structure of the clitoris was finally known.
So perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised by a conversation I had sometime around 2010. It was early in my university teaching career and my students were sitting in small groups, discussing an article when the four young women in one group all raised their hands.
“Professor Gordon, Professor Gordon!”
“Yes?” I looked into those four earnest faces.
“Professor Gordon, there’s a word here we don’t understand,” exclaimed one of them, pointing to a spot on the page.
“Oh,” I replied. “Clitoridectomy. That’s a surgical procedure practiced in some cultures. It involves cutting the clitoris, sometimes just a little bit, and sometimes removing the whole thing.” (The cultures mentioned in the article didn’t happen to include our own, even though as recently as the 1960s, some girls underwent clitoridectomies to “cure” masturbation.)
“Oh,” they said. An awkward silence followed. Then, once again, “Professor Gordon!”
“What’s a clitoris?”
Mow That Grass and Pass the Scalpel
It’s easy now to make fun of our youthful attempts to understand our own genitalia, but at least we didn’t hate our vulvas. We didn’t think we needed to have our pubic hair regularly ripped out of our skin, as so many American women do today, so that they won’t be messy “down there,” so that the area around their genitals will look like a little girl’s.
This look has, in fact, become so common in online pornography that young men are often surprised to discover that adult women actually have pubic hair. Of course, maybe that’s just very young, inexperienced men — or maybe not. Last October, Glamour UK, for instance, interviewed a number of men with sexual experience. “Leon, 28” from Manchester pretty much summed things up:
“I hate any hair on a woman. My ex and I would always argue about it — she would never shave and I would always ask her to. In the end, we broke up, not entirely because of her bush, but it played a role in highlighting all our differences.”
Getting married? Better check out “The Ultimate Pre-Wedding Hair Removal Guide” on the website for the popular magazine Brides. There, you’ll be able to compare the merits and drawbacks of each method. Shaving causes “razor bumps and ingrown hair,” but never fear, not if you have the foresight to keep a little cortisone cream in the fridge. “It really works,” insists Brides writer Anka Radakovich, “and can be applied as soon as you’re done” to “cool down the razor burn”!
Looking for a more permanent solution? You could try laser hair removal. But Radakovich warns that “if you’re doing this as a permanent hair removal technique for a completely bare vag, it can grow back unevenly or cause skin discoloration, especially if you have a darker complexion,” so that might not be the best option.
Which brings us to waxing, as in paying someone to cover your pubis in warm wax, wait until it cools and hardens, and then rip the wax and the offending hair off your body. Somehow, I don’t think most men with beards would go for the clean-shaven look, if that’s what it took, but many women think they have to do so to be presentable sexual partners.
We 1970s feminists may have believed some odd things. But at least we didn’t think our vulvas were ugly. We had Betty Dodson’s drawings to show us that, in fact, our genitals are as beautiful and varied as our faces.
I wish young women still felt that way, but if the online ads for labiaplasty are any guide, many of them are unhappy indeed about the shape of the inner and outer lips of their vaginas. They want them to have the “clamshell” look of a prepubescent girl’s (or a porn star’s) vulva, with no fluted, flowery edges protruding. One local plastic surgery purveyor in my area explains why women might choose to have their inner lips sliced off to look like the ones they’ve seen on Pornhub.com:
“Many women are bothered by labia minora (inner lips) that are stretched or asymmetrical, while others may feel self-conscious of large or sagging labia majora (outer lips). Still other women may wish to augment their labia majora with fat grafting for a more pronounced appearance. These procedures, which may be performed together, are highly customizable. Our surgeons adjust their surgical techniques to suit your specific wishes.”
There are some legitimate medical reasons for performing labiaplasty; if, for instance, someone’s inner labia are so large that daily activities are uncomfortable or painful. The fact that insurance companies won’t ordinarily pay for such procedures, however, indicates clearly enough that this is generally considered a “cosmetic” form of surgery. Its purpose is to make a woman’s genitals more closely conform to an ideal of beauty which originated in some man’s imagination and which bears only a remote resemblance to a woman’s body.
Don’t misunderstand me. I think everyone’s entitled to their own sexual imagination, however much your fantasies may make me smile, rage, or laugh out loud (just as mine might for you). And much as I may dislike such denigrating portrayals of women created for male amusement, I have no desire to make them illegal. But it does make me sad that, after all this time, #MeToo notwithstanding, women in this country seem to have made so little progress towards loving our astonishingly beautiful bodies, ourselves.
Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes. Her previous books include Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States and Letters from Nicaragua .