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Exploring myths about female gentalia

January 15th, 2006

Dr Petra

In today’s Mainichi Daily News Dr. Kunio Kitamura (head of Japan’s Family Planning Association) gives advice about the female genitals. It’s one of those strangely common situations where a media sex expert, rather than busting ‘myths’, actually creates them.

Under the title “Helping women explore the ‘myths’ surrounding the female genitalia” there’s a reader problem:

””Am I playing with myself too much?” the 22-year-old female university student asked me shortly after complaining about her genitalia. “They’re all wrinkly and black. I can’t get in the nude, even when my boyfriend asks me to.””

This problem is followed by the most curious and negative sex information I’ve seen in a while. I’ve put a critique of the advice below each section.

Dr Kitamura begins…
“The woman was worried by something that arose only because of her own ignorance. To help her, and others like her, today’s column will explore the myths surround the female genitalia. First, an answer to the woman’s question — masturbation does not have any effect at all on the color of a woman’s genitals. Like skin, the color of the female genitalia is determined by melanin. It is not affected in any way by actions such as intercourse or childbirth. Like faces, each set of genitalia differs according to the individual and they may be colored pink or brown. It’s a good thing that the woman who did not have enough knowledge of her own genitals shied away from having sex”.

Is it? Where’s the evidence for that? Surely sex advice ought to move away from blaming people for knowledge deficits and give them the tools to enjoy sex.

His advice continues….

“Genital Self-Examination is the term used to describe inspecting your own genitals. There are some women who are too ashamed to even look at their own genitalia, but I personally think it’s far more shameful for women not to inspect their own bodies. The genitals are part of the body and women who aren’t prepared to look at them or tough them aren’t ready to become independent members of society. It’s horrible that many women who don’t examine themselves allow their genitalia to be seen or touched for the first time by somebody else, especially if it’s a man doing the exploring. Women whose awareness of sexual matters is so low can’t even begin to think of matters like birth control or AIDS prevention”.

This negative tone blames women who don’t examine their genitals, and makes genital exams to be something clinical, not always comfortable, yet mandatory. Not a voyage of discovery, excitement, pleasure or interest. At no point is the reader told how to look at themselves – for example finding a quiet time when they won’t be interrupted; and why they should bother – that they might get to know themselves better, be more empowered, feel more confident, and enjoy pleasure.

Next readers are told…

“Women should take a mirror and have a close look at their genitalia. The first thing that stands out is an organ called the labia minor. This organ’s shape or color have shocked countless women — and men — through the ages. The labia minor are wrinkly, and can often be black. The labia minor are not symmetrical and they can be thick, or thin”.

Well it’s true that labia are all different shapes, sizes and colours, but it doesn’t inspire the reader into feeling good about her body to hear that labia have ‘shocked countless women – and men – through the ages’. It’s one of the criticisms raised at sexual health advisors who incorrectly preface any advice with ‘now this is going to be unpleasant/embarrassing’. It sets the situation up negatively. You could make women feel so much more empowered if you made self exam something you actually wanted to do – a point of interest and a celebration of our diverse bodies.

Let’s get back to that sex advice….

“Often I get visits from women bringing their daughters with them after having compared their labia minor and felt something was wrong. This is often a case of failing to understand natural growth and development. Before entering puberty, late development of the labia major can create lumps of fat that appear to be surrounding the labia minor and make them stand out. The labia major are, in fact, the female equivalent to the male scrotum. If there is no pubic hair, the labia minor appear to stand out even more. Sometimes, development of the labia major can seem to hide the labia minor. Sometimes, I am shocked to receive referrals from pediatricians saying that they suspect a girl is suffering from oversized labia and may be in need of an operation to rectify it. With adults as mistaken in their beliefs as they are, is it any wonder girls get confused”.

This is a fair point. Women and girls do get distressed about labia size and shape. But that’s because they lack information about their bodies. The reply to this problem isn’t really giving us any answers. It’s also not accurate to say the female labia are the equivalent of the male scrotum. Whilst those without a biological background might be confused about this, someone who represents a family planning association oughtn’t make this mistake.

Next, the advice moves on to pubic hair…

“Pubic hair growth and quantity also differs according to the individual. Some people’s hair may be in a round shape, others grow in an inverted triangle. Opening the labia minor widely exposes the vagina and urinary tract. The vagina is the place where babies come out. Going up the vagina and deep into the body you will find the uterus and fallopian tubes. The drama of fertilization and conception take place in this unseen area”.

Well this is all very nice to know, but we were really talking about female self-examination, increasing knowledge and tackling ‘myths’ about female genitalia. It’s complex and confusing to discuss things we can’t see, but also rather worrying that readers are told if you open the labia you can see the vagina and urinary tract but absolutely no mention is made of the clitoris.

Perhaps he’s coming onto this at the close of his advice …..

“The vagina is also the place where the male penis is inserted. This act is called sexual intercourse, or just sex. Through sex, the man uses his penis as a tool to ejaculate sperm into the woman’s vagina. When this happens, life begins, and this act can bring enormous joy and happiness to many woman. To be able to experience these pleasures, I’d like you to have a thorough understanding of your own body and a willingness to protect
it. Only you can look after it, so make it an ironclad rule to make sure you know your own body”.

Great. So the vagina is there for the “male penis”, and sex is when a penis ejaculates in the vagina. No mention here that sex might be about more than penis/vagina contact, or that there might be any pleasure in sex for women (or men for that matter).

Ejaculation doesn’t automatically lead to ‘life beginning’, and nor does ‘this act’ necessarily “bring enormous joy or happiness to many women”. It’s interesting that sex is described here purely in terms of reproduction and women’s pleasure, when mentioned, is about conception not any form of sexual arousal or desire.

There’s no mention of self-exam being arousing in it’s own right. It’s just a dismal chore you’re obliged to conduct in order to be reproductively ready.

And the reader’s original concerns about masturbation’s effects on the body or a lack of confidence to get naked with a partner haven’t been tackled.

We’ve read through his whole reply (and my interruptions), but unless my clitoris radar is malfunctioning, was it mentioned in this reply?

Let’s see. Labia – check, pubic hair – check, urethra and vagina – check. We’ve been instructed labia are shocking and the vagina’s for penises to ejaculate in. But no mention of clitorises at all.

Why is that? We’ve been overloaded with all kinds of biological-sounding advice and gynaecological citations. Why’s the clitoris been excluded?

What’s going to happen to those poor women reading this ‘advice’ who’ve dutifully gone off to self-examine their genitals? What are they going to make of that little bump they see at the top of their labia when they look in the mirror? It’s not mentioned in this reply so maybe they’ll think it’s a growth, or some disfigurement unique to them? Perhaps they’ll assume it’s not important since it wasn’t mentioned, or maybe they’ll be so busy scrutinising their bodies for labia, hair and vagina they won’t even notice their clitoris.

Science has shown (not that we really needed it to) that the clitoris is vital to female arousal. Yet it’s consistently excluded, overlooked or ignored. Either censors remove it from our media, or medics, scientists and writers incorrectly follow an outdated male-centric view of female sexuality and assume the clitoris is an optional extra.

This reply denied women any agency or information that might not only bust a few myths, but increase their confidence or pleasure. You need to ask why something masquerading as advice might want to do this? What’s the agenda here? Who benefits? And who misses out?

Whilst I know some poorly qualified ‘sexperts’ tend to forget about the clitoris, if you’re in the position to be in charge of your country’s family planning association and you don’t know about the clitoris or won’t discuss it, something very frightening is happening.

In this case the problem wasn’t answered, but we just witnessed yet another example of how sex myths aren’t busted – they’re created and maintained.

This reply just added to one of the biggest sex myths about female genitalia.

That the clitoris is invisible and unimportant.

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