My vagina is dirty.
At least, that’s what I was led to believe growing up.
“Private parts” seemed to be the only acceptable term for the place I was perpetually cautioned not to speak of.
As a young woman, my vagina felt foreign to me; like something not entirely my own.
I’d seen the outline of a vulva projected onto the whiteboard in health class – when we were learning about periods and how babies were made (both of which sounded painful, and not like something I was interested in) – but I’d never seen my own genitals in real-life.
“Have you ever looked down there?” a friend giggled over recess one day, as we were scoffing back warm sausage rolls.
“Ew, gross! No way!” another girl in the group exclaimed, spitting out flaky chunks of pastry in disgust.
I didn’t wriggle a hand mirror into my underpants until I was in my mid-twenties – immediately struck by a dichotomous sense of awe and horror upon seeing myself.
There was a confusing, ever-shifting set of parameters around what it meant to possess a vagina.
“Close your legs!” my mother would snap, as I played with my Barbie dolls on the living room floor, letting my legs splay open.
In contrast, everywhere I went, boys spread their legs with pride, drawing attention crotchward. There were loud public jokes about their genitals and the things they did with them, too.
Still, I was regularly reminded, “Cross your ankles. It’s not ladylike for girls to open their legs.”
The directive took on a more implied tone when I became sexually active. I was warned at every possible turn, boys didn’t like girls who slept around. Casual sex was something only to be enjoyed by men. Have too much of it as a woman, and you’d be deemed “loose” and “not wife material”.
There were contradictory messages about how I should look, too.
“Men hate fake women. Natural is best,” I was told, while simultaneously being marketed a slew of products – most of which resembled torture devices – to remove the “unsightly” hair that sprouted from between my legs.
And no matter how much I washed it (and wash it I did), my vagina felt inherently unclean. Every trip to the supermarket was a reminder of this: an entire row of the toiletry aisle dedicated to “feminine hygiene” washes, wipes and fragrances insisted my genitals should smell like daisies or “a fresh summer’s day” at all times.
There didn’t appear to be a male equivalent.
And so, when my first boyfriend ventured down south, I politely squeezed my legs shut.
“It’s okay. You don’t have to,” I murmured, feeling my cheeks burn hot with shame.
It was a scenario that would go on to be repeated throughout my adult life. Though, while I was busy nudging men’s heads away from my thighs in a bid to protect them from my unsightly, unscented vagina, I wasn’t nearly as discerning in reverse. (I spent most of my twenties kneeling before guys who didn’t appear to possess the same chronic paranoia – let alone awareness – of how their junk smelled.)
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A 2016 study published in the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality suggests my experience is not unique.
The study found women are far more likely to perform oral on our male partners than we are to receive it. While 63 per cent of men reported receiving oral during their most recent sexual encounter, just 44 per cent of women said the same.
Additionally, 53 per cent of men described the experience as “very pleasurable”, in contrast to the depressing 28 per cent of women who could say the same.
Which makes sense. After all, it’s hard to enjoy yourself when you’re fretting about whether your genitals smell like a bouquet, are convinced you’re deformed and too hairy, and wrestling with a lifetime of conflicting messaging around how and when you’re allowed to even let anyone see between your legs in the first place.
My hunch is, the oral sex gap has far less to do with men’s willingness to perform oral (though there are men who won’t, and they’re best described as selfish douchebags unworthy of the effort required to tear open a condom), and far more to do with female sexual shame.
The vast majority of women I speak to confess they won’t let their partners perform oral because they’re “not comfortable” with it (this is in spite of confessing they don’t enjoy giving oral either, but do it to please their partners anyway).
An equal number quote degrading insults an ex has made about their vulvas that have left them convinced they’re too smelly/hairy/loose to ever let a sexual partner see their genitals up close again.
It’s not a coincidence so many of us have a negative relationship with our vaginas. Women’s shame is big business.
In spite of the fact the vagina is self-cleaning (side note: the penis is not), and definitely NOT designed to smell like Chanel No. 5, vaginal douches are expected to be a $42.7 billion industry by 2022.
Meanwhile, our obsession with recreating a hairless, pre-pubescent aesthetic (both creepy and impractical, given pubic hair’s role in keeping bacteria away) has spawned an emerging generation of men who’ve never actually seen a woman with pubic hair. Like, ever.
And perhaps most concerningly, labiaplasty – a cosmetic surgery procedure that’s been compared to female genital mutilation – has exploded in popularity over the past decade, with girls as young as 11 reporting concerns about how their vulvas look.
(Incidentally, if you’re a woman who believes your vulva is ugly, it’s worth visiting The Labia Library – an online project dedicated to showcasing dozens of different vulvas in all their nuanced glory.)
Until we teach girls their vaginas are not dirty, dangerous things to be hidden away, they’re likely to continue growing into women who believe a part of their body is so unacceptable, they won’t even let an intimate partner see it.
That might seem like a fairly insignificant detail, but it’s not. Because asking for, and unapologetically enjoying oral sex is, in its essence, about claiming pleasure. And when we deny ourselves access to pleasure as women, what we’re really doing, is saying we’re not worthy of the same thing we’ve afforded to men throughout all of history.