Five years ago I was asked to do a lecture on labiaplasty. I had not yet finished my dissertation so I was extremely nervous presenting in front of a huge crowd of doctors and nurses. As I was preparing my talk I googled my head into a hundred circles until it came to me, we can not talk about vulvas and labias without talking about diversity. But where are they, my butterflies of different color, shape and size?
On the internet its easy to find loads of pictures of vulvas, in fact, its easier than finding an sugarless recipe for a brownie. But I kept finding hairless ones that were stretch by someone’s fingers or they had something poking out of them or going into them. Yes, I am talking about porn. I even found a sub-category on one porn site called “big vulvas” and as I checked that out, to my surprise, they were very similar to all the other ones. I thought to myself, “I know I cannot be the odd one out, mine doesn’t look at all like those on the computer screen”. I even looked at vintage porn (save your breath, it didn’t help but I must say it was interesting).
Then I found the documentary “The perfect vagina” and that’s when the ball started to roll for real. I love the idea of vulva casting and I wanted to touch each cast from Jamie McCartney´s Wall of Vagina (side note – its vulva people, just to be clear) but I found it off putting that they were gray. Something about that reminded me of sex ed when I was a teenager and they just showed drawings of vulvas. Where are all the real life photographs?! Then I stumbled upon the Labiagallery.
As I presented I posed a question for one of the plastic surgeons that performs the surgery “do you have photos to show your clients that reflect the diversity of the vulva?”, she said that she did but did not present them. The operation is hugely contested, especially here in Iceland but nothing has been done as far as regulation goes. So the size of the labia is up to the discretion of each and every doctor.
Now fast-forward four years. I was making a television show about sex that targeted young people. In one of the episodes, three girls in there twenties looked at their vulvas and described what they saw. Mind you, the camera did not see them naked, they only saw them looking at themself. The public’s reaction to this; outrage! Oh the shame! Making these young girls touch themselves on camera and for what?! I thought it was quite obvious why it was important, women do not know their own genitals and it is empowering to just look in amazement, and that is exactly what they did. They were amazed at their own beauty and capabilities, as one girl said, “My clitoris sits like a pearl on top of a crown”; and “oh look how far I can stretch my labia”.
I couldn’t have said it any better myself.
As I started teaching sex ed I felt I could not do so with integrity without presenting photographs of genitals. We are in the twenty-first century and the time of hand drawn genitals is over, so over. I wanted to show them how they really look, and just how individually different they are. Their response never seizes to amaze me. They look, gawk, point, laugh, wonder, cringe and then just listen.
It was one day when I was teaching a class of thirteen-year-old teenagers and we turned to the huge photo spread of vulvas. “Are they Icelandic?” they asked. As I said no they are not, I could see their eyes glaze over and all of a sudden these pictures might as well have been porn, they were of nobody. Icelanders were probably different from the rest of the world, because we are so special (didn’t you know? Elf vulvas and Viking penises and all).
So I decided to do something about it. I put an ad in the paper, asked people to volunteer for a genital photo-shoot where anonymity was guaranteed. Each participant would get two versions, one frontal and one from the side (for penises) and one spread out (for vulvas). The response was amazing and we set up two full days of shooting. Participants were so thankful that finally real life photos of genitals would be present in sex ed.
As I presented the photos I gave them some background information. Some people were gay, some were grandparents, some were famous, some were transgender, some had their period, some had had over a 100 sexual partners, and so on and so forth. The kids tried to match information to genitals but that also served the purpose of answering the question; does it matter?
The reason I chose to focus solely on the genitals it that teenagers (and adults) tend to lend personality´s to the genitals according to their look. If a vulva has big labia they assume that the person is fat and has negative characteristics. Same goes for the guy with a small penis; he must suck in bed.
When I point to the vulva that is the least popular (it has discharge coming out of it, hugely taboo) and I tell them that that person is famous and has been considered very beautiful by the media, they gasp. “That poor woman”, they conclude.
I feel that it is powerful and important to show diversity but also to dispel the myth that genitals say something about the person. They are just genitals. They work. They can bring pleasure, great pleasure in fact, but it is not down to how they look but how they work and how the person who has them feels. So never mind what their face looks like, in the context it does not matter. And when reversed, they appearance of the genital does not matter when it comes to love and attraction.
You can never tell by the genitals alone how many sexual partners a person has had, whether they masturbate or not or what they have done with whom. It also plays into the myth that vulvas get wider the more they are used (screwed / inserted).
Try it. Look at them, touch them, and stroke them.
The genitals will never say “this one time at band camp….” they are just genitals.
The first step in having sex is getting to know your own body. That is why it is so important to teach about the body in sex ed. Calm down and allow yourself to just enjoy.