Oprah called it a va-jay-jay to avoid censorship on TV. Michigan State Representative Lisa Brown said the word vagina in the state house and was censored by Ray Bolger. Brown’s response was concise: “Vagina, by the way, is the correct medical name of a part of women’s anatomy lawmakers want to regulate.” She later spent a day out front of the Capital reading The Vagina Monologues with the play’s author and women’s rights advocate Eve Ensler. The media was a-buzz with the V word.
Last month Naomi Wolf released Vagina: A New Biography, and she uses vagina extensively to refer to everything from the front to the back, as well as the interior, of a woman’s lower anatomy, while also complaining that she doesn’t like the word. Wolf states, “ When you think vagina in our culture, you get associations that are either coldly, repellently clinical or at least tediously health related.” The term vagina IS anatomical (although technically it refers to only ONE part of a woman’s pelvic anatomy), but Wolf feels using it clinically is tedious and repellent??
I certainly agree with Lisa Brown that when we are discussing legislation–or any other acts that impact women, we need to be able to use correct terminology. Would she have been censored if she said va-jay-jay? And is Naomi Wolf just trying to ignite the media by overuse of the term vagina? What is it that makes society squeamish and outraged about our anatomy and physiology? And what cost does this inability to have effective conversations regarding health, sexuality, and gender identity, have on us individually and as a society?
First, I want to discuss Wolf’s book. If I were her editor, I would have probably had her change the subtitle to “A New Autobiography,” since it is so largely about her personal experience. Also, her research is questionable. A recent review of the book by Toni Bentley in the New York Times refers to Wolf as a “dilettante assuming a mantle of authority.” I agree with Wolf’s basic premise that sexuality is a matter of physiology that is both anatomical and chemical. The same reviewer states, “phrases, (like) the ‘vagina-brain connection’ populate her book. Call it what you like, but the fact that a woman’s genitals are connected to her brain is not news.” My own criticism is that Wolf basically asserts that the only connection is a neuro-chemical one. Very little research or discussion is directed at the physiology of the pelvic floor muscles that those nerves travel through to carry impulses to neurotransmitters. Her own experience of “reawakening” occurred after a lumbar surgery that place a rod in her spine and opened up her pudendal nerve plexus. She acknowledges that “a lifetime of grudging exercise had strengthened my back and abdomen enough to have kept any worse symptoms from manifesting,” but then fails to fully address the musculature of the pelvic floor and lower spine.
Wolf interviews Nancy Fish, a therapist at SoHo Obstetrics and Gynecology. Fish states, “We are so in the Dark Ages when it comes to medical care and understanding in the area of the vagina. When I say ‘pudendal nerve,’ no one knows what I am talking about. People in the medical profession don’t know what I’m talking about! Women need to become more comfortable with their vaginas.”
I have spoken with many women that are uncomfortable with their vaginas. But it is due to vaginal dysfunction rather than any problem of discussing or understanding anatomy. They have consulted and discussed and tried very hard to understand and “become more comfortable.” Ever had a physician advise you to do a Kegel by squeezing off the flow of urine? As if our ureters are the same thing as our vaginas. If the concern is pelvic floor weakness, why prescribe strengthening a sphincter muscle? And is discomfort due weakness or tension of the pelvic floor? Personally, I don’t find these clinical distinctions tedious! If a medical professional tells us to do a Kegel while maybe not even knowing what the pudendal nerve is, should we follow their advice??
Here are some disturbing stats: According to the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, American women with at least one pelvic floor disorder (PFD) will increase from 28.1 million in 2010 to 43.8 million in 2050. Dark ages, indeed. Kegels have been around for over 50 years. Why are these disorders on the rise?
I don’t expect that a lack of satisfying the “goddess array” (Wolf’s term for feminine sexual needs) is the reason for this increase. And although I truly appreciate all the efforts by activists like Eve Ensler to help women in war-torn countries recover from sexual violence, as well as Lisa Brown’s straightforward approach to legislation of women’s rights, I think we also really need to address the inability of our own medical establishment to be effective in treating women’s health concerns such as PFD. I strongly feel that this is at least partially due to our societal difficulties in discussing these issues using non-judgemental, specific, and correct language. Sexuality, politics, and integrative health all need to address women’s whole bodies, including their vaginas, in a comprehensive and effective manner.
I’m not going to go into all the information that IS available about PFD issue in this blog. If you would like to do your own research, I’ll to refer you to my go-to-girl in this area: the Katy Says blog on Katy Bowman’s Aligned and Well website. She is a biomechanic with an infectious sense of humor and a ton of knowledge regarding pelvic floor health. And I’m going to invite area women who would like to engage in a non-censored discussion about PFD and Kegels and vaginas to our Women’s Weekend 2012 workshop, “Goin’ to the Y: Pelvic Floor Health” on November 3 at On The Path Yoga. And maybe we can begin a revolution that leads all of us down a path of being comfortable with our bodies and a better understanding of women’s health.
A model of the female pelvis, showing bones, muscles, ligaments and nerves. Complicated, but certainly not mysterious and hopefully not disturbing.