As misinformation about women’s bodies abounds, how we speak about reproductive organs matters more than ever. Enter the Vagina Museum in London.
Perhaps there is no other body part more misunderstood than the vagina. Or, more accurately, the vulva.
That may be, in part, because of the language we use. According to the UK-based organization Eve Appeal, 65% of women surveyed said they had an issue using the words "vagina" or "vulva." For 40% of women aged 16-25, speaking about their reproductive organs happens only in code: "down there" or "lady bits" are popular allusions.
While it may be that an abundance of euphemisms makes it easier to avoid using anatomically accurate terminology, this inability to speak openly reflects an apprehensiveness that masquerades as discretion. And it brings along with it a dangerous lack of knowledge about the bodies of half the world's population.
Just half of the women aged 26-35 could identify and label the vagina correctly in that same Eve Appeal survey. In an age of misinformation, when government officials are forwarding gynecologically inaccurate pseudoscience to write legislation regulating women's bodies, that lack of awareness and transparency can prove deadly.
The fight against anatomical misinformation
Yet a number of science and sex educators are becoming increasingly vocal and finding new ways to raise awareness about gynecological anatomy. They are pushing back on the culturally-driven reluctance to address women's bodies by providing direct, clear information in an educational and entertaining way.
Among these outspoken educators is the Canadian gynecologist Dr. Jen Gunter, whose book, "The Vagina Bible: The Vulva and Vagina – Separating the Myth from the Medicine" was recently released in the US, UK and Canada (the German translation will be published in March 2020). Gunter made a name for herself on Twitter, where she frequently posts threads discrediting misinformation about women's bodies using both her knowledge as an MD and personal experiences with childbirth, including stillbirth.
Gunter's work provides a counter-balance to media reports that inaccurately portray women's bodies in a time when sex education for young people is inadequate, if it exists at all. Furthermore, reproductive rights are under threat globally due to the US global gag policy, which prohibits foreign NGOs who receive U.S. global health assistance from providing legal abortion services or referrals. Debunking myths like the necessity of steaming one's vagina or using a jade egg like those sold by celebrity Gwyneth Paltrow in her newsletter "Goop," Gunter's work centers on the notion that women cannot make choices about their bodies without accurate information.
The Vagina, or shall we say Vulva, Museum
A similar approach is taken in the exhibitions at The Vagina Museum, a newly-opened brick-and-mortar shop in London's Camden Market. Hosting its opening exhibition "Muff Busters: Vagina Myths and How to Fight Them" on Saturday, November 16, the museum is dedicated to erasing the stigma around the body and giving people confidence to talk about issues surrounding anatomy.
While the vagina and vulva have been the focus of numerous artworks since the beginning of time, the museum does not consist of art in the traditional sense. Gustav Courbet's study "The Origin of the World," for example, will likely never hang in the red brick shop.
Rather, the space, the first of its kind in the world, serves as a forum for addressing women's rights and contains a series of educational explanatory exhibits created specifically for the museum. The result of a crowd-funding campaign that saw more than 1,000 people worldwide donate to make the space a reality, the museum offers free admission to the public.
Examples of what's inside include a poster that was specially created by artist Charlotte Wilcox and shows up close the variety of appearances a vulva can take on. It's an artistic response to questions of what "normal" looks like when it comes to gynecological anatomy. The first exhibition also includes explainers that respond to misconceptions about hygiene.
"There is an advertised myth that vaginas and vulva need to be cleaned through the use of bespoke feminine cleaning produce (sic). However the vagina is completely self-cleaning," Florence Schechter, Director of the Vagina Museum told Elle UK in an interview. "In fact, in certain people, the use of soaps and scented produce leads to vaginal bacteria imbalance and results in infection – literally doing more harm than good."
Schechter started the museum as a series of pop-up shops in London. She puts her experiences as a science communicator to good use in the museum, including thorough explanations of the everyday experiences people with a vagina or vulva might have. She and her staff recognize that "The Vagina Museum" may not be the most accurate description of what one will find inside. On their homepage, they write that they intend to focus on the culture and history of both the internal and external reproductive organs, drawing attention not only to labia but also to ovaries, cervical cancer and pregnancy. Yet despite people's reluctance to use the term vagina, it is one of the most recognizable ways to speak about gynecological anatomy.
And it does, both in name and spirit, serve as a nice counter to the Penis Museum in Reykjavik, already in existence.