Growing up, we get a lot of messages about our vulvas. Perhaps you learned that yours was too hairy, that it smelled bad, or that your labia were too long. Or maybe you learned that your genitals destined you to a lifetime of painful sex and painful periods.
Yet considering all the things we learn about our vulvas, we end up with very little accurate information. OB/GYNs Jenn Conti and Erica Cahill are here to change that. Through their podcast The V Word, they’re spreading the facts and busting the myths around female genitalia.
I asked Conti and Cahill about the biggest misconceptions their patients and other vulva-owners have about their genitals. Here’s what they said.
1. Every Vulva Looks the Same
A lot of people have shame about the way their genitals look, with one British survey finding that 36% of people — three quarters of them women — worried theirs were abnormal. But the truth is, there is no such thing as abnormal when it comes to vulvas. Conti points her patients toward The Vulva Gallery to help them understand that “there is no standard, ‘normal’ vulva.”
Part of the problem is that people are basing their idea of what their genitals should look like on porn. “A lot of women don't tend to see other women's vulvas in everyday life, and so the only comparison they often have is through traditional male-centered porn, which is skewed by bleaching, shaving, and lack of diversity,” says Cahill.
This is one of many cases where porn does not reflect reality. “Every vulva is unique and no two vulvas are the same,” says Conti. “You shouldn't be embarrassed by your vulva, because truly, we've seen it all.”
2. Shaved Vulvas Are Cleaner
A 2016 study in JAMA Dermatology found that 83.8% of American women engaged in some form of pubic hair removal, with 59% believing this was cleaner than leaving their pubes alone.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. There is nothing unclean about the vulva in its natural state. In fact, pubic hair actually helps keep it clean by creating a barrier between the vulva and any bacteria that try to enter.
Removing pubic hair can increase your risk for infections. “Shaving and waxing break the skin that naturally is very close to all kinds of bacteria that then put you at risk for nasty skin infections in that area,” says Conti.
The idea that hairless vulvas are preferable also probably comes from porn, says Cahill. If you personally enjoy removing your pubic hair, that’s your decision. But if you don’t, you shouldn’t feel pressure to start for the sake of your health or any partner.
3. Vulvas Should Smell Like Flowers
Based on the vaginal wipes, washes, sprays, and scented tampons on the market, you’d think the natural smell of vulvas were offensive. But it’s not — because vulvas are not supposed to smell like flowers.
Insecurity about smell is sometimes a reason cited for douching, but this practice is not only unnecessary (because the vulva cleans itself) but also potentially harmful, since it can increase your risk for vaginal infections.
“This is a whole hocus pocus type of thing from companies trying to capitalize on women's insecurities about their bodies,” says Cahill. “A lot of people actually think vaginas smell sexy just as they are. When people talk about ‘the scent of sex’ as a good thing, they're talking about vaginas.”
If your vaginal odor is truly unusual, see your doctor because it could be a sign of an infection, says Conti. Otherwise, know that your genitals smell just as they’re supposed to.
4. The Clitoris Is a Bonus
Men’s (and even women’s) magazines often present clitoral stimulation as a kinky little trick to add some spice to intercourse. But for the three quarters of those with vulvas who don’t reliably orgasm through intercourse alone, it’s the other way around: penetration can be a fun addition, but it’s clitoral stimulation that’s necessary.
You sometimes hear about the “G-spot” as the center of female pleasure, but this is not a medically recognized anatomical structure, says Cahill.
“If we could take a mirror and show every vagina-owning person where their clitoris is and how to use it, we would,” says Conti. “This tiny hidden organ often gets looked over and is frequently misunderstood, but it is such an important part of female anatomy and sexuality.”
If you want to learn more about your (or your partner’s) clitoris and how to make it happy, Conti recommends the site OMGYES, which shows you different techniques and lets you practice them on virtual vulvas.
5. Sex = Penis in Vagina
From a young age, most of us learn that penis-in-vagina is the most legitimate form of sex. When kids learn about the “bases,” intercourse is the “home run.” The phrase “losing your virginity” typically refers to having penis-in-vagina intercourse for the first time. And when people say “sex,” this is usually the act they’re talking about.
This terminology excludes not only many LGBTQIA people, but also many others who simply get more pleasure out of other activities. For example, as previously mentioned, many people prefer oral sex, fingering, or other activities involving clitoral stimulation to penetration.
“There are, in fact, so many ways to be sexually active and the old school one-size-fits-all, missionary style isn't for everyone,” says Conti. “ Check out our episodes on masturbation, sex tech, and feminist porn for lots more information on how to improve your sex life.”
These are just scratching the surface of the myths we learn about our bodies and sexualities, which is why sex ed resources, like The V Word, are so important. “There are so many misconceptions about women's reproductive health that need to be fixed,” says Conti. “For decades, men have been writing our stories. It's time to fix that.”