Lynn Enright’s new book, Vagina: A Re-Education, breaks down the lies and myths women have been told about their bodies for generations
From the moment I was old enough to understand what it was, my vagina has been an absolute mystery to me. Growing up, I had no idea what was going on down there; constantly panicked about smells and discharges, at one point thinking I had permanently disfigured myself from masturbating with a new technique. Until very recently, if you had asked me to explain the difference between the vagina and the vulva, I would have been stumped.
I know I’m not alone. Through no fault of their own, most women grow up fundamentally uneducated about their own bodies. If we’re lucky enough to receive any sex education at all, it’s often hilariously unhelpful, totally focused on the male experience and more concerned with prevention than key topics like pleasure, respect, and consent. During puberty, when we’re desperate for information, we turn to the internet, which feeds us all sorts of inaccuracies and lies. I remember thinking my labia was deformed because it didn’t look like the perfect examples in porn, then reading that I could expect to bleed the first time I have sex (though this can almost certainly be avoided), and that my hymen would break if I went on a particularly vigorous bike ride (it’s actually not the seal of virginity it’s made out to be).
Lynn Enright is the journalist and accidental vagina specialist (she used to write mainly about fashion) behind Vagina: A Re-Education: a new book that debunks the myths we’ve been taught to believe about our bodies since we were young. Punctuated with humorous, sometimes heartbreaking anecdotes from Enright’s own life, it’s a fascinating exploration of the female body in all its gore and glory, with chapters on pain, periods, pregnancy, orgasms, anatomy, and much, much more. A key topic of discussion is sex education: the lack of attention it pays to the female experience, and the ongoing consequences this has in our lives. As Enright says, during school, women are taught to be coy about their bodies, while men’s sexuality is put front and centre. Male ejaculation takes the starring role in many discussions of sex, but female pleasure is left untouched (the clitoris is rarely spoken about). We’re taught how to prevent pregnancy and roll condoms on to bananas, but no one tells us what to do about that weird discharge in our knickers, or how we should handle debilitating period pain if, and when, it strikes.
After reading the book, I spoke a few women in the UK about their experiences with sex education. It was depressing. In many cases, proper education was only brought in when things went wrong. Emma, 28, told me: “Eventually the school did do a condoms on cucumbers lesson, but it was in response to a girl in our final GCSE year having twins, and a girl being hospitalised after an abortion”. Meanwhile, Ruth, 32, said her teacher was so flustered by questions added to an anonymous box that he “made the topic of sex a taboo”, and Helen, 26, said her teacher employed the “ask me anything” tactic, only to end up telling stories of losing her virginity at a bus stop and giving oral sex in an alleyway. Positive situations like Kirsty’s, 31, were rare: at a regular comprehensive school in Cambridgeshire, she was taught about consent, abortions, respect, peer pressure, and not needing to have sex to be intimate with someone. “I fully took it on board,” she said. “Some of the tips the female teachers gave, I still use today.”
We speak to Enright about her book: what she learned while writing it, what she wished she knew growing up, and what she’s hoping for in the future.
#VaginaAReEducation is OUT. Writing it has allowed me to have some brilliant chats. Last night, for example, I discussed cervical mucus at length with a glamorous stranger. My hope for the book is that it will prompt lots of conversations – necessary, serious, silly or sexy. 🌷💞— Lynn Enright (@lynnenright) March 7, 2019
What was your experience with sex education when you were younger?
Lynn Enright: When I was growing up, I just assumed that sex was something men wanted more than women, and that it might not be that great for us even if we tried it. No one told us what to expect, other than ‘you’re going to bleed, and it’s going to hurt’. It was all about pleasing the man, or keeping yourself safe from them. Obviously we do need to teach that, because teenagers need to know about getting pregnant, but there is just so much more to learn. There was such a lack of information about the clitoris or the female anatomy in general, and nothing about sex itself; the fact that it can, and should, be pleasurable, and there are ways for it to happen safely.
What was the most shocking thing you learned while writing?
Lynn Enright: The hymen chapter was the first chapter I wrote, because it’s so interesting to me. It’s a brilliant example of, literally, the lies that were told to people. The hymen is not this seal of virginity that it was made out to be. A lot of women thought it was like this piece of translucent sheeting that will break the first time you have sex, and ruin your purity as women, but it’s actually a circle of tissue inside the vagina. We’ve all been told a lie about a part of our body, and it’s been used to control us. It’s really terrible. Finding all that out was the beginning; why I decided to write the whole book.
“I’ve tried to tell my story, and I hope now that other people with different bodies and cultures feel confident to tell their own” – Lynn Enright
In the book there’s a whole section about the difference between the vagina and vulva. Why do you think it’s important that we all know the distinction between the two?
Lynn Enright: It’s about breaking down the lies, and giving people the correct information about their bodies. Vulva is the medical term and vagina is the more casual version most people use, but when we just call it the vagina – if we’re never saying labia, or clitoris – we’re leaving out all these other parts of our anatomy, and acting like they don’t exist. We’re doing ourselves a disservice. Even now, I don’t feel 100 per cent comfortable saying the word ‘vulva’ out loud, and that’s weird, you know? It’s a part of my body. I think it’s important that we get comfortable saying these things out loud.
I found the chapter about women’s pain to be particularly confronting; the fact that women often have their symptoms underestimated. What would you suggest women do if they think they’re not being taken seriously?
Lynn Enright: It’s something that I’m still figuring out, to be honest. This month, for example, I had the most intense period pain, it was agony, and I thought ‘I really have to write this down, or make a clear note of it, because when I go to the doctor I need to really clearly be able to describe the agony I was in’. And although I hate it, I do think that’s something women have to do: almost build a case for yourself, so people believe you. People often think women are being hysterical, or exaggerating. I’ve been guilted into saying ‘oh yeah it’s not that bad’ in the past, then I haven’t got the treatment that I’ve needed and needed to go back.
Was there anything you didn’t have the space to write about, that you wish you could have?
Lynn Enright: I think there is loads more to say. I’ve tried to tell my story, and I hope now that other people with different bodies and cultures feel confident to tell their own. I hope that this is just the starting point, really – that the book allows people to question the information they’ve been given, and to seek out more knowledge about their own bodies.
Vagina: A Re-Education by Lynn Enright, is published by Allen & Unwin