This morning I’m checking out some books that I borrowed from the library – doing some research to see what’s already out there in the way of sexual health education for kiddos.
I picked up these two books designed for middle-schoolers. One for girls, one for boys. They’re from the same series and designed for the same audience, so I am comparing apples to apples here.
I started with the girl one, it’s about dating and dealing with boys. At least that’s what the cover claims. But the whole first half is about being a girl and stereotypes. And while it sort of calls them out, the way it was written mostly reinforces them.
Like the section on sex. It opens with, “Vagina. Okay? You can take a deep breath now or have a laugh. The word will NOT be used again in this book. Phew!”
Because, you know, in a book about girls and puberty and dating and sex… vagina is an irrelevant word? Or a bad word? Or a scary word?
Meanwhile, in the boy book the word penis is dropped into a regular sentence, no big deal. We haven’t even gotten to sex, we’re still in puberty and we find, “Your penis is getting larger and your testes are producing sperm, just in case you haven’t checked lately.”
No warning, no giggles, no promises to never mention that body part again.
I’ve wondered about this for a long time – this weirdness around women’s vulvas and vaginas. Is it just because they’re less obvious that we don’t talk about them? They’re sort of secret and hidden away visually, so… we just decide to pull the curtain all the way down around them?
I mean the girl book never once mentions that women’s vulvas and vaginas also change during puberty. There’s a whole page about breasts and bras (complete with the assumption that ALL girls will be wearing bras, because – nipples!) But no mention that the vulva tends to grow as well, that the labia change during puberty, becoming more full and larger. That they, in fact, change throughout the menstrual cycle.
It talks about periods and menstruation, without ever mentioning that the blood comes out our vagina. Or that that’s where the tampon goes if you choose to use one.
Nothing – just one use of the word vagina that reinforces how awkward we should all feel about it. The word isn’t in any context, it’s just thrown in our face and then we are reassured that we won’t have to talk about that yucky thing again. Phew!
Back to the boy book, on the page following the first introduction of the word penis, which you’ll remember was used in a helpful and informational context, not for shock value – We find a section on size.
“Every guy who goes through puberty becomes self-conscious about his body, and probably the number one body part he worries about is his penis.”
We get a mini-discussion of erections, wet dreams, reassurance about size and shape.
“The truth is that just like the other parts of your body, your penis goes through changes during puberty.”
Next we come to myths about masturbation like, “If you masturbate your penis will fall off.” This myth is promptly debunked.
For girls masturbation only comes up once, in a quiz.
a. a natural way of exploring your own body
b. illegal in some states
c. something that girls do if they don’t have a boyfriend
d. none of the above
The answer the book gives is a. Exploration.
You’ll notice that arousal isn’t mentioned. Women just masturbate to, you know, explore their body. Not for arousal (EW!), not for pleasure, not because it feels good – but just to ya know, get an idea of what’s “down there.” (Which is NOT a vagina, because we don’t use THAT word.)
In fact in the entire book on girls, puberty, dating and sex – female arousal is mentioned exactly ZERO times! (Can you feel my rage!?!)
Then again, we’re not allowed to say that girls who masturbate often touch their vulva, clitoris and vagina, because we aren’t allowed to use those words.
So here we have a book, claiming that it is trying to get girls ready for the world – and specifically ready for the world of dating and sex and yet the word vagina is used exactly once – with no context, as a disembodied *EW!* body part. It’s thrown in our face purely for shock value.
Meanwhile in the boy book the word penis is used 4 times, in context, with useful information about the changes it is going through, the concerns many boys have about it, the questions they are asking and the myths that are being spread.
This is not a fluke.
Vagina is a hard word to say in our culture. Penis – well, I mean, that body part hangs out, guys have to touch it a few times a day just to urinate. Penises are normal, they aren’t scary or mysterious.
The book on girls had a section called, “Mirror Mirror” and I’ll give you one guess what it DIDN’T invite girls to look at.
If you snapped a crotch shot of every boy in a class and tacked them up to the wall, I’d put money on every boy being able to correctly identify his in a matter of seconds.
Girls and their vulvas… Not so much.
They’re “down there”, hidden between our legs. The only way to really get a look is to squat over a mirror, or hold a mirror between our legs. And outside of a few hippy circles, we’re not exactly encouraged to do that.
From tampon and maxi-pad ads that use blue liquid to simulate menstrual blood – we’re taught that what goes on “down there” is kinda gross and that we don’t really want to explore too deep. We’re sold scented douche products to get rid of our natural odor. Scented pads too.
We wipe with toilet paper, wash with a cloth, use tampons with applicators and often masturbate with vibrators or other toys that make it so we never actually have to touch ourselves.
Many women and girls I talk to have said they would never ask a man to give them oral sex, “Because, you know, it’s just so icky down there.” But they assume that it is their job to give their dude a blow job.
Can we talk about “fromunda cheese” for a minute? Or spunk? I mean seriously, any person who has ever given a coffee drinker who smokes a blow job can tell you about some serious funk! But, penises are normal. Male ejaculate is normal. We see it splattered across the chests and faces of porn stars all the time.
Female cum? Female orgasms for that matter… We hardly ever see those. What does an aroused vulva look like? How many of you know that the labia of an aroused woman become engorged similar to the way a penis becomes engorged? How many of you know what a vagina looks like in the throws of orgasm?
We have to start talking about vaginas. And vulvas. And clitorises. And female arousal. We have to start normalizing these body parts, the changes they experience, the fact that they feel pleasure too.
Half the world population has them.
Maybe if we talked about them a little more we wouldn’t be so scared of them. Maybe we wouldn’t think they were icky and gross. Maybe we’d have a little more respect for what they can do and the people who have them.
Hey, a woman can dream, right?