They say female sexuality is mysterious. Olivia Davis explores some things about female sexuality and anatomy even she didn’t know.
I hope you don’t learn anything from this article, but if you do I hope you’ll tell your friends.
When I was four years old, my mother got pregnant with my oldest brother. In order to explain what was happening to her only child, my mother got me a book. It was about pregnancy, but was written specifically for young children. I pored over it, absorbing information. It was fascinating to me. I can still recall some of the illustrations: it had black and white photos of sperm fertilizing an egg and the subsequent cell division, diagrams of reproductive systems, and pictures of a pregnant woman in profile showing the fetus growing within her. I remember knowing the word “embryo.” I don’t remember my mom and I ever talking about the book, but I know that if I’d had questions, she would have answered them for me.
That my mom bought her four-year-old a book with a picture of a penis in it tells you a lot about her: she’s pretty amazing; accurate information is really important to her; she values learning from books, etc. It also tells you about me: I have, for all of my life, been exceptionally well-educated about reproduction. I feel like I’ve always known where and what the clitoris is. As an adult, sex and gender have become important interests of mine. I’ve learned an awful lot about them. So I’d really expect that I should know most of what I need to know about my own body, especially with regards to sex.
And yet I’m still learning. I’ve picked up a startling amount of information in just the past six months. And not just kinky shit like “urethral sounding is something you can do to ladies,” stuff I think I should have known. Stuff somebody should have told me. And I’m mad that I didn’t know. The following is an informal survey of things I was wrong about until recently, as well as times when I could have been set straight.
What I thought: The hymen a thin membrane that covers the vaginal opening internally. PIV sex will “pop” it, but you can break it by doing all sorts of things, including gymnastics, horseback riding, and having bicycle accidents. All girls with hymens are PIV virgins, but not all girls without them aren’t. Hymens sometimes bleed when broken, but not always. Breaking a hymen may be extremely painful, or it may not be.
What’s true: Hymens are a thin membrane that cover part of the vaginal opening, not all of it. Excepting unusual anatomical circumstances, there is always at least a small opening. Hymens, therefore, aren’t “popped,” they’re torn, and sometimes they can be grown back. If you’re very careful with a hymen, and warm it up over a long enough period, you can successfully engage in PIV intercourse (or intercourse with a strap-on) without ever tearing it.
When I should have been told: I’m willing to cut the universe some slack on this one. First of all, I wasn’t grossly misinformed. I knew a fair amount that it would have been easy to be mistaken about. I also always knew that people with hymens could use tampons because I did it myself. From that, I deduced that there was an opening big enough to put a tampon or fingers in, but not big enough for a penis. But information was never explicit enough for me to put two and two together—to actually realize that the hymen wasn’t what I’d thought it was. This could have been clarified in a sex education class in high school, or the during “maturation” program I had in sixth grade that told me about my period. My parents might also have told me during “the sex talk,” or when I first bought tampons. I’m not sure if they knew, though.
What I thought: You can stretch out your vagina by putting large things in it. If you do, sex with male partners will be less pleasurable for them since men enjoy vaginal tightness.
What’s true: The vagina is a muscular organ. If you work at it, you can stretch it so that it can fit large things inside (e. g. fists, babies). You can also strengthen your vaginal muscles such that they can clamp tightly down on whatever you put inside. You can control of its capacity and tightness by exercising it, just like any other muscle. No vagina is irrevocably stretched out, or permanently tight.
When I should have been told: Sex ed again, or perhaps my first pap smear.
Periods and Birth Control
What I thought: Some hormonal birth control pills prevent the user from having a monthly period. Most do not. Though there’s no medical reason to have a period, you can use hormonal birth control without interrupting your monthly cycle.
What’s true: There’s no medical reason to have a monthly period—as evidenced by the fact that women who take hormonal birth control do not have them. The monthly bleeding they may experience is called “withdrawal bleeding.” While it’s not a period, it is a good indicator that you’re not pregnant: regular vaginal bleeding during pregnancy is very unlikely.
When I should have been told: The times I’ve been prescribed birth control. Informational packets about my birth control pills. While looking up information about my medication.
What I thought: There is no such thing.
What’s true: While not all women can ejaculate, the Skene’s gland, or “female prostate” on the anterior wall of the vagina may produce fluid during sex. This gland may make up all or part of the “G-spot.” It is more apparent in some women than others. The amount of fluid produced is dependent on the woman, but is often a few tablespoons’ worth. It may be expelled during orgasm, or before. While the fluid has some similar characteristics with urine, it is not urine.
When I should have been told: Sex education. Pamphlets at my university’s health center, or Planned Parenthood. Websites about having safe, happy sexual relationships. Anywhere that told me that orgasms are mostly clitoral should also have told me that female ejaculation exists.
Autoimmune Progesterone Anaphylaxis
What I thought: There is no such thing.
What’s true: If you go on hormonal birth control, your hormones and their levels change. If you stop taking hormonal birth control, they return to normal. This can trigger an allergic reaction, as your body now views its own hormones as foreign substances.
When I should have been told: Autoimmune progesterone anaphylaxis is a rare condition, and I’m not a person with many allergies. But two doctors have prescribed me birth control and I’ve read the informational packets that come with the pill. I’ve also done research about birth control pills while deciding what method of birth control would be best for me, and the term never came up. I first heard of autoimmune progesterone anaphylaxis when I told a friend I was writing this article and she replied that I should talk about the condition. She’d never heard of it until it was too late: an allergist mentioned it to her when she went to see him complaining of chronic hives.
Let me reiterate: I’m lucky. I had mostly good information on the things I knew about. I’d never have been in a position to think that swallowing semen could get you pregnant. Long before I ever had sex, I learned that most women only orgasm clitorally. I first learned the exact ways that AIDS can be transmitted from an educational TV show I watched when I was a kid (hi, Mom). I always knew that you couldn’t catch it from a cough or toilet seat. And yet there’s so much about my body, how it works, and how the medication I’ve taken for three years changes it. These things are important, be it for peace of mind, decision-making, or just knowing what’s going on. But I didn’t know. Not because I’m stupid. Not because I’m ignorant. Because no one told me and because even when I looked for information, it wasn’t always there.
A lot of talk in feminism is about empowerment. It’s about women—but also people—having control over themselves and their actions. It’s about them being able to do what they want, regardless of gender. It’s about fair treatment, fair access to knowledge, and a lack of arbitrary constraint. The ability to act as a free agent, even in defiance of social codes is empowerment. It’s the gaining of confidence, where there was none before. It’s necessary. Scarcity of information makes empowerment more difficult and lies—like the ones women are told about flappy vaginas, hotdogs, and hallways—are direct impediments to empowerment.
It may seem like I’ve framed this as a women’s issue, but it isn’t one. The absence of accurate information about women’s bodies affects their male partners. It can help cause unwanted pregnancies and assists the spread of disease. Silence on the subject of sexual function also keeps men from knowing about their bodies, as well. Many men don’t know about the prostate, for example. It makes people have worse sex than they might otherwise. Some myths and misconceptions about sex, like the fact that many people don’t know that female ejaculation exists, are comparatively benign. Others, like the idea that AIDS can be cured by sex with a virgin, or drinking bleach, are actively harmful. This must end. Sex can’t just be something we do, it has to be something we know about. Knowledge is a means to empowerment and empowerment is the goal.