So I’ve seen a couple of articles recently lamenting ignorance of the anatomy of female-typical sexual systems. And generally I’m on board with whatever click-baity editorial you can come up with complaining about ignorance. Ignorance bad, education good! But I have something of a quibble with these articles, which I shall now discuss:

Firstly, there was an amount of commentary on what is basically a press release by a charity that raisese awareness of gynaecological cancers: Women don’t know where their vaginas are. (Wouldn’t normally link to Vice but that particular article is by an acquaintance and is generally quite a sensible take on the story.) I mean, ok, raising awareness of gynae cancers is a worthwhile cause, and I don’t really blame the Eve Appeal for somewhat sensationalizing their survey findings. But I’m a bit annoyed by the interpretation of ‘can’t label the parts on an anatomy diagram’ and ‘don’t know the technical difference between vagina and vulva’ as women (the recent survey only included women) being ignorant of their bodies. Being able to recognize and label mostly internal anatomy is basically of no use to most non-medical people in their daily lives. Correctly using the word vulva is great for pedants, and I very much enjoy pedantry and linguistic precision myself, but it’s perfectly possible to know everything you need to know about vulvas and their associated structures without knowing that specific technical term.

For one thing, there literally is no appropriate formal and generic term for that part of the body. Female genitalia is cis-sexist, fanny is childish (not to mention confusing to Americans), vulva is over-specific, pussy is vulgar and cunt is frankly offensive in many contexts. It’s hardly surprising that in everyday speech people say ‘vagina’ when they really mean the collection of vulva, clitoris, vagina and cervix. The problem is exacerbated by the tendency to equate the vagina with the penis, when trying to include both sexes. I can think of any number of sentences where saying ‘penis or vagina’ so that your statement applies to people with different genital configurations ends up with a statement that may apply to people who have vaginas, but doesn’t actually apply to the vaginas.

One of the reasons I liked Watson’s Vice take on the ‘women are ignorant!’ survey was that she includes a quote from the Royal College of General Practitioners spokesperson to the effect that:

It’s more important that people feel comfortable talking to their doctor about their bodies, whether or not they know the correct names for body parts.

If someone went to the doctor and said, my leg hurts, and pointed to their thigh, you wouldn’t expect the doctor to pedantically correct them that in anatomical terms leg only refers to the part below the knee and they should really say lower limb. It’s the same if a patient said vagina when they really meant vulva or the whole crotch area.

Although I mostly agree with Dr Stokes-Lampard, I think she doesn’t really go far enough. Because yes, people “should” feel comfortable discussing their bodies with their doctors, but if they don’t, it’s prudent to look for a deeper reason than just victim-blaming. A person might avoid going to the doctor about problems with their genitals because they’re too ignorant and haven’t studied anatomy, or because they’re too embarrassed to discuss private parts. But I think it’s more likely that they’ll avoid going to the doctor because they don’t trust the doctor to treat them respectfully, and a lot of the time, people are justified in worrying about that. Plenty of doctors don’t take women’s pain seriously, they assume that pretty much any level of pain or dysfunction is just the menstrual cycle, or it’s hysteria, women complaining about nothing for attention, or ‘somatizing’ or ‘functional’ or whatever the trendy technical term du jour is for, women’s suffering isn’t important. And even more doctors assume that men don’t have vaginas (or vulvas or any associated parts), and having to put up with being misgendered or even subjected to transphobia is a pretty major reason to put off going to the doctor, it’s not just being embarrassed.

Also, discussing your genitals with a stranger, with the likely outcome that the stranger is going to want to look at them and maybe even prod them is in fact pretty traumatic for a lot of people. It’s a real and meaningful taboo in our society. Maybe it theoretically shouldn’t be so, people should think of their genitals as just part of their bodies like their hands or anything else, but that’s not actually how it is in this reality. If your whole life you’ve been told that that part of your body is private and personal and should only be seen by your spouse, then it’s really, genuinely hard to subject yourself to medical exams. And the techniques used to examine the internal parts of the vagina and cervix are at absolute best physically uncomfortable, but for many people painful and terrifying. Far too many people have experienced sexual trauma and people deliberately hurting their genitals, and women are socialized to be afraid of sexual assault even if they haven’t personally gone through that. In theory a qualified medical professional is to some extent certified as a person who will respect people’s autonomy including when dealing with their genitals, but that certification process is not perfect. Many medical professionals are in fact pretty disrespectful to patients, even if it’s accidental because if you’ve got used to being completely casual about genital issues you may forget that that’s not how it feels to many lay people. But in many cases there’s more intentional brutality and abuse of power, and it’s unfortunately not absolutely unheard of for doctors to sexually assault their patients.

In a similar vein, lots of people have been linking to this article on the 3D structure of the clitoris, which information the journalist, Salami, seems to think will lead to women being “sexually empowered”. And again, I kind of question the underlying assumptions here. Yes, it is a bit surprising that the complete internal anatomy of the clitoris was not fully elucidated until less than 20 years ago, and that does reflect sexism in what sort of research is considered important and attitudes to usually female sexual function. But knowing that the clitoris has extensive internal structures is to me not very much more important than knowing exactly which part is correctly termed the vagina. Definitely important for people doing research into or treatment of issues around sexual function, but as far as I can see pretty much irrelevant to lay people having sex.

Salami’s article has a similar silghtly victim-blaming attitude to women who don’t have good sex lives to that in the press around the Eve Appeal survey. Women aren’t having unsatisfying sex because they haven’t kept up with the latest reseach into human anatomy, just as the reason that women aren’t getting cancers detected and treated early enough is not because they can’t label the clitoris on a diagram of the reproductive system. It’s not the fault of women being too embarrassed to correct their ignorance when society assumes a certain narrow view of male sexual function is the norm and everything else is a minor footnote. It’s not the fault of women’s ignorance of anatomy if their male partners ignore female sexual pleasure and even women’s autonomy.

Setting aside the sexism explanation, I don’t like the underlying assumption that good sex is about performance skill. You don’t need to learn all this detail about anatomy to have good sex, and you don’t need to be a genius at advanced techniques to have good sex. The assumption that sex is all about skill and talent is nearly as damaging as the assumption that sex should be all about normative men’s pleasure and women don’t matter. People who are curious about sex and focused on pleasure and not worried about meeting a standard either of what’s “normal” or of being “good at” sex generally have more satisfying sex lives. And no amount of medical or technical knowledge is any sort of substitute for actually caring about your partner and paying attention to what they enjoy and communicating and exploring together. I could claim that I have a good sex life because I know where my clit is, including knowing about the more recently identified internal structures mentioned in Guardian article. But that’s a scale error; really I have a good sex life because I care a lot about what works for me and my partners rather than what I’m “supposed” to do or enjoy. Being the sort of person I am, being curious and wanting to explore means I read a lot about sexology research, and a major thing I’ve learned from reading is that communication and exploration are way more important than technique or academic knowledge.

And I’m really quite lucky and privileged that I have come to that attitude about sex. There’s a lot of unhealthy media messages out there, and I’m sad to see a women’s charity and a feminist journalist replacing one unhealthy message with just blaming women for their ignorance and embarrassment. I mean, both pieces talk about the gaps in school-based sex education. I personally learned plenty about scientific anatomy. I didn’t learn about the internal clitoris because it really wasn’t well known when I was at school in the 90s, but certainly I learned to label diagrams of the so-called female reproductive system and to recite lots of technical medical vocabulary. OK, learning those things was better than not learning them, but there’s a lot of really quite important stuff that goes beyond just knowing the mechanics of PIV intercourse.

Also my education had a lot of intended-to-be-feminist weird political angle that my friends and I termed ‘Shere Hite clitoris propaganda’, namely that the (presumed external) clitoris is really important for female sexual pleasure and you have to learn for yourself how it works and advocate really strongly for clitoral stimulation because men only want penetration and penetration doesn’t get women off. (I don’t think that’s what Hite actually said, mind you, it’s just that this vaguely misandrist and over-generalized advice was always attributed to her.) So I’m perhaps particularly sensitive to the idea that what women need is to know technical anatomical terms and scientific info about the clitoris, though I’m totally in favour of the 3D printed clitoris model as one tool among many.

Better sex education is certainly important, but I’m not sure that “knowledge about reproductive anatomy” is the keystone of that, if knowledge mainly means being able to put correct labels on diagrams of internal organs. Better sex education would include teaching people that they should see a doctor if something feels weird to them, not that the doctor will shame them for calling a vulva a vagina. Better sex education would include teaching people that every individual enjoys sex in their own way and there isn’t one single right way to have sex, whatever your gender or genital configuration.

I support and develop active collaborative learning at Anglia Ruskin, and volunteer with the Jewish community & interfaith groups. All views my own.