Celebrating the Vulva

The Vulva        Working with many women over the years on a variety of sexual issues, there are several consistencies among them:  some women have never looked at their vulvas, most are unfamiliar with how it looks;  no woman yet has described this part of their body as beautiful, at least not at the beginning…

Michelle Anderson Headshot Cropped
Michelle Anderson
LCSW-C, CCTP-I

Independent Therapist

The Vulva       

Working with many women over the years on a variety of sexual issues, there are several consistencies among them:  some women have never looked at their vulvas, most are unfamiliar with how it looks;  no woman yet has described this part of their body as beautiful, at least not at the beginning of therapy; and many of them think their vulva is abnormal in size, shape, color or smell.  Most women cannot name the parts of their genitalia.  If you’re wondering what I mean by the term vulva, well, case in point.  

Vulva refers to all the outer structures of female genitalia.  These structures include, from top to bottom, the mons pubis or pubic mound, clitoral hood, clitoris, vestibular bulbs, labia majora, labia minora, urethra, vaginal opening, and anus.  All of these areas are highly sensitive to touch and are key components to pleasure, arousal and ultimately orgasm.  With all this to work with, why all the emphasis on the vagina?  It is not actually part of the vulva, just its opening, and guess what?  It is the least sensitive area of a woman’s genitalia.  Thank goodness, right?  If the vagina was as sensitive as the clitoris how could anyone give birth without heavy sedation.  So, if the vagina is not that sensitive, why is so much emphasis placed on stimulating it to achieve orgasm?  Indeed, less than 20% of women can orgasm through vaginal penetration alone.  This fact explains another consistent complaint from my clients:  a few have never had an orgasm; many have trouble achieving orgasm; and every woman is interested in how to have better ones.  

As a feminist since the early days of the movement, equal rights for women in all areas has been non negotiable, but until I found the website of Betty Dodson and Carlin Ross and watched their documentary, I have never shouted out loud “vulvas are beautiful!”  The work of Dodson and Ross introduced me to the concept of equality of pleasure and its importance to overall happiness, freedom, and personal power.  Critical to this concept is the belief that my anatomy is unique, a bit complicated, but above all beautiful.  These concepts now form the foundation for my therapy work with women who want to discover who they are sexually and own their sexual power and prowess.    

Champions of Sexual Liberation

Betty Dodson, often referred to as the “Mother of Masturbation,” was a pioneering feminist artist, author, and sex educator.  She died in 2020.  Throughout her career, Dodson advocated for the de-stigmatization of female masturbation and anatomy and promoted the idea that sexual pleasure is a fundamental human right.  With her partner, Carlin Ross, an attorney, sex educator and entrepreneur, they co-founded the website dodsonandross.com to provide online resources, workshops, and coaching to empower individuals to embrace their sexuality and overcome cultural taboos surrounding pleasure.  Central to their website is a Vulva Gallery where women can compare themselves to other women to demystify and normalize their vulvas and come to appreciate the beauty and uniqueness of them.   Their workshops, documented in their 2011 film, Bodysex Documentary, use techniques such as genital show-and-tell and group masturbation in a supportive environment of sisterhood to dispel the myths, malignment and misconceptions about our vulvas that have hindered our pride and pleasure in them for millennia.

Also, important to these ideals is the work of Emily Nagoski, author of Come As You Are, an informative and interactive book about the science of female sexuality that includes personalized exercises to apply this science.  The accompanying workbook is an excellent resource for clients who want to understand not only what they enjoy sexually, but how their histories and influences have created the sexual beings they are.  

Surprisingly, one of the most informed and practical guide books for increased sexual pleasure for women that I’ve read is written by a man, Ian Kerner.  His book, She Comes First, although written as an instructive guide to men in how to pleasure a woman, is informed, empathetic and humorous.  Dr. Kerner confronts directly the shame and misunderstanding men and women have around the vulva, and invites both to get up close and personal with it to experience the wonders of a well pleasured woman.  I suggest that couples listen together to the audiobook version and then practice the techniques detailed in Part Two.  

The Origins of Genital Shaming

Cultural attitudes and societal norms continue to influence how women perceive themselves, despite the body positive and body neutral movements that are currently trending on social media.  Women who have sexual issues with either arousal, desire, or performance (absent some medical problem) nearly all have body image issues, too.  Spectatoring is a common problem among women during sex and can delay or prevent orgasm.  It refers to the proclivity women have to step outside their bodies and watch themselves with judgment, worrying about their weight, whether or not their breast size is pleasing to their partners, or if scars, cellulite or body fat is noticeable.  This is exacerbated by lack of education about how our vulvas work and fears that our vulvas are unattractive, too.  These concerns take us out of our body where all the action is taking place and puts us in our mind where we should be registering pleasure not worrying about our looks.  

It is no wonder women struggle to accept the beauty of their genitalia.  Positive representations of the vulva can be found in some ancient cultures, particularly in Sumerian, Hindu and Indigenous Australian cave art, but historically, images of the vulva have more often been considered pornography, not art.  Images of penises have been celebrated in art for centuries, while female genitalia has more often been concealed, obscured by hands or drapery, or if shown, it has been anatomically scrubbed of all its glorious detail.   Despite modern artists such as Judy Chicago and Matilda Tao, whose work focuses on the power and beauty of the vulva, there are centuries of denigration and misinformation to overcome. 

Women’s pleasure, too, has been heavily regulated by institutions such as religion, law, and medicine.   Patriarchal structures and cultural norms have perpetuated the idea that female sexuality is something to be controlled, policed, and suppressed.  Historically, a woman’s virginity or lack thereof could determine whether or not she married, a status that could be critical to her survival and well being, thus predicating her value on lack of sexual experience.  In many cultures, women who enjoyed sex or sought sexual pleasure outside of prescribed norms were ostracized, shamed, or subjected to punishment and death.  In some cultures even today, the practice of genital mutilation persists whereby the clitoral hood is removed making the vulva too painful to be pleasured.  A woman who finds no pleasure in sex, presumably will not commit  adultery.  

Additionally, medical institutions, primarily male for centuries, have pathologized female sexual pleasure and the women who yearn for it.  Female genitalia has been seen as medically significant only for its ability to produce children, and pleasure is not relevant to this function.  The Latin term used in medical English for the vulva, pudendum, literally means “shameful thing.” In the Victorian era, women who were anxious, promiscuous, or sexually assertive with their husbands were diagnosed as suffering from “female hysteria,” and doctors would manually stimulate them to orgasm as a cure.  Interestingly, this resulted in the development of a “machine” that could do the stimulating and ultimately the hand held vibrator became available for personal use and this malady was no longer seen in doctor’s offices.  

 Conclusion

 Sexual pleasure is a basic human right and anyone with female genitalia has a responsibility to understand and appreciate their own anatomy, and with such understanding take ownership of how to use it to create pleasure. 

Published on February 21, 2024Updated on March 5, 2024