The year is 2017, and yet many of us – women as well as men – stutter, cringe and turn a fine shade of crimson every time we’re challenged to use medical terminology for female genitalia, like vagina, labia, or vulva. Indeed, it will be interesting to measure the bounce rate of this article based on how quickly users click out of the story in a state of pure horror.
The plain fact is that denying men and women the ability to talk freely about female genitalia, as well as health issues related to periods, reproduction and hormones, is dangerous. Censorship of words like vagina out of newspaper headlines, social media platforms, and even in some cases the GP surgery, is preventing women from seeking the attention they need to investigate a myriad of abnormal and painful conditions, as well as potentially fatal gynaelogical cancers.
Speaking at an event at Mintel House in London last night, hosted by gynaelogical cancer charity The Eve Appeal, FGM activist and Women’s Equality Party co-founder Nimco Ali shared her experience of facing embarrassment talking about her genitalia – including an interesting anecdote about the then Prime Minister David Cameron, who struggled in much the same way many do to say that word.
“The word vagina, we’ve been educated not to talk about it. I want us to be brave and I want us to have these conversations. I think one of the bravest things I’ve done was at the Girl Summit in 2014. I was talking about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and early forced marriage.
“So our former Prime Minister, David Cameron, had to say the word ‘Clitoris’. Because we keep talking about other parts of the body, and he kept on going red. And I’m like, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you going red in front of all this men from different countries that probably believe that the female anatomy shouldn’t be talked about. So [David Cameron and I] spent several hours talking into a mirror saying the word ‘clitoris’ and the word ‘vagina’.
“He had the power over a lot of other women and a lot of other men to talk about these things. So I’m happy to say I’ve talked about my vagina, and because of the fact I’ve talked about my vagina I know that my generation and countless girls to come are going to be saved from something which was quite horrific, which was FGM.”
Mr Cameron himself is yet to confirm that this coaching session actually took place. He did, however, give an impressive speech at the summit about the need for the UK to tackle FGM head-on, which you can see here. In 2015, he rushed through measures that enabled local authorities to apply directly to courts to ensure that any individual they suspect of trying to take someone abroad for FGM will have to surrender their passport with immediate effect. Once overcoming his own fear of saying the word ‘vagina’, he enacted real change to the lives of thousands of girls in the UK.
The panel set up to talk about taboos in women’s health also included MP Paula Sherriff, who chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women’s Health. Her work led to the scrapping of the tampon tax. Talking about periods, she says, caused equally reddening reactions from male members of the chamber.
“The first time we debated[the tampon tax] in Parliament, I made my speech deliberately quite graphic,” she said.
“So we talked about tampons, we talked about blood flow, discharge, and we even mentioned the word ‘vagina’. And it was so interesting, because most of the male MPs, to be fair from all parties, but particularly the Conservatives, suddenly found something really interesting on their shoes. Or they scuttled out of the chamber like ants. If you watch the video, they are really mortified.
“We eventually got rid of the tampon tax, and I famously said to the then Prime Minister David Cameron, ‘Could you confirm that the vagina added tax – VAT – would be scrapped?’”
Women’s Hour presenter Jane Garvey spoke of the shame of media censorship of women’s health issues.
“I think periods, unfortunately, are something that play a part in many women’s lives, and we have to talk about it honestly. We have to use the right terminology. I’ve had grown women say to me in the Woman’s Hour studio, ‘Can I say the word vagina?’
“There is something genuinely sad about that in the year 2017 when a woman thinks that it might be alright to say elbow, but you can’t say vagina on national radio. So let’s make sure that we keep working to stop these kind of taboos from making any part of our lives.”
Meanwhile, GP Dr Ellie Cannon, a media commentator and gynaecological specialist, pointed out the rather interesting paradox presented by how willing many women are to have our pubic hair removed, but how unwilling those same women to visit the doctors for an examination.
“No woman under the age of 40 who I see in my GP clinic has pubic hair. Because they are either pre-pubescent and they haven’t grown any pubic hair, or they’ve gone through puberty and they’ve gotten rid of it. You do not see pubic hair when you’re doing gynae exams in a GP clinic.
“What’s interesting is that those women who have somehow got rid of their pubic hair, probably like many of us have here, sat in a beauty salon and all those painful things that we put ourselves through. They’ve gone through that very intimate beauty regime, and yet they can’t say to me how much they are bleeding with their period, they have no way or describing it, they have no way of explaining to me that they bleed after sex, or they’ll say, ‘Actually, I’ve come in for an examination because I’ve got a boil down there.’ There are a lot of bits ‘down there’. But when we do examine them we find they’ve got a boil on their vulva or a boil on their labia. And they have no words for it.
“I find it a real paradox that we’re putting ourselves through these very intimate regimes, we’ve gone through this odd sexual revolution that has changed the way we feel we’re supposed to look, and yet we’re still unable to explain our body parts, we’re still embarrassed about examinations. We’re in an odd place where we’re ‘empowered’ in an odd way, but not empowered in the right way.”
Also on the panel were Embarrassing Bodies star Dr Christian Jensen, who spoke about the need for increased conversation centred around libido and sexual pleasure particularly in older women, and Professor Lesley Regan, the President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. She announced her ambitions to change the name of the institute to the Royal College of Women’s Health, and highlighted the desperate need for better sex education in schools.
The Eve Appeal hosted the talk as part of a series of events during September for Gynae Cancer Awareness Month. More than 21, 000 women in the UK are diagnosed each year with a form of gynaelogical cancer. That’s roughly 58 women a day. Basic lack of knowledge about the female body is stopping women from being aware of the signs of cancer before it’s too late, and the Appeal aims to change that.
For more information, visit The Eve Appeal website here.
Originally published 14 September 2017