When and how should women talk about what’s going on ‘down there’? 20



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I think it would be folly to expect that women will ever dominate or even approach equal representation in a large number of areas simply because their aptitudes, abilities, and interests are different for physiological reasons.

So said Tony Abbott when he was a university student, reflecting the historical view that men’s bodies are the standard from which women’s deviate. As prime minister and minister for women, Mr Abbott refused to say he had changed his opinion.

Given this traditional acceptance of a woman’s body as inferior, when it malfunctions it can produce an acute sense of shame. No wonder then that women often find it embarrassing to deal with problems “down there”.

That coy term exemplifies euphemisms used in our culture to describe women’s bodies and their functions. They deny women the accurate, unambiguous language to communicate about their bodies with confidence.

Women need access to language that is appropriate for different circumstances: formal (in public), anatomically correct (with a doctor), intimate (with a sexual partner), and casual (with friends).

Talking about vulvas

When it comes to menstruation, a girl isn’t supplied with appropriate language for her experience. Girls have long been taught that periods must be spoken of, if at all, in strictest privacy, indirectly, and not to men.

Periods have generated a variety of mundane and vivid euphemisms: “that time of the month”, “on rags”, “aunt Flo visiting” and “painting the garage” are just some of them.

There is an extensive lexicon of derogatory, aggressive, and cute words for female genitals, most of which would be unhelpful and inappropriate in a medical consultation.

Many women use the term “vagina” (the passage between the uterus and external genitals) inaccurately to describe the vulva (the outer genitals). Even Eve Ensler, creator of the Vagina Monologues, failed to use “vulva” when naming her play, despite claiming to free up discussion of women’s genitals.

If you can’t name a body part, how can you seek medical help if something appears to be wrong with it?

A major contributor to healthy discussion is someone who will listen and talk. If women are concerned about a gynaecological symptom, they need a doctor prepared to listen, respond helpfully, and ask the right questions.

Damned whores or God’s police

Society has a binary view of women, seeing them as either violating or upholding social morality; or in the words of Australian feminist and writer Anne Summers, as “damned whores” or “God’s police”.

Ailments of the vulva or vagina, especially related to infection or discharge, have often been assumed a result of a woman’s (usually promiscuous) sexual activities. One of us interviewed a woman diagnosed with cervical cancer who had asked a nurse how it could have been contracted. The nurse replied, “All I can say is that nuns don’t get it”.

If you grow up absorbing such ideas, it can be difficult to speak about normal functions such as menstruation or to recognise symptoms indicating need for clinical care, without fearing judgement.

It doesn’t help that it’s challenging for a woman to have a close look at her own vulva. Men’s experiences at urinals have no female equivalent, meaning that few women have seen another’s genitals. This leaves them to question whether their own appear “normal” (questions now answered by the Labia Library).

Women’s bodies also tend to be defined by their reproductive capacity. In Western cultures at least, women can feel inadequate or like ex-women after menopause. Gynaecologist Robert Wilson once described a woman’s life after menopause as “the horror of this living decay” in which she was “no longer a woman”.

Then there is the powerful narrative that women’s “leaky” bodies require concessions and extra care. In seeking support for women who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or experiencing conditions such as endometriosis, we take the risk of reinforcing the belief women will be a burden to their employers and to men.

When causes are not understood and cures not found, there is a tendency to blame women’s problems on their volatile emotions or their poor psychological state. Until too recently, any cause of infertility not fully understood was described as having a psychological origin.

Men’s bodies have problems too

American feminist Gloria Steinem once asked what it would be like if men menstruated. She suggested it would be celebrated and identified as a heroic act, perhaps a subject of pride.

As it stands, women’s sanitary products are taxed as luxury items in Australia. Their purchase can still cause embarrassment, requiring a quick check of the supermarket aisle to make sure nobody is watching.

But it is wise to keep in mind that men’s bodies can also be sources of shame. They can deliver involuntary erections at inopportune moments, grow breasts, be subject to prostate problems, and even arouse disgust when they’re generously donating semen.

Men and women both experience hormonal changes throughout life and both can be troubled by similar problems, such as incontinence.

All bodies need extra care and attention from time to time. We need to find ways to enable informative, helpful conversations about women’s bodies that don’t stigmatise them (as individuals or as a group) and that contribute to their physical and mental health.The Conversation


Maggie Kirkman, Senior Research Fellow, Jean Hailes, Monash University and Jane Fisher, Professor & Director, Jean Hailes Research Unit, School of Public Health & Preventive Medicine, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tell us what your thoughts are on this. Have you ever been embarrassed to talk about your ‘down there’ at the doctors?

The Conversation

The Conversation is an independent source of news and views, sourced from the academic and research community and delivered direct to the public. Their team of professional editors work with university, CSIRO and research institute experts to unlock their knowledge for use by the wider public. We republish The Conversation's content under Creative Commons License.

  1. Nope. I can’t recall that I ever have.

    1 REPLY
    • Me neither Philomena. Apart from when I wanted to go on the pill when I was 16 for period pain and the family doctor thought I was promiscious and said for me to go Kings cross and find a doctor there – which I did.

  2. My mother was one for giving things their correct names so it has stuck with me for life.

  3. I have never been to embarrassed to talk to my doctor about a personal problem, if we are taught from a young age the CORRECT name for body parts then I don’t understand why any ADULT would have a problem.

  4. My mother passed away when I was very young so I didn’t have her care & attention. My Dad, God love him was very old school so we didn’t discuss such matters so, yes, I still have a little difficulty with medical issues including putting off asking for prescriptions that I need & it doesn’t help when a male practitioner tells you ” you women constantly have problems with your genitals’.

    3 REPLY
  5. In InIn my opinion, women are physically superior to men. They are the base model (in fact, everyone is female at conception in the uterus. It’s only later that some degenerate into males!) This means that females are stronger, more resilient and longer-lasting. Far more widows than widowers, ha, ha. Men are intimidated by women and secretly envious of their capacity to give birth, so they try to denigrate them by making vulgar cracks about menstruation, pregnancy etc. etc. It’s time to start circulating rude jokes about premature ejaculation, prostate problems like having to get up umpteen times to pee during the night and taking something like half an hour to do it! In spite of what I say, I like men – I have a houseful what with husband, four sons and three grandsons. Thank goodness I’ve also got two granddaughters and four daughters-in-law to support me!

  6. My late husband once said to me that he’d rather have to shave every day than have periods once per month. Never slow with a reply I said to him that my periods would stop one day but he’d have to shave for the rest of his life 🙂

  7. I have great difficulty discussing issues about my body with my doctor from time to time – he generally starts getting uncomfortable and refers me to come back to see the female doctor when she is on duty.

    2 REPLY

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