Vaginas Are Dirty, Ugly, and Smell Bad

Vaginas Are Dirty, Ugly, and Smell Bad. The clean vagina. In the 1980s there was a series of television commercials that all began the same way; with a mother and her 20-something daughter going through some daily activity — like walking the dog or driving in a car. The daughter would suddenly become very serious, look at her mother intently, and say “Mom, do you ever get that not-so-fresh-feeling?”

Despite the fact that the daughter never mentioned that this vague feeling had anything to do with her vagina, her mother would recommend a Massengill douche (or maybe it was summer’s Eve, we don’t quite remember). The daughter would look relieved and invariably the clouds would part and the sun would shine. That “not-so-fresh-feeling” became the punch line of jokes for many years.

Vaginas Are Dirty, Ugly, and Smell Bad
Vaginas Are Dirty, Ugly, and Smell Bad

We haven’t seen these ads for a while but there are certainly still commercials that advertise douches, special soaps, feminine hygiene wipes, and vaginal deodorant sprays. And maybe we haven’t come that far as many of the current ads talk about embarrassing odors and the need for special products to take care “down there.” These commercials are designed to sell products (products that nobody needs but we will get to that later) but in doing so they perpetuate the idea that the vagina is dirty and smells bad.

Moreover, in doing so without ever using the words vulva or vagina, these ads perpetuate the idea that this is an area of the body that is so embarrassing, we can’t even name it. (Unfortunately, in some ways this is true, many people — both men and women — can’t name it because they don’t know the right words or mix up which part is which).

Vaginas Are Dirty, Ugly, and Smell Bad | adult skills

The end result of an industry that sells unneeded products and a society that can’t or won’t use proper language is that many women feel ashamed of their genitals, which can negatively impact their sex lives. Women have also begun to alter the appearance of their genitals; some by removing all or some of their pubic hair and others by undergoing painful reconstructive surgery to “normalize” the appearance of their genitals.

What’s Where and What to Call It
Before we can successfully debunk the myriad of myths that surround the female genitals, we have to start by talking about the female genitals themselves. Forgive us if this is a repeat of something you’ve learned in an anatomy class or a human sexuality course (or, if we had our way, a fifth grade puberty class) but we think this bears repeating. The external female genitals are made up of a number of different parts.

The mons or mons pubis is the pad of fatty tissue that covers the pubic bone and is naturally covered in pubic hair after puberty. The labia majora and labia minora are the outer and inner lips, respectively. The labia majora are also covered in pubic hair. When these lips are pulled apart they reveal the clitoral hood, the clitoris, the urethral opening, and the opening to the vagina. All of these parts together are referred to as the vulva (Kelly, 2011).

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The vagina is actually part of the internal reproductive anatomy as it is what connects the uterus (or womb) to the outside of the body. Though many people think of the vagina as like a tube or a tunnel — always open, just waiting for something to go in or come out — it is not. The vagina is made of muscles that can open up if something (like a tampon, a penis, or a sex toy) is inserted into it or something (like a baby) is being pushed out of it, but most of the time the walls of the vagina are touching each other.

It is important to note that the walls of the vagina are very elastic and though they can stretch to accommodate a full size infant during childbirth, they do not stay stretched out (Kelly, 2011).

Taking Care of Vulvas and Vaginas
Though the marketing world seems to want women to believe that the vulva requires special lotions, soaps, and salves, and that the vagina must be frequently cleaned out — the truth is that the same soap and water techniques you use for the rest of your body are exactly what you need for your genitals.

The vulva has a lot of blood vessels and can get warm easily which is why it also has a lot of sweat glands; sweat helps the body cool off. Sweat also has smell and it is true that most vulvas do have a particular scent. Though they don’t all smell the same, some people think the smell is a little salty, a little yeasty, or kind of like sour milk (Herbenick and Schick, 2011). This is all normal and does not require any special deodorant soaps or sprays.

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As Martha’s college professor, Dr. Good enough, once said: “There is no reason that a woman’s vulva should smell like a field of wild strawberries.” Women should take note of the smell of their vulva because if it changes or becomes significantly stronger at any point this could be the sign of an infection, but other than that there is nothing to worry about. In fact, some people find the smell of a woman’s vulva to be an integral part of sex and arousal.

As for the vagina — the internal part which can’t be reached with soap in the shower — the good news is that it cleans itself. Yep, the vagina has self-cleansing mechanisms and a delicate balance of microorganisms that keep it healthy (Kelly, 2011). Though the practice of douching — forcing water or other liquid into the vagina to clean it out — has been around for thousands of years, it has been proven time and time again to be harmful to women, increasing their risk of getting sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and other infections.

A review of literature by Martino et al. (2004) found research confirming that douching has been associated with increased risk of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), bacterial vaginosis (BV), cervical cancer, recurrent yeast infections, and HIV transmission. Douching has also been associated with infertility and having low birth weight or preterm infants. Several studies have also found an association between douching and chlamydia (a common STI) though others have not (Martino et al., 2004).

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Martino et al. do add a caution about seeing this as a direct cause and effect situation. They note that douching is more common in certain populations — African-Americans, people with low income, those with less education, and those who have more lifetime sex partners — who are already at higher risk for many of these outcomes including PID, BV, and STIs (Martino et al.2004). Still, douching is unnecessary and clearly risky.

The need for douching is one of the most stubborn myths about the vagina because, despite years of research showing that this is not healthy, many women still believe it is important and good for them. Ness et al. (2003) conducted a multisite study on douching habits and found that 66.5% of women who douched said it was to feel clean after menses, 43.6% said they did it for general hygiene reasons, 35.7% did it to cleanse themselves before or after sex, 26.9% did it to reduce vaginal odor, and 19.4% did it because they thought it was normal to douche (Ness et. al., 2003).

In their study of douching, Grimely et al. (2006) found that 70.3% of women who douched agreed with the statement “Douche products are safe to use; otherwise they wouldn’t be on the market,” Martino et al. looked at this very issue in their study and concluded: The FDA’s [Food and Drug Administration’s] role in regulation of the many vaginal douching products on the market is complex, as these products can be classified as drugs or cosmetics, depending on the type of claim made for the product and the type and strength of ingredients in the product.

Vaginas Are Dirty, Ugly, and Smell Bad | adult skills

Although both cosmetic and drug products are required to prove safety, cosmetic products do not need to prove effectiveness as drug products do. The FDA also assesses the design and safety of any devices used to apply the douching solution. Our review suggests that current douching regulatory approaches are confusing at best and merit critical reassessment. (Martino et al., 2004)

Additional oversight of these products seems wise as 90% of the women in Grimely et al.’s (2006) sample who douched had no intention of stopping. Moreover, the women who douched were more likely to use other feminine hygiene products such as sprays (24% compared to 5.7% of nondouchers), cleansing wipes (30% compared to 14.5%), powder (21.5% compared to 6.6%), and cleansing bubble baths (20.5% compared to 6%).

Interestingly, women who did not douche were more likely to use deodorant suppositories or tablets (19% of nondouchers compared to 12% of those who douche) (Grimely et al., 2006).

The myth that women’s genitals need special attention and products in order not to smell bad is truly problematic. It has allowed industry to prey on women’s insecurities and sell products that are not just unnecessary but potentially dangerous to their health.

Feeling Good About Girl Parts
In addition, it has perpetuated a cultural perspective that female genitals are something to fix and hide which has psychological implications for women as well. Research has suggested that women who feel bad about their genitals are less likely to enjoy sex and more likely to participate in risky sexual behaviors. Morrison et al. (2005) found that more than one in five college students, for example, expressed dissatisfaction with the odor of their genitals.

In an earlier study, Reinholtz and Muehlenhard (1995) found that negative perception about the smell and taste of one’s genitals was linked to lower participation in various sexual activities (both as cited in Schick et al., 2010). More recently, as pornography has become more accessible, researchers have started to question how women feel about the appearance of their vulvas.
In a 2010 study, researchers at George Washington University used three separate measures to determine how young woman’s perceptions of their vulvas impacted their sexual behavior and enjoyment.

Vaginas Are Dirty, Ugly, and Smell Bad | adult skills

First, they measured “vulva appearance satisfaction,” then they measured “genital image self-consciousness,” and finally they measured “motivation to avoid risky sex, sexual esteem, and sexual satisfaction.” As the authors had expected, the results indicated that “genital appearance dissatisfaction may have harmful consequences for both sexual satisfaction and sexual risk among college women due to its detrimental impact on genital image self- consciousness and selfesteem” (Schick et al., 2010).

In a small study of older women, Berman et al. (2003) similarly found that “positive genital self-image was found to negatively correlate with sexual distress and depression and positively correlate with sexual desire.” However, they found “no correlations between genital selfimage and relationship health, perceived stress, overall sexual function, arousal, lubrication, orgasm, satisfaction, or absence of pain” (Berman et al., 2003).

Schick et al. go on to point out that genital appearance dissatisfaction is particularly disturbing among college students, many of whom are engaging in their first sexual experiences: “Reduced sexual satisfaction during these formative years may impinge upon the development of healthy sexual selfconcept and set the stage for future difficulties and concerns.”

Moreover, they note that decreased motivation to avoid risky sex could leave this population even more vulnerable to STIs, including HIV/AIDS (Schick et al., 2010).

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Vulvas Get (Unneeded) Makeovers
In our society it has become somewhat acceptable to change the appearance of body parts that we don’t like. Women (and men) smooth out the natural wrinkles of old age with Botox, remove excess fat with liposuction, and use rhinoplasty to even out bumps and hooks and create that perfect ski slope nose. We also should not forget about the popularity of breast augmentations as an instant way to get the double D’s that some members of our society seem to value. In their essay on the “Designer Vagina,” Braun and Tiefer (2009) point out that, “Although genital distress is nothing new for women, women’s genitalia were, until recently, largely excluded from the intense self-surveillance and improvement imperatives that cosmetic surgery culture mandates”.

Today, there are a number of elective plastic surgery procedures that women can use to change the look and feel of their genitals. Some, such as “vaginal rejuvenation” and “revirginization” claim to tighten the vagina to make sex more pleasurable. Another procedure, called “G-spot amplification” is supposed to make it easier for women to take advantage of their G-spot, an area in the vagina said to have heightened sensation (see Myth #4 for a discussion of whether the G-spot exists in all or some women). Another procedure, called labiaplasty, changes the appearance of the vulva most often by reducing the size of the labia minora so that they do not extend beyond the edges of the labia majora.

Some suggest that when a woman’s labia minora are too long they can interfere with daily activities such as walking, wearing certain types of clothing, and exercising. Miklos and Moore (2008) argue that many women who seek to have labiaplasty do so because they are experiencing discomfort. They surveyed 131 women who had the procedure at one clinic over a 27-month period and found that 37% had strictly aesthetic reasons for it, 31% had strictly functional reasons for it, and 31% had a combination of functional and aesthetic reason for seeking the surgery.

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG), however, says that these procedures are rarely if ever medically necessary. In its committee opinion on the topic, ACOG states: These procedures are not medically indicated, and the safety and effectiveness of these procedures have not been documented. Clinicians who receive requests from patients for such procedures should discuss with the patient the reason for her request and perform an evaluation for any physical signs or symptoms that may indicate the need for surgical intervention.

Women should be informed about the lack of data supporting the efficacy of these procedures and their potential complications, including infection, altered sensation, dyspareunia, adhesions, and scarring. (ACOG, 2007) Miklos and Moore also argue that most women (93.1%) sought the surgery for purely personal reasons while only a few (6%) were influenced by their male partners (2008, p. 1493).

Some feminist theorists, however, would argue that we have to look at the context under which such choices are made to determine if they really are purely personal. In her article on Brazilian waxing, Piexota Labre (2002) points out that women may take pleasure in or even feel empowered by activities that objectify and sexualize the female body but this does not mean that they are actually in the position of power (2002).

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Tiefer describes two feminist arguments when it comes to the issue of choice particularly around cosmetic surgery. The first, she says, highlights the physical and psychological harms of cosmetic surgery and believes that participation in the beauty culture inevitably adds to the already oppressive environment and makes it that much harder for the next women to resist that intervention.

These scholars believe that even if something, such as cosmetic surgery, is a solution for one individual it might still be wrong to allow it on a societal level because it increases gender inequality and limits the options of all women in the future. On the flip side, some feminist theorists suggest that all women have to live in our culture that is saturated with images of perfection and that sufferers deserve relief even if it takes the form of something as extreme as cosmetic surgery (Tiefer, 2008).

Taking It (Pubic Hair, That Is) All Off
Cosmetic surgery on one’s genitals is extreme and the question of whether women have, or should have, the choice to change a perceived problem with the appearance of their vulva may be harder to answer when dealing with something so drastic, painful, and permanent. We doubt that many of our readers will ever even consider elective plastic surgery on their genitals. We bet, however, that most of our readers (especially the women) have already considered removing — and many have already removed — some or all of their pubic hair.

This is not all that drastic (hair grows back) but it can be painful and it does alter the natural appearance of the vulva — which, post-puberty, is meant to be covered with hair.

A recent study of adolescents at a Texas health clinic found that 70% routinely shaved or waxed their pubic hair (Bercaw-Pratt, et al., 2012).

In a larger study, Herbenick et al. (2010) surveyed 2451 women about their pubic hair grooming practices and found that overall most women had some hair on their genitals but this varied by age.

Among the youngest participants, aged 18–24, 20.1% reported being typically hair-free in the previous month compared to 12.1% of those aged 25–29, 8.6% of those aged 30–39, 6.5% of those aged 40–49, and 2.1% of those aged 50 or older.

The percentage of women who had removed all of their pubic hair at least once in the past month was slightly higher for all ages; 18–24 years (38%), 25–29 years (32.2%), 30–39 years (23.2%), 40–49 years (16%), and 50 or over (9.1%). Even more women partially removed their pubic hair one or more times during the past month. Still, the authors conclude that the majority of women typically have some pubic hair (Herbenick et al. 2010).

Vaginas Are Dirty, Ugly, and Smell Bad | adult skills

These findings contradict other findings in research as well as mainstream media reports that suggest that hairlessness is the new norm for vulvas. In her article, “The Brazilian wax: New hairlessness norm for women?,” Peixota Labra, a native Brazilian, discusses this purely American phenomenon and fears that women are getting sucked into a practice that is not necessary, in part because of the media’s fascination with and lack of criticism for this technique.

According to Peixota Labre (2002), the Brazilian wax — which involves removing all (or almost all) of the hair from the mons and the labia as well as any hair a woman has, well, between her butt cheeks — started not in Rio but at a New York City salon. The procedure became a darling of women’s magazines which often featured first-hand accounts by reporters, and was made infamous by an episode of Sex and the City which brought the expression “landing strip” (to describe one stripe of hair artfully left behind) into common parlance. The media acknowledges that waxing hurts (we can still hear the screams of Steve Carrel when he waxed his chest in The Forty-Year-Old Virgin) but few conclude that it is not worth the pain.

Vaginas Are Dirty, Ugly, and Smell Bad
Vaginas Are Dirty, Ugly, and Smell Bad
Vaginas Are Dirty, Ugly, and Smell Bad

Peixota Labre notes the gradual social acceptance of removing body hair from other areas such as the underarms and legs. She writes “most women first started to remove body hair to conform to social norms but later continued to do so for reason related to femininity and attractiveness”.

She suggests that “the removal of female body hair, particularly in the genital area, can be viewed as a component of the objectification of women and construction of women as objects designed to attract male attention and provide men with sexual pleasure”. She, too, blames advertising and other media for perpetuating the idea that women in their natural state are less than ideal: “As a result, body hair, which is both natural and normal, has been constructed as a revolting enemy against which women must continuously wage battle”.

Interestingly though, Herbenick et al. found that even after controlling for other factors, those women who were typically hair-free or sometimes hair-free in the previous month scored significantly higher on their genital self-image scale, meaning that these women had more positive images of their own genitals than the women who had not removed any or all of their pubic hair in the previous month (Herbenick et al., 2010).

It is possible that these women were more comfortable with their vulvas before taking off the pubic hair which is what allowed them to put in that effort to begin with or it is possible that they felt better about their genitals at the time of the study because they had “conformed” to a new societal standard.

We are not going solve the ongoing debate around how women’s beauty choices get made and whether they can ever be truly personal in our society, especially when it comes to issues of the vulva. What we can tell you is that neither genital surgery nor removing pubic hair is medically necessary and as such should not be done without giving it careful thought (and in the case of surgery discussing it with one or more health care professionals).

We also want to throw in one word of caution from a study that came out while we were writing this chapter. It found that the incidence of pubic hair grooming accidents that are bad enough to land people in the emergency room are going up. It seems almost comical, but the report by scientists at the University of California, San Francisco found that cuts, scrapes, and burns to the urogenital area increased five fold between 2002 and 2010 with an estimated 2500 injuries in 2010. The majority of these injuries (57%) were in women but no small number (43%) occurred in men. And these figures are likely an underestimate given how many people may not seek help.

The primary culprit was the razor (83%) but scissors factored into 22% of injuries and hot wax into just over 1% (Glass et al., 2012). We are not taking a position on whether anyone should wax, pluck, tweeze, shave, or grow some kind of pubic hair Mohawk; just be careful.

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