Disclaimer: Because sex-education tends to exclusively focus on cis-gendered individuals, this article provides a critique of material taught within such a curriculum. Despite the focus of this article, it is important to strive for inclusiveness of transgender and non-binary individuals in sex education.
On September 2, 2014, the Daily Dot published an article revealing that only 50% of women between the ages 26-35 in the UK could identify their vagina on a diagram. These numbers are horrifying but don’t come as a surprise. This embarrassing issue was also seen in an episode Orange is the New Black which revealed how common a problem it is for women to not know their anatomy. Many of the characters believed that they urinated from their vagina and had no knowledge about the urethra, thus spurring discussion amongst the inmates. Unfortunately, a lot of women do not know about their anatomy.
Is sex-education in schools failing young women? Is the taboo associated with vaginas playing a role in the lack of discussion about the female anatomy? In a country where only 20 states mandate sex education, and only 13 states require that the dispersed information is medically accurate and factual, it does not come as a surprise that women do not know much about their anatomy. If they do learn about their anatomy, they learn distorted information that is not necessarily accurate.
In my college-level classes, young women my age expressed frustration with the inadequate sex-education they received throughout middle school and high school. The diagram we had all come to know growing up depicting female anatomy was nothing but a “plumbing lesson;” it illustrated the clitoris, urethra, vagina, anus and vulva. We grew up coloring in and labeling these diagrams, but hardly knew anything about the parts we were labeling or how to locate what we were labeling on our own bodies. Female anatomy was not something to be spoken about out loud. This frustration towards sex education was a general consensus among girls in the classroom. Thinking about how this might be a general consensus on a large scale was extremely disturbing. How many young women are left in the dark, confused when it comes to their anatomy? How many are too ashamed to ask questions or take a look for themselves? How many are women are ashamed of their vaginas?
The fact that female anatomy is omitted from public discourse and school classrooms across the nation, leaving girls uninformed or with misleading information, is something that must be addressed. Calling a clitoris a “button,” referring to the vagina as “down there” is so vague, and not using anatomically correct terminology only makes learning about women’s anatomy more ambiguous. These terms shouldn’t be a source of embarrassment; about 50% of the world has this anatomy, yet no one is willing to speak about it. It is thus not surprising that women cannot locate their vagina. This confusion permeates among not only young girls, but also adult women as evident in the study conducted in the UK.
In addition to not defining or speaking about female anatomy correctly, my classmates also expressed frustration with female pleasure not being discussed in sex-ed. The female anatomy was defined in terms of reproduction; as nothing but a functional tool in giving birth. Female pleasure was simply never discussed Although some had learned that the clitoris was a “magic button” that gave women pleasure, the majority never learned about what the clitoris did. Not once was it implied that women could masturbate using this “magic button,” just as males masturbate. Many did not learn about the G-Spot located in the vagina. If anything we learned about how males enjoyed sex, but we did not learn that women are supposed to enjoy sex as well. The vagina is taboo as is female pleasure. The word vagina isn’t even said without some form of stigma attached to it.
My classmates and I never got more than a three hole diagram in grade school about the female anatomy; much less the idea that women could enjoy sex or take charge of their anatomy and explore it themselves. On the other hand we learned so much about penises and about what was “normal” for men to do. It’s “normal” for men to enjoy sex, have lots of it and with multiple sexual partners. It’s normal for boys to masturbate. Female masturbation was not once mentioned in our sex-ed classes. The idea that women could enjoy sex was not expressed at all! This contributes to the shame women associate with not only their vaginas but in enjoying sex.
These personal accounts of young women looking back at their experiences in sex-education, a study that revealed that only 50% of women in the UK know where their vagina is located, and an episode of Orange is the New Black reveal that sex-education is not adequate. This is also proven by the many women who continue to not know about their own anatomy as well as continue to be too ashamed to ask questions. Sex education should not be oppressive but informative, it should not omit information, and should be an open space to clarify questions about changes in male and female bodies and be inclusive of trans/nb/genderqueer individuals. This lack of inclusiveness in sex-ed must also be dismantled so as to not leave out tran-sexual/gender or self-identifying women. Schools should provide the accurate information for individuals to be knowledgeable about basic terms and functions of their bodies.
This knowledge would serve as the basis of being comfortable in your own body and secure in how you interact with it. In a society that makes the vagina a shameful subject-matter it is important to have an open discussion about it to eliminate the shame and fear associated with the vagina. More important than being able to locate the vagina, is to open discourse about the vagina so that women can take pride of their bodies and all that they can do and not be ashamed of saying VAGINA, VAGINA, VAGINA, out loud.