Let's talk about oral sex equality.
In Peggy Orenstein’s Girls and Sex, Orenstein interviewed high school and college aged women about their feelings toward sex, their bodies, and dating. Although many of the girls interviewed boasted about being liberated feminists in charge of their bodies and sexualities, one stigma was continuously brought up. Heterosexual girls were totally cool with going down on their male partners, but when it came to receiving oral sex, the girls were much more sheepish.
The interviewees worried that their vaginas were unappealing. Many had never even seen so much as an accurate diagram of that part of their body. When Orenstein suggested taking a mirror down there, one girl replied “I’m not going to do that.” It seems despite the current wave of sexual liberation, the stigma surrounding the vagina remains. And it’s totally unfair.
According to a study by The Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy only 18% of women can orgasm through vaginal penetration alone. Most of the women interviewed relied on clitoral stimulation, such as oral sex, in order to orgasm. But despite the enhanced experience oral sex seems to add, many heterosexual women are still reluctant to let a partner go down on them. And why is that?
If young women have no idea what to expect “down there” they certainly aren’t going to leave it up to a partner to find out. The girls in Orenstein’s book worried their vaginas looked abnormal, smelled, or were too slimy for a partner to enjoy. That self-consciousness led to a whole lot of unreciprocated blow jobs, and it isn’t just girls who perpetuate the stigma about vaginas. It’s boys too.
Sex education often skims over the sex organs (and sexual pleasure for that matter) of people with a vagina. Instead boys get to ejaculate, while girls get their periods. The diagrams shown in most programs focus on the internal female reproductive organs—the uterus—instead of the vulva. It’s no wonder then that so few people can identify the clitoris, vagina, or labia.
“Is my vagina normal?” brings up nearly 80 million Google results. So, let’s talk about that. First of all, yes, your vagina is probably normal. Vulvas come in all kinds of shapes, sizes, and colors and odds are yours is unique and perfectly fine. There is a vast difference between the terms “normal” and “healthy” and it is important to make that distinction. Given the variations of everyone’s bodies it is hard to have a clear definition for normalcy when it comes to the vulva, vagina, and labia. However, knowing whether or not you’re healthy down there is another story. There are definitive things to look out for when it comes to a healthy and happy vagina.
Vaginas smell (and taste) the way they are supposed to because science, of course. That smell comes from hormones and protective secretions from the body. As long as you’re free of bacterial infection, your vagina smells like a vagina, which is best put as astringent, and a tiny bit acidic given your particular pH level. Even if you are self conscious of the smell or taste of your nether region, you should never wash it with a scented soap, or spray anything scented on it. That can cause major irritation, which could actually make the problem way worse. Instead wash with a scent free soap and warm water, or pick up a pH balancing cleanser from the drug store.
The best way to get over the fear of the unknown is to make it known. That might mean taking a mirror down there the way Orenstein suggests, doing some self exploration, or talking with a friend or partner about your worries. Odds are the smell, taste, and look of your vagina are perfectly normal. Embrace the uniqueness of your vulva, and if a partner can’t appreciate it, kindly ask them to take their tongue elsewhere.
Header image edited by Marcy Gooberman
McKenzie Schwark is a writer/editor whose work focuses on feminism and women's issues. Growing up in North Dakota, Schwark found a lack of accessible and honest sexual health resources for young people in the Midwest, and aims to change that through her work. She writes regularly for Project Consent, and is published or forthcoming in BUST, Bustle, The Outline, bitch media, Storm Cellar, Cherry Bombe, and more. Find her at mckenzieschwark.com or @schwarkattack on Twitter and Insta.