Friday 23 August 2019

Delightful debut calls for much-needed dialogue about female genitalia

Non-fiction: Vagina: A Re-Education

Lynn Enright

€21.00, Allen & Unwin

Vagina: A Re-Education
Vagina: A Re-Education

Sophie White

When presented with the first book of journalist and editor, Lynn Enright, Vagina: A Re-Education, as a vagina-owner myself I did wonder whether I was in need of this particular education. On page four, any ambivalence towards being re-educated on a piece of anatomy I'd had for over 30 years was swept aside by something that astounded me: a brand-new piece of information regarding just what exactly a hymen is.

The hymen has for centuries been viewed as something akin to a tamper-proof tab on a piece of electronic equipment - confirmation that a woman is still in pristine factory settings condition, that her virtue is intact. "It's not a covering," according to one of Enright's interviewees, a consultant gynaecological oncologist, "In the majority of people it's like a crescent." Morto. This was news to me.

Part highly-accessible academic treatise and part chronicle of a personal journey of self-discovery (in the most literal sense), Enright's book is foremost a call to educators and adults in general to grow a pair and start teaching young women the truth about their bodies.

Sceptics might puzzle over whether we actually need a whole book devoted to unpacking the vagina, but a couple of chapters in, I wager any voice of dissent will be silenced by the mounting evidence in these pages that the vagina has been under attack and continues to be in many parts of the world today.

From teachers omitting any reference to the clitoris during sex education, to women undergoing hymen restoration surgery, we live in a culture that is drenched in dick jokes but is failing to mention crucial aspects of female genitalia to children in classrooms. Children who in a few short years will have previously unheard of access to pornography and will presumably be learning of the "wrongness" of their own genitals merely by comparison.

In the explosive collision of tech and porn, the image of the vulva as a hairless, penis-destination, as sleek and sanitised as an Apple product has caused us to lose sight of what female genitals actually look like. In the chapter entitled Appearances, Enright muses on the depressing uptake of labiaplasty and other procedures to alter the appearance of the vulva. "It seems bizarre and disheartening to me that the vulva has become another body part for women to fret about and spend money on," she writes.

I loved Enright's exploration of our preoccupation with the binary model of male-female sex assignment. According to the chapter titled The Facts, things are far less clear cut than the traditional sex education would have you believe. About one in 2,000 babies are born with some degree of ambiguity and beyond physiological concerns, many people do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth - these experiences need to be incorporated into a new form of sex education.

Enright's research is thorough. She has interviewed educators, health professionals and even the original voice of the vagina, playwright Eve Ensler. She intersperses the research with passages detailing her unfolding acquaintance with her own vagina and identity as a woman. Vagina is an eye-opening read, it will make you angry at the torture and shame that has been inflicted on people with vaginas.

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