Misguided Notions: A Look at How Vulvas Have Been Misunderstood Throughout History

Misguided Notions: A Look at How Vulvas Have Been Misunderstood Throughout History

When the U.K. cervical cancer charity Jo’s Trust recently included the term “bonus hole” in a glossary of language relating to trans and nonbinary people, as an “alternative word for the vagina,” it sparked fervent online backlash. Reading some of the responses, I reflected that this was not the first time we have struggled to articulate ourselves when it comes to vulvas.

It’s no wonder, given the male-led narrative surrounding female genitalia since the dawn of time. Even the word “vagina” itself, which means “sheath” in Latin, defines female anatomy in relation to male genitalia — essentially, a resting place for the all-mighty sword. The Latin word for shame, pudenda, was used to describe all genitals, but only stuck to the female of the species.

Lost amid all the stigma and censorship is the fact that the vulva is an incredible organ.

Of course, these are hardly the most egregious insults in the long and storied history of the vulva. The ancient Greek physician Aretaeus believed the uterus wandered about the female body like an “animal within an animal,” causing illness as it banged into other, presumably manlier, organs. More recent “experts” like Sigmund Freud advised those with vulvas that clitoral orgasms were more “immature” than vaginal ones — whatever that means.

Somehow, millennia of vital, female-led yoni art celebrating the power to give life gave way to art depicting women lifting their skirts and using their horrifying genitals to ward off demons. This certainly adds to the narrative that vulvas are to be feared for their power and repulsiveness. As for Barbie, that overtly buxom example of female sexuality — and for so many of us, our first — well, hers don’t even exist. If that isn’t erasure, what is?

It wasn’t until the 1600s that the vagina was even officially named. Modern gynecology is a mere century old, and the discovery of the G-Spot significantly younger than that. Shockingly, it wasn’t until 1994 that the U.S. National Institutes of Health mandated that most clinical trials must include women. These are not great numbers when it comes to women’s gynecological health or the attitudes surrounding it.

With the medical and cultural narrative having shifted only ever so slightly over centuries, is it any wonder that we still struggle to talk about female genitalia with anything other than shame?

Current stats tell an equally sad story. According to a 2020 poll, an estimated quarter of U.S. women don’t know where their vagina is. The poll found that 46% of women couldn’t point out the cervix, and 59% suggested a different body part when asked to identify the uterus. A study conducted by American public health researchers found that up to half of those with vulva pain never raised their concerns with their doctor, at least partly because of stigma. And in 2019, Refinery29 asked over 3,000 female readers what they thought about their own vulvas and vaginas. Half had concerns about the appearance of their vulva while a third felt theirs were not “normal.”

A similar recent study by Italian brand Nuvenia reveals that 34% of women feel embarrassed by their vulva. Even more worrying statistics are those that reveal why — even in 2023 — it’s so tricky to talk about them. It’s a little known but worrisome fact that most of the words surrounding vulva healthcare are also the most banned words on social media. “Vagina” is Facebook’s most flagged word; others include vulva, discharge, clitoris, cervix, nipples, puberty, labia minora and labia majora. It’s hardly surprising, then, that according to the same research, 70% of women don’t feel comfortable talking about those things.

It’s the same issue we, as sex toy manufacturers, face when we struggle to explain to those who make the rules why wellness and pleasure are inextricably linked. It seems inconceivable that those seeking information or — even more crucially, in my opinion — seeking to educate those with vulvas about vulvas, should be banned for using the correct terms. Yet that is the case.

Lost amid all the stigma and censorship is the fact that the vulva is an incredible organ. Scientists are only just beginning to explore its carefully balanced microbiome and the capabilities of the billions of bacteria within. We already know they protect life, fight disease and can be used diagnostically; imagine the potential when we understand more. And of course, if we’re talking about customer base, we all know that vulvas and sex toys are a match made in heaven.

So, let’s not be compliant in this narrative, or let Janelle Monae and her vulva trousers do all the heavy lifting. As makers of toys beloved by those with vulvas, we want to help and appeal to customers no matter whether they say "vagina," "bonus hole" or anything else. But more than that, we need to understand that the wider this conversation can go, the better overall for everyone’s genital health. We all have a part to play in spreading the word.

Julia Margo is the co-founder and COO of sex toy company Hot Octopuss, which in 2013 created the world’s first “Guybrator."


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