in vagina veritasApril 27, 2016
Being a female-bodied person has never been easy. Throughout history we’ve had to deal with a bona fide shit-ton of patriarchal bullshit and being treated as less than. We’ve had to claw our damn way up to being able to wear pants, vote, work, run for office and yes, even ride bicycles.
A lot has changed—but one thing that hasn’t, unfortunately, is the tendency to totally misunderstand the way our bodies work, and to then use that misunderstanding as a tool of oppression. Thus, dear readers, allow me to take you on a glorious journey exploring the history of weird-ass shit people have thought about our bodies.
*** THE HISTORICAL ERA ***
No surprise here: People thought some weird shit about women back in the day.
The wandering womb
For a truly, truly bizarre amount of time, a good deal of scientific inquiry into women’s health and anatomy was directed toward answering one very important question: Bitches be crazy—but why? And, for a good chunk of that time, the answer was “OH, their uteri are obviously just floating around their bodies all willy-nilly and making them that way.” Plato believed that one of the only ways to prevent this from happening was for a woman to start having sex immediately after puberty and get pregnant as soon as possible. How fabulously convenient!
“In the middle of the flanks of women lies the womb, a female viscus, closely resembling an animal; for it is moved of itself hither and thither in the flanks, also upwards in a direct line to below the cartilage of the thorax, and also obliquely to the right or to the left, either to the liver or the spleen, and it likewise is subject to prolapsus downwards, and in a word, it is altogether erratic. It delights also in fragrant smells, and advances towards them; and it has an aversion to fetid smells, and flees from them; and, on the whole, the womb is like an animal within an animal.” —Aretaeus of Cappadocia
In order to fix this dire situation, it was a common practice to actually make a woman smell some bad-smelling stuff, and then hold her up over some nice-smelling incense in order to lure the floaty uterus back to its rightful home in the bottom of the torso.
Tragically, it took a darn long time for anyone to figure out that living in a society that actually thought and did these things might be enough to drive a person up a damned wall and make them act, well, erratic.
Menstruation will give you some weird-ass superpowers
“It would indeed be a difficult matter to find anything which is productive of more marvelous effects than the menstrual discharge. On the approach of a woman in this state, must will become sour, seeds which are touched by her become sterile, grafts wither away, garden plants are parched up, and the fruit will fall from the tree beneath which she sits. Her very look, even, will dim the brightness of mirrors, blunt the edge of steel, and take away the polish from ivory. A swarm of bees, if looked upon by her, will die immediately; brass and iron will instantly become rusty, and emit an offensive odor; while dogs which may have tasted of the matter so discharged are seized with madness, and their bite is venomous and incurable.” —Pliny The Elder
I am going to sound like a really bad person here, but that bee-killing thing could actually come in handy. I mean, I totally get that the whole honeybees disappearing act is terrible from an environmental standpoint, and that it’s probably a sign that we’re all gonna die soon or something—but say you were in some kind of My Girl situation and your best childhood friend, Macaulay Culkin, who is allergic to bees, steps on a beehive. It would be pretty convenient to just like, kill off all those bees with a glance. I wouldn’t go doing it on the regular, like as a party trick or anything, but in an emergency? Totally. I would do that. I would save Thomas J’s life with my withering period stare, and I would not feel bad about it. That movie was real sad.
Also handy? The fruit falling from trees thing! Think of all the fruit you would have! With virtually no effort or need for a step ladder! You would have so much fruit! Plus, being able to blunt the edge of steel would probably be way convenient if someone was trying to stab you—though less so if you were trying to eat a piece of steak. I will, however, pass on the venomous dogs.
Women! They’re basically just deformed men!
This may come as a surprise to some, but the idea of two separate and distinct sexes has not always been the prevailing theory (and we’re still, of course, lagging on understanding that not all people identity as either). In fact, up until the 18th century, there were a good amount of people—like Aristotle!—who thought that we ladies were dudes who had been screwed up in the womb somehow and all of our sex organs inverted. Galen the Greek physician (who to his credit believed the womb was stationary) thought that women had all the same organs as men, but that there wasn’t enough “heat” in the womb to push them out, so we got born wrong. He also thought we had sperm, and that the “build up” of our very own sperm in our wombs was what made us all “crazy” and “hysterical.”
Women don’t experience sexual lust, or have orgasms
Most of us know by now that vibrators were not invented to provide pleasure, but to cure women of “hysteria.” The reason for this “hysteria,” of course, was that they lived in a world where it was commonly believed—right up through the 19th century—that only men had libidos and orgasms, and thus, no one was even trying to get them off. Today, we would merely call it “being sexually frustrated.”
Then, one day, some doctors figured out that they could rid women of their “hysteria” by manually stimulating the clitoris, bringing the woman not to “orgasm” (that was for the mens), but to “paroxysm.” This was not considered a sexual thing because, again, they didn’t think women were into that. Vibrators were basically invented because their hands got tired.
Book learnin’ causes one’s ovaries to atrophy
In 1876, Harvard professor Edward H. Clarke published a treatise titled “Sex in Education, or A Fair Chance For The Girls.” In this treatise, he explained that while women were indeed “capable” of being educated, they could not handle the rigor of being educated in the manner of men. Because it would render them infertile and dyspeptic, and worst of all, irritable. Thus, they could really only handle about four hours of school a day, and none at all when they were menstruating. Because menstruation made their brains not work . . . or something. SCIENCE!
His “theories” were disproven in 1885 with a study conducted by Annie Howes of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, and again in an 1887 study conducted by Mary Putnam Jacobi—neither of whom were rendered infertile by their studying.
*** THE MODERN ERA ***
The more things change, the more they stay the same. You’d think that here, in the future, people would be less confused about how women’s bodies work. But you would be wrong. Just as men in previous centuries misunderstood our bodies in an attempt to paint us as crazy or to prevent us from being educated—today, many use those misconceptions to restrict our reproductive rights or to suggest that we have failed them in some way.
Women have magic vaginas that prevent them from getting pregnant by a rapist
In 2014, Missouri Congressman Todd Akin, while running for senate, attempted to explain why he felt it was unnecessary to have an exception for victims of rape in laws restricting access to abortion. He, quite famously, said the following:
“Well you know, people always want to try to make that as one of those things, well how do you, how do you slice this particularly tough sort of ethical question. From what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
Shockingly, there is no way for the female body to differentiate between the sperm of a rapist and the sperm of someone we want to be having sex with. At least the human female body. If we were ducks with like, weird spiral vaginas, we would in fact have a way to “shut that whole thing down.”
But we do not have magic psychic rapist-detecting duck vaginas.
Semen from multiple dudes will give you the cancer
You may be familiar with Bill Gothard and the Institute of Basic Life Principles due to their association with the Duggars. Oh, or from Gothard’s own storied history of sexually harassing women. Thus, it will probably not shock you to hear that he’s got some pretty weird ideas about the female body (which he still claims he has never touched in any kind of sexual way).
A section of one of Gothard’s Advanced Training Institute’s Wisdom Booklets explains how women get cervical cancer through being slutty. No, not because of HPV, but because women are “allergic” to sperm.
“Doctors have discovered that the seed of the man is an alien substance to the woman. It triggered responses similar to those of an ‘allergic’ reaction. A woman who has a husband is able to develop ‘immunity’ to this reaction; however, a promiscuous woman’s immune system becomes confused and unable to distinguish alien substances. This confusion is a key to the development of cancer.”
This, of course, is not how cancer works. At all. Ever. For any reason.
When you swallow stuff, it ends up in your vagina, right?
In 2015, anti-choice Idaho state legislator Vito Barbieri enjoyed a brief amount of national fame due to his complete misunderstanding of not only the way the female body works, but also the entire human digestive system in general.
During a hearing on a bill that would ban doctors from prescribing abortion medications via telemedicine, one doctor brought up how colonoscopy patients can swallow a device that will allow them to monitor their gastrointestinal tube. To this, Rep. Barbieri responded “Can this same procedure then be done in a pregnancy? Swallowing a camera and helping the doctor determine what the situation is?”
Said doctor then had to explain to Rep. Barbieri that the uterus is not, in fact, part of the digestive system, and that it is not actually possible to swallow something and have it end up there.
Barbieri has since said that he meant it as a “rhetorical” question, thus demonstrating his confusion about the word “rhetorical” as well.
Black women aren’t supposed to menstruate
This past March, a dashing young fella in a very large ankh hat named YADA made a bit of a splash on the Internets by positing that menstruation is “unnatural” for black women, and that the only reason they have a period is because white people told them to have one, and also gave them bad, unhealthy food.
YADA says that the “philosophy” of menstruation was invented by Europeans and that prior to African women “were not running around . . . bleeding all over the place . . . because they ate natural foods.” He claims that by eating a raw vegan diet, just as they did . . .
a woman can stop having her period. Which could actually happen, but it would be because you were starving yourself, not because you were so fabulously healthy that you stopped ovulating.
From what I can tell, this theory has been around since at least 2004, and originated with a fella named Dr. Imhotep Llaila O Afrika (not my joke to make), who does not appear to be any kind of real doctor.
Having a “thigh gap” means you have a “loose vagina”
SO, I was gonna include a thing on here about the idiotic belief that having a lot of sex can make your vagina “loose” —but then I found this shit, and I died instead. It seems as though a frighteningly large amount of people on the internet believe that having a “thigh gap” means that you have a “loose vagina.” There are memes and everything!
Here’s a nice one!
The very pursuit of “thigh gap” is absurd enough to begin with—but this swing-and-a-miss at body positivity is, somehow, even weirder. I gave it some thought, and it occurred to me that the people writing these “fun scientific facts” most likely got the idea from the part of Mean Girls where a girl says, “Someone wrote in that book that I’m lying about being a virgin ’cause I use super-jumbo tampons, but I can’t help it if I’ve got a heavy flow and a wide-set vagina”—and did not realize that this was a joke.
This, my friends, is what happens when we do not have comprehensive sex education in schools.
Hopefully someday, there will come a time when our bodies and minds are not so vastly misunderstood—and maligned!—and we will no longer have to deal with people believing we have olfactory-driven uteri, magic duck vaginas, and are bound for cancerous cells directly proportional to our sex drive.
Until that day comes, however, I’ll be over here working on my bee-killing, period stare.
Lead illustration by Katie Tandy