Q&A with Lynn Enright, author of Vagina: A re-education
Published in March 2019, Vagina: A re-education provides girls and women with information they need about their own bodies – about the vagina, the hymen, the clitoris, the orgasm; about conditions like endometriosis and vulvodynia. It confronts taboos, such as abortion, miscarriage, infertility and masturbation. It tackles vital social issues like period poverty, female genital mutilation and the rights of transgender women.
We spoke to Lynn about how the myths and misunderstandings surrounding our vulvas and vaginas feed into broader health inequalities, and why women’s gynaecological pain is too often not taken seriously.
Vagina is very personal, but was there a particular light bulb moment with your own vagina that really inspired the book?
I was working at [online women’s magazine] The Pool as head of news and content when I first started working on the book. I could see that when we spoke about body issues – specifically about women’s bodies and vaginas, vulvas, and reproductive and sexual health – there was quite a big response, and I felt that was because it was an area that was quite overlooked. There weren’t many opportunities to talk about it in other places, in mainstream media or even in everyday life, so it felt like actually people were really keen to talk about it.
Also when we published pieces about abortion, miscarriage, stillbirth, and infertility, you could feel again that there was a very strong response because people felt, ‘yes, finally we’re talking about it’. I think when people read other people’s stories they’re able to think about their own life in a slightly different way.
Besides my work at The Pool, the Repeal the 8th Campaign was something that was really important to me. The referendum [on abortion in the Republic of Ireland] happened after I had started the book, but the whole campaign had been going on for a few years, and I felt it was linked to the ignorance about women’s bodies; that misogyny, and the patriarchy, don’t want women to have ownership over their own bodies. So there were a few things coming together around these big themes, and then those big themes linked to the fact we often don’t have basic information.
What were the things that shocked you the most from researching and writing the book?
I suppose I was quite surprised by some of the anatomy. I didn’t know when I started writing the book that the clitoris extends inside the body, and it’s shocking to realise you’re in your mid-30s and don’t know something very basic about your own body.
Talking to other women about their bodies and their vaginas, it was quite disheartening to see the same themes coming up again and again. Lots of people spoke about their own shame or ignorance, or how those two things are connected. How they hadn’t sought out the information for fear there might be something wrong, or that something wasn’t normal about their vulva or vagina. That kept coming up again and again.
A really important thing I also realised while writing the book, which I think we all need to get better at talking about it, is how there is no one normal experience. There is no one normal way to have sex, or orgasm, or give birth, or even get pregnant. Everybody’s situation is quite distinct, and I think we often don’t really allow that into the conversation.
How do our collective relationships with our vaginas hold back progress in the field of women’s health?
Women don’t go to the doctor as early, and they don’t go in there with as much force as they should, because they’re squeamish or embarrassed, or haven’t been taught what’s normal and what’s not. You get people suffering through periods that are not normal, bleeding that is far too heavy, pain that is far too intense – but, because we’ve been told that periods are awful, they don’t seek out the help they should. It’s the same with painful sex, and then similarly with new mothers, there’s a sense of: ‘Well, I’m so delighted to have a healthy baby…’ Obviously that’s an amazing thing, but the post-birth care for women and their vaginas isn’t to the standard it should be.
I think a lot of the time it comes down to a really basic situation where women don’t feel like they can go to the doctor about stuff like that, or don’t feel like the doctor would take them seriously. And when you do see someone, often that experience really depends on the doctor. You can come away from visits to the GP feeling disheartened or embarrassed – I certainly have – so it’s essential to become an advocate for your own health.
What can women – as patients, doctors, researchers, and educators – do to improve all of that?
My book’s come out at a time when there are lots of people really eager to have this conversation, and that’s been really nice. On a basic level, it’s incredibly important to have more of these conversations, but of course there also needs to be better research, and that needs more women to put themselves forward for research as well. It’s really disheartening to realise so much of our existing medical research has been done primarily on men – so there are also big, massive, structural changes that need to happen.
I suppose we’re realising that openness helps, and educating our children helps, and the better gender balance among doctors compared to a few decades ago. That will all help. It’s a bunch of different things at different levels really: awareness and openness, and then the scientific, medical and pharmaceutical industries catching up as well.
I was particularly struck by the chapter where you talk about pain, and in particular your painful experience of having a hysteroscopy. How did that whole experience make you feel? And how long did it take for you to realise that actually you weren’t alone in that experience?
I didn’t realise it for months afterwards. I had this really painful, really horrible experience, but I just kind of went away and felt grateful to have had the procedure. The pain chapter is probably the chapter that people speak to me the most about, or say they’ve been through similar things. But it took me quite a long time to realise that actually I had been put into a situation that wasn’t ideal, rather than blaming myself and thinking I’d responded in a way that wasn’t ideal.
It took me longer than I would have thought to reflect on all that. And it was quite recent – but, since writing the book, I think I am better about demanding more, and asking my doctor to explain things better. I suppose there are so many complex emotions in those situations. I do try to stand up for myself more, and to be a good patient in all the ways that can mean, but it’s something I still struggle with.
Absolutely. And really interesting that you say you felt you had responded wrongly; that it was your fault rather than anything the doctor had done.
Yeah, totally, I think that’s really natural. I really respect doctors and the work they do. I really love the NHS, and believe in it, so I guess I had a sense of: ‘Oh God, I’m doing something wrong, and I’m being weak or upset for no reason.’ Actually, that’s not really the case, or it’s certainly not always the case.
I’ve had to learn, and I am learning, to be a better advocate for myself. I think probably lots of women have to do that because, especially when it comes to reproductive stuff like endometriosis, it can take so long to get a diagnosis, and very bad period pain can often be completely overlooked.
How do you think that normalisation of women’s pain fits in with everything else that you’ve learned about the way that society views vaginas?
The basic thread throughout the book is that the fact we know so little about our own vaginas and vulvas is completely wrapped up in the fact that we live in a society where cis-gender white men are the most powerful people, and that’s been the way for millennia.
That also links back to pain. There are so many different layers to why women’s pain is taken less seriously, including the actual science. We don’t have the scientific research on women’s pain that we do have on men’s pain. Usually the studies involve men and not women. But essentially, if you were to look at it in a broad sense, it’s because we live in a society where cis-gender white men are more powerful. And so we act like their experience is the universal experience. That has a huge impact.
Finally, who do you hope will read the book, and what do you hope they take away from it?
When I was writing I was thinking of young women, aged 16 to 25. That was the age group I was thinking of and actually, when it came out and when I spoke to people, I would say that probably the bulk of the readers are young women. But they’ve also been men, older women, and people with kids – particularly people who’ve got kids, who want their daughter or son to grow up knowing all this information. It’s actually been useful to more people than I expected.
In terms of what I hope people take away, I think there’s a sense that in reading about something it allows you to process your own stories. I hope it does something slightly different for everybody, and that people find what’s useful for them; that it allows them to understand and contextualise their own experiences.
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