[This article was also published (slightly shorter version) in Ciao Magazine in print on online here:]
The 101 Vagina Exhibition and Festival of the Vagina, both on in Sydney this week, are all ages events. Both children and adults are welcome to attend and yet some people may feel that they are not suitable for children. Why? Why should children not see, talk about, hear different words for, draw and reflect on vaginas? Are vaginas bad? Are penises bad? Mine isn’t, is yours?
The younger the children are, the more recently they have themselves just emerged from a vagina, after having been conceived through one. But in spite of this there seems to be a cultural fear around children and anything sex related coming within proximity of each other.
This is peculiar considering that children are the result of sex. We all are. We are all walking, talking, breathing sexual beings from birth to death.
Of course, children should be protected from sexual predators, but somehow, the valid and important concerns about sexual abuse have resulted in sex being given a blanket label, bad. We are inadvertently teaching our children that sex is bad. The act that led to their, all of our, existence is bad. Consider, what are the two most forbidden words in the English language? Fuck and cunt. Followed by dick, wanker, fuckwit, etc.
I personally believe that our entire culture, at a personal and societal level, is severely hobbled by sexual repression and suppression. Sexual and bodily guilt and shame arise out of judgement and fear. Importantly, I believe that this is causally related to sexual abuse. Not the only cause, but one of them. What motive would someone who is truly satisfied and comfortable in their sexuality have for imposing themselves sexually on anyone else? Rape is not an expression of sexual freedom, but of sexual repression.
The kind of guilt and shame so many of us walk around with about our bodies and sexuality does not arise naturally in us as children, it is taught to us by adults, whether directly or indirectly. It is adults who teach children that their bodies are to be hidden, not to touch themselves and not to say certain words. This means that it is up to us, the adults, to reverse this trend. We can’t expect the next generation to be free from sexual hangups and free from sexual aggression if we ourselves continue to act from this place.
Oh, and in case you think there isn’t a taboo around vaginas or penises, try talking openly about your own on a crowded train. If you can, without feeling even a tinge of discomfort, you’re in the vast minority.
One of the best ways to reverse guilt and shame is through open discussion and direct engagement. A child who has had open, honest, respectful and broad discussions about genitals and sexuality is far less likely to end up with feelings of shame and guilt about their own. It means they will be far less likely to fall victim to shame externally imposed from media, advertising or passing comments on the street. The knowledge they have about what’s normal acts like a shield which will keep the bullshit at bay.
But how are our children currently being initiated into sexuality? Through porn! Imagine if, instead, children were from infancy taught to respect their own and other people’s bodies, that they are the masters of their own, that no part of it is shameful, that pleasure is a birthright, and that sex can be a beautiful act of bonding, joy and pleasure? We’ve got a long way to go to get to that point.
There is a growing and international sex positive movement which is working to remove the negative stigma around genitalia and sexuality and the 101 Vagina Exhibition and Festival of the Vagina are proudly part of that movement.
What messages will children and adults alike come away with from these events? That vaginas are nothing to feel ashamed of and it’s ok to use the word vagina; we all look different and we’re all just fine the way we look; there are as many different experiences of our bodies and sexuality as there are people on the planet; we all still have a lot left to learn about our very own bodies.
Breaking taboos can be creative fun and no one needs to get hurt in the process. In fact, years of hurt can begin to be undone in the process.
Here is an excerpt from one of the messages written and deposited in the “Write your own vagina message” box:
“… I was thrilled to bring my 3 yr old daughter along, and set her on the path for having pride of her vagina, her self, her future pleasure, her body and it’s life giving abilities & to make sure she’s empowered! …”
“Over the years I have had strong feelings of love and even stronger feelings of hatred for my womanly parts.
With my HPV status, my too many LEEP procedures to count, and my high risk pregnancy with my son, all the hell I went through during the labor and delivery and the surgeries that followed, more LEEP procedures and a deep rooted feeling I would eventually develop enough high grade dysplasia that a hysterectomy would be necessary, I have always thought one thing about my vagina, that it was broken.
Broken like a toy my son would play with. It still worked and functioned close to the way it was intended to, but it was definitely altered, and I want to write about it.
I want to share all of my sadness and my joy. I want to share my anger and my eventual acceptance with other women. I want to get down to the dirty details. To show an un-cut, honest look at my vagina. To invite women into the Gynecologist office, into the labor and delivery room, into my home, my bedroom, and my bathroom. I want them to know the deep dark secrets of my sex life, and stare into the one thing that haunted my relationship with my husband and myself, my vagina.
The reason I want to make my private parts not so “private” was so women would not be alone. So they can have a friend who understand what they go through. I want to be by their side. I want to be the friend that I so badly needed myself.”
Mary is the author of http://abrokenvagina.com/ a blog about her experiences centred around her vagina which she felt compelled to share after a particulary difficult delivery of her son.