‘Vagina Obscura’ shows how little is known about women’s biology

vagina obscura
Rachel E. Gross
WW Norton Company, $30

More than 2,000 years ago, the Greek physician Hippocrates, often considered the father of modern medicine, identified what came to be known as the clitoris, the “little pillar” of erectile tissue near the entrance to the vagina. Aristotle then noticed that seemingly small structures were associated with sexual pleasure.

However, it wasn’t until 2005 that urologist Helen O’Connell discovered that “little pillars” were just the tip of the iceberg. The inner part of this organ reaches around the vagina and into the pelvis, extending the neural network deeper than anatomists know.

Science journalist Rachel E. Gross argues in her new book that it took us thousands of years to discover the true extent of the clitoris because sexism has long hindered the study of women’s biology, vagina obscura. From Charles Darwin to Sigmund Freud, respected people in the scientific community believe that men are superior to women. Being male is the ideal standard. Being a woman is a stunted version of humans. The ancient Greeks concluded that the vagina was just a penis from the inside out, and the ovaries were just the inside of the testicles.

Because men primarily think about the reproductive capabilities of the female body and interactions with the penis, researchers have only recently begun to really understand the full spectrum of female organs and tissues, Gross said. This includes the basic biology of the “healthy” appearance of these parts of the body and their impact on the entire body.

vagina obscura It itself stemmed from Gross frustration with his inability to understand his body due to a vaginal infection. After antibiotic and antifungal treatment failed due to a misdiagnosis, her gynecologist prescribed another treatment. Doctors told her to “shove rat poison down my vagina,” as Gross put it. The infection turned out to be bacterial vaginosis, a difficult-to-treat, sometimes itchy and painful condition caused by an overgrowth of bacteria that normally lives in the vagina. (Rat poison is boric acid, which is also a preservative. “It’s basically rat poison,” the doctor said. “You’ll read about it online, so I might as well tell you now.”)

The book’s exploration of female anatomy begins from the outside in, first through the nerve-filled outer subsection of the clitoris to the vagina, ovaries, and uterus. The final chapter focuses on gender-affirming surgery, detailing how physicians are changing the field for transgender people. (The total amount is stated up front, e.g. female and man Creating an artificial binary with seemingly more objective terms like “male” and “female” does poorly in encompassing human diversity, including intersex and transgender people. )

Throughout the tour, Gross never shied away from confronting the sexism and prejudice behind controversial ideas about female biology, such as vaginal orgasms (as opposed to coming from the clitoris) and the presence of the G-spot (SN: April 25, 2012). Both of these “near mystical” concepts stem from the male view that sexual pleasure should be straightforward for women, as long as men can find the right place. Even more appalling crimes have not been covered up, including racism, eugenics and female genital mutilation. Footnotes throughout the book detail Gross’ efforts to address controversial views and stigmatized or culturally charged terms.

To lift the spirits of readers, she finds the right place to deliver some sarcastic humor or puns. She also shares stories of oft-forgotten researchers, such as laboratory technician Miriam Menkin, who demonstrated in 1944 that in vitro fertilization was possible (SN: 8/12/44). However, Mankin’s role in describing the first instance of a human egg being fertilized in a laboratory dish has been largely erased from the history of in vitro fertilization (SN: 6/9/21). There are also plenty of opportunities to marvel at the power of the female body. For example, while it has long been assumed that a person is born with all their eggs, researchers are now discovering the regenerative properties of the ovary.

A closer look at the female body could ultimately improve the quality of life. The pursuit of cells that produce more eggs could lead to discoveries that could restore menstrual cycles in cancer patients infertile due to chemotherapy, or make menopause less painful. Endometriosis, a painful condition in which uterine tissue grows outside the uterus, is often overlooked and their symptoms are downplayed. Some doctors even recommend pregnancy to avoid pain. But people shouldn’t suffer just because they’re not pregnant. Gross believes that researchers haven’t asked the right questions about the uterus or endometriosis.

vagina obscura Emphasize that the female body is not just a “walking womb” or a “baby machine.” Understanding these organs and tissues is important to keep the people who have them healthy. Gross writes that overcoming centuries of neglect will require extensive vaginal research. But this book gives us a glimpse into what can happen when researchers (eventually) pay attention.


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