Man-Made Myths About the Female Body Have Led to Centuries of Bad Sex


Members of the National Women’s Liberation Party hold protest signs in front of Convention Hall, September 7, 1968. (AP Photo)

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I’ll never forget the first time I saw my own menstrual period start. I was seated on the floor in a circle of women, legs bent in front of me, soles facing each other, a mirror resting on my feet. The flashlight directed at the mirror illuminated my vagina, which was held open by a plastic speculum. There, at the end, sat a little pink mushroom, my very own cervix. A single drop of ruby-colored blood emerged from its center.

It was just like in the Berkeley Women’s Music Collective song “The Bloods”:

Get a speculum at your neighborhood clinic
Learn about your cervix and what’s in it
There’s a new day coming when you’ve got the bloods again.

In those days, the women in my collective lesbian household celebrated our periods. We recorded them on a calendar in the kitchen, so we could see how well we synchronized with each other. We thought the old euphemisms (“I fell off the roof today,” “My Aunt Flo is visiting,” or my mother’s favorite, “the Curse”) were worse than silly. We were proud of being mysterious creatures who bleed but do not die.

We may have gone a little overboard.

It was certainly ridiculous to celebrate menstrual cramps, which can be pretty awful. One of my lovers used to vomit monthly from the pain. But then Stewart Adams invented ibuprofen and millions of women rejoiced. (Dr. Adams’s death this January didn’t receive the media attention many of us—whether weekend warrior athletes or women “of childbearing age”—think it should have.)

We had some other silly ideas about our vaginas: We thought that if you inserted carefully peeled garlic cloves in them you could cure a yeast infection. (As far as I know, it didn’t work, but if you nicked one of those cloves with the knife as you were preparing it, it sure would burn!) Plain yogurt may have worked a little better, by creating an acidic environment inhospitable to yeast, but boy, was it messy! And don’t get me started on using sea sponges as tampons. Let’s just say that they act like any other wet sponge when you squeeze them. Not the moment to practice your Kegel exercises.

Our Bodies, Our Lives

If we were sometimes silly, we were also wise enough to know that understanding and taking control of our bodies was a first step to taking control of our lives. In 1973, the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective turned its 193-page, 75-cent pamphlet “Women and Their Bodies” into the book Our Bodies, Ourselves, and for the first time, women all over the United States could read about our own mysterious inner (and outer) workings. (Today, resources based on OBOS exist in 30 languages.) That same year, the Feminist Press reissued Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English’s booklet from Glass Mountain Pamphlets, Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Female Healers, about the hidden European and American history of medicine by and for women.

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