As the result of my particular birth experience, I’ve read a lot about vaginas. Can’t say I ever saw myself becoming a vagina expert, but life has a dark sense of humor. Some of the vagina facts I have stumbled across are banal, others horrifying. Clearly a top 10 list is the best way to wrestle with these feminine mysteries. Consider this a bizarre riff on the popular list posts in women’s magazines. Here are 10 reasons the vagina has confused, confounded, and terrified men and women for millennia.
10. It Can Fall Out
Falling vaginas are fairly common. In fact, 1 in 10 women will require surgery for pelvic organ prolapse. In the most severe form of prolapse, a grade 4, the walls of the vagina sit outside the body. How can this happen? The pelvic region is held together by fascia, ligaments, and muscles. When these support structures are weakened, the bladder, rectus, or uterus push against and collapse the walls of the vagina. This is usually preceded by complicated childbirth, high body mass, hysterectomy, or the effects of aging.
Prolapse has plagued women since vaginas were invented. As women live longer, the rates of prolapse have actually increased, but treatment options have also improved. Today, most moderate to severe prolapse is supported by an internal pessary or corrected via surgery. Postpartum women are also encouraged to exercise their vaginas via a Kegel to keep the muscles strong and supportive.
9. Women Can Pee Out of Their Vaginas
Despite the misconceptions of many men (and some women), women pee through their urethra, not their vagina. However, some unfortunate women do leak urine through the wrong hole. A urogenital fistula is a fissure between the bladder and vagina, usually caused by long, obstructed labor. Indeed, 75% of women with fistula labored 3 or more days. The prolonged positioning of the (usually stillborn) baby in the birth canal can wear this hole. These fistulas cause involuntary and continuous loss of urine through the vagina.
Fistulas have been virtually eliminated from developed countries, but still plague impoverished women without access to medical care. Therefore, the highest fistula rates are in Sub-saharan Africa and parts of Asia. Over one million women worldwide still suffer from its complications and their lives are virtually ruined. Luckily, a surgery can correct it, but a lack of money and resources leaves many women plagued and ostracized for life.
8. It Can Store Loose Change…And Heroin
For some criminals, the vagina is the perfect secret purse. The walls of the vagina easily expand to accommodate sex and childbirth, so why not to store other things? For example, in 2011 a Scranton burglar admitted to hiding 54 bags of heroin and $51.22 in her vagina. That gives a new meaning to the term “loose change.”
I imagine hiding heroin and change is more pleasant than smuggling guns or jewelry. In 2014, a corrections officer spotted a loaded gun in a 19 year old woman’s vagina after she was arrested for driving with a suspended license. And that same year, a Las Vegas masseuse was caught stealing a customer’s $35,000 rolex and storing it in her lady bits. Ouch.
7. It Can Ooze “White Flowers”
Thanks to antibiotics, most vaginal infections that cause excessive discharge are easily treated. Unfortunately, for most of human history, they were not, and women suffered for years with copious, smelly secretions. Traditionally, this viscid vaginal discharge was called “white flowers” (the current terminology is leukorrhea).
Although vaginal discharge can be caused by many underlying ailments, such as sexually transmitted disease or various bacterial infections, pre–20th century doctors considered it a separate disease and even believed sitting too much could cause it.
“White flowers” was extremely common. All social classes were affected, but the poor were often singled out. For example, one 19th century woman lamented the difficulty of finding an un-afflicted wet nurse. She even called women “devious” who attempted to disguise the discharge with an internal sponge. Women sought out various folk remedies, such as eating white sausage and boiled white lilies, but ignorance of leukorrhea’s myriad causes meant little could be done.
6. It Can Grow Teeth
A vagina dentata story originated in many cultures. In variations of this tale, an angry vagina threatens to castrate unfortunate men. Although a dangerous toothed vagina is a myth, technically, a vagina can grow teeth—sort of. In extremely rare instances a dermoid cyst arising from pleuripotential cells may develop in the female reproductive organs. These cysts can grow skin, sebacious glands, hair, bone, even brain.
Dermoid cysts develop in almost any part of the body, including ovaries. Therefore, a vagina can contain teeth if a dermoid cyst on the ovary ruptures and works its way downward. This is extremely rare. It is also benign. As for the mythic vagina dentata, a vagina can’t cut off a man’s penis, unless of course Lorena Bobbit is around.
5. You Can Be Born Without One
Vaginal agenesis is a congenital disorder caused by the incomplete development of the muscular canal connecting the cervix to the vulva, a.k.a the vagina. It is thought to affect 1 in 5,000 women. Sometimes this results in a shortened vagina, other times it results in no vagina. The extreme form of vaginal agenesis is called Mayer-Von Rokitansky-Kuster-Hauser’s syndrome. Usually, this easy to pronounce syndrome is not diagnosed at birth because the external genitalia appear normal. Often the lack of a period during puberty is the first sign. Being born without a vagina does not doom these women to asexual lives. A vaginoplasty can surgically recreate a vagina. Luckily, the clitoris is unaffected and a woman with a surgically created vagina can still experience orgasm. If her uterus, ovaries, and fallopian tubes are normal, she may even become pregnant.
4. Some Women Don’t Know the Cervix is Supposed to be in There
The vagina is a pouch with two openings— the vulva and labia decorate the entrance and the cervix guards the interior exit. The cervix feels like the tip of a nose and contains a small hole that dilates during childbirth, but then narrows again. You cannot lose anything in the vagina because it will not fit through a closed cervix. In other words, microscopic sperm can find their way through, but a tampon cannot.
Some women are so unfamiliar with their anatomy, they try to pull out their own cervix, thinking it is a stuck tampon or diaphragm or who knows what. Indeed, one woman accidentally pulled on her cervix with her husband’s pliers in an attempt to remove a phantom tampon. She required reconstructive surgery. If you need to find something you accidentally forgot you stuck up there, use your fingers, please. You might also consider buying a purse.
3. A Sealed Hymen Can Cause Harm
The hymen is a fringe of tissue that lines the vaginal opening, usually containing a hole the size of a finger to allow the flow of menstrual blood and healthy vaginal discharge. Eventually, via tampon use, intercourse, childbirth, and other physical activities, parts of the hymen tear away. The hymen’s elasticity and thickness varies according to genetics, and, despite misconceptions, is not a universal marker of virginity.
Practically all women are born with a hymen, but an unlucky few are born with a sealed hymen, also called an imperforate hymen. This happens in 0.05% of women. Like vaginal agenesis, an imperforate hymen usually remains a mystery until puberty. Symptoms of an imperforate hymen include primary amenorrhea (not getting a period), abdominal pain, urinary retention, constipation, and a lower abdominal mass. This is all caused by the backup of menstrual blood. Thankfully, an imperforate hymen is easily opened surgically to allow the blood to drain, which is one of the more mortifying ways to start your first period.
2. Women Thought Cleaning It with Lysol was a Good Idea
In the early twentieth century, Lysol aggressively and successfully marketed its disinfectant as a vaginal douche. Seriously. For the record, shooting an antiseptic soap into the vagina is a bad idea. Gynecologists do not recommend douching because it alters the vaginal flora and can, ironically, cause an infection.
Nonetheless, sales took off with advertisements preying on feminine insecurities.
For example, one ad showed a woman looking in an ostentatious mirror, surrounded by the text, “She was a Jewel of a Wife…with just one flaw. She was guilty of the ‘ONE NEGLECT’ that mars many marriages. ‘Lysol’ helps avoid this.” Presumably, many paranoid women lysoled their vaginas to save their marriages, although many more used it as an off market birth control option. Lysol neither cleans the vagina nor prevents pregnancy, so it was a bad idea either way.
1. Everyone Thought It Was An Inside-Out Penis
As recently as the 17th century, doctors and midwives assumed the vagina and all other female reproductive organs were an inside-out version of men’s anatomy. This odd oversight dates back to the Greeks, who also thought a woman’s womb wandered throughout her body. They believed the vagina was the penis, and the ovaries or uterus were interior scrotum, also producing “seed.” They also saw men and women as versions of one sex, the female version an undeveloped replica of the male. In this way men and women weren’t dramatically different creatures, but rather unequal parts of the same human cosmology. Unsurprisingly, medical care in the pre-modern era was iffy at best.
- Shorter, Edward. A History of Women’s Bodies. New York: Basic Books, 1982. 255–261 ↩