S2: Welcome to the Waves Sweets podcast about gender feminism and this week. Rat poison, koala vaginas, dolphin clitoris is a whole bunch of stuff all centering around the science of the vagina. Every episode, you get a new pair of women to talk about the thing we can’t get off of our minds. And today you’ve got me. Shannon Paul is a senior editor at Slate covering science and health and me.
S3: Rachel GROSS, a science journalist and former site ster and author of Vagina Obscura An Anatomical Voyage.
S2: So this week, of course, we’re going to be talking about vaginas. So many of us have them. And yet there are many ways in which there are a mystery to science and ourselves. This is a topic I’m always thinking about as the owner of a vagina and all the other assorted parts that come with it, and also a person who is really interested in what science can tell us about the human body and also what science cannot tell us. Rachel, briefly, because we’re going to get into the Wagner story soon. Why did you decide to write a book about the science of vaginas?
S3: Yeah. I mean, like you, I also I love thinking and talking about my vagina and my vulva and my uterus. When I got an IUD, I got an ultrasound picture and put it on my Instagram and said, congratulations, I’m pregnant with an IUD now. And I’ve also been a science reporter for many years, and I love the weird, wonderful, cool science of bodies. And when I started combining these two things in my work and writing about animal sex and reproductive science, I started to realize that not everyone was as thrilled about vaginas science as I was. So I was kind of interested in this disconnect. Like, to me, vagina science was fascinating and amazing. But when I worked at places like Smithsonian Magazine, I did get reactions of disinterest and squeamishness and disgust, and I found myself often having to explain why it’s important to write about things like endometriosis or the history of the IUD. So there was something that clicking. So as I dug deeper into vaginas, I realized that the cool stuff we know is actually dwarfed by the massive number of things we don’t know. So, for instance, I visited a sperm biology lab early in my reporting, and the scientists there kept telling me, we know everything about bio penises and fly sperm, but we still don’t know the composition of vaginal fluid.
S2: Beetle penises. Beetle penises look nothing against beetle penises.
S3: Yeah, I mean, they come in a variety of shapes and forms, and we named species after them. But there’s more to the story. What about beetle vaginas? Think of the beetle vaginas. So there’s obviously a parallel going on here. I was seeing there’s like all these cultural biases and attitudes and the fact that people with vaginas have been historically marginalized and shut out from science. These factors are leading to the fact that we are not asking so many questions and all this cool science isn’t being done. And so I wanted to kind of jump in on that wave and see if there was a shift going on and things were finally changing. And there is.
S2: Coming up, we’re going to talk more about Rachel’s book and get deeper into the world of vaginas at all. All right. We have on the show Rachel GROSS, author of Vagina Obscura. And we’re going to be talking about the medical mystery that our vaginas. First up in particular, the tendency slash necessity for everyone who has a vagina to become like a little mini expert in how their body works. Rachel I’d like to start off by reading the first line of your book, which just really spoke to me as a, as a person with a vagina and I think will be relatable to a lot of listeners and readers. There comes a time in every woman’s life when her body bumps up against the limits of human knowledge. So. Rachel for you. What was that moment? And involved? Rat poison.
S3: It involved rat poison while I was thinking about vaginas and vagina science at work. I had my own vagina problem. I started having this recurrent infection while I was an editor at Smithsonian.com and it was really uncomfortable and not pleasant. And I constantly had to run to the bathroom, which was difficult because you needed keycard access to get back in and out every time and people could tell. So I kept going back to my gynecologist to like, we had a good relationship. She gave me antibiotics multiple times. I think it was misdiagnosis, yeast ones. And eventually she said, this is actually a super common infection. One in three adult women have it, but if antibiotics aren’t working, then probably nothing will. As a last resort, you can try this thing, but you say, you know, when you look it up on the Internet, it’s going to say it’s rat poison. So just be aware. It’s called boric acid. Now, I know that many women are aware of it. I was not. And it has been used as a disinfectant and for roach poison and killing other vermin. And you also put it up your vagina to solve bacterial infections where it may or may not work and often does not. I learned I was using this and I remember distinctly feeling this sense of like, but I didn’t want to talk about it. I wasn’t even sharing it with some of my best friends. I always talk about my vagina with or my partner, like he just knew I was taking something. And this was really different for me because I am a pretty shameless person, but this felt different. Like I was kind of like dirty or something. Here’s the part where my experience probably diverges from most listeners. I was really tired one night and I was supposed to put this suppository in my vagina and I forgot. And I woke up at 3 a.m. and went to the bathroom and opened the pill container and they looked just like any type of pill that you would take. So I swallowed one and like, I’ll never forget that moment because, like, if I ate them, like, rat poison, definitely, probably bad. And when I looked it up, the poison control hotline came up and I learned that people had died from ingesting this substance. And so, yeah, I was freaked out. I cannot overstate. I ended up in the E.R. It would be like a couple of hours before I realized I wasn’t going to die or have my stomach pumped. But the doctor, like, kind of laughed at me and was like, You might have a little gas here, some crackers. So tension diffused. But just like that, emotional memory is so strong with me of thinking. I was about to have some horrible consequence for something that I just didn’t understand at all. And I didn’t understand what I was putting in my body or what was happening down there or why I had a problem in the first place. And like, I would come to realize that this is just extremely common. Like people have it to many more extreme degrees. I talked to so many women with endometriosis and these lesser known like pain disorders that were just degrees of magnitude more severe than anything I experienced. But we had all had these similar journeys around it. Also, I knew that I had been a science reporter for this long. My parents are all scientists and doctors, so if I’m super confused and I think I know what’s going on, probably millions of more people are as well.
S2: One in three women you said have this but this problem in their vaginas.
S3: One in three premenopausal women in the US.
S2: That’s so many. And the answer is just kind of like nuking it with rat poison.
S2: Seems so wrong. And it’s so like the shame thing is so interesting to me because as you said, you’re not a squeamish person. You’re your science reporter. And as I was reading this in your book, it just like, reminded me of like this extreme form of, like, douche in your vagina. And I cannot tell you how many times I got on the phone with an object waiting for a story and they’re like, Don’t wash up there. Don’t put that stuff up there. Don’t put fragrances up there. It’s actually like a real piece of medical science. It’s like, like cleansing your vagina with rat poison. It’s just like we get a lot of confusing messages.
S3: Yeah, no, exactly. I didn’t even know what the message was. The message ended up being like, sorry, we have no idea what’s happening. This is our best guess. But, like, this probably won’t work either. You’re so out of luck. So, yeah, it’s both. The idea that your vagina needs cleansing or needs rat poison, but also just. Oh, sorry, medicine can’t help you. Maybe you should turn elsewhere. Like it made me understand why alternative medicines are so appealing to so many women.
S2: Can I tell you a little bit about my own, like, body bumping up against the limits of knowledge?
S3: Please, I’d be honored.
S2: So I. A few years ago, I started having pain during intercourse, like just this feeling of, like, sandpaper. And I was like, there must be, you know, like something. It just felt very, like, physical. And I went to, you know, I asked my primary care physician about it first, and she was like, I don’t know, like an issue I had. And I asked like the object. And then I went to and she was like, like, nothing is wrong with you physically. You’re like, okay, but this is like very real for me. And I’m sure over the years that, like, this has been like butchered and like exaggerated in my head a little bit. But I promise that the content of this statement is true. She was like, you know, you have to be wet during sex. And I was like, Oh my God, of course I know that that’s not what’s happening here. Why? How could you think that? Like, that’s why like I was like 26 or 27 and I was like, I’ve been like living with this system for like a while now, right?
S3: What the. Oh, my gosh. I did not expect that. Wow. That captures a lot of kind of like, I don’t know, condescending, patronizing attitudes. Just like maybe talk to the patient instead of making those assumptions.
S2: Yeah, it also it’s just like it was such a picture of like, oh, vaginas are sort of like these prefab body parts that like, don’t need a lot of attention or like, care. And if something’s going wrong, it must be because you’re making a really dumb error. I like sub issue. Eventually it took some very expensive doctors appointments. It took all of my skills as a science journalist. So, like, track down like the right specialists to talk to you and pain during sex. I’ve learned later I edited it came out last summer, a beautiful feature essay by a writer named Alison Rudolph who had this pain during sex problem. So like a very extreme degree where she can put in tampons ever in her life without being in pain. She wrote about how 16% of women have this problem. And yeah, the answer is just kind of have you considered that like you might be doing something wrong? Have you.
S3: Tried antidepressants? Have you tried a glass of wine? I’ve met so many women now with vulvodynia. If you candle neuralgia like there are actual conditions that need to be looked at and not dismissed. I know so many women who have had this long diagnostic journey to find out they had something like endometriosis, which is different. But they’re always told at first like this is probably a stress thing and anxiety thing. Have you considered seeing a therapist? And then later on it’s like, Oh, have you considered getting married and getting pregnant? Pretty recently those kind of phrases have been uttered and it just blows my mind. It goes back to the female body being seen as some sort of black box or some enigma, which it is not. And we have the tools to figure these questions out. It’s a matter of interest and who’s coming to the table and who benefits to get these questions answered.
S2: A story that you opened with in your book that I’d like you to talk a little bit more about is about this woman whose sexual experiences don’t align with what she thinks she’s supposed to be having based on like society at the time. And she undergoes this kind of extreme sounding surgery to be a solution to that. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
S3: So Marie Bonaparte is one of the most fascinating figures I came across. She was a princess and the great granddaughter of Napoleon. And she grew up in inter-war France, which was a time when it was very important to make more babies and replenish the lost generation from World War One. And there are all these factors swirling around. And then Freud hit the scene and he came up with the vaginal orgasm and the clitoral orgasm. Please keep in mind he had no training on female anatomy. We have no idea where he came up with these ideas, but they made a lot of women very unhappy. And Marie Bonaparte was one of them. She thought that she was, quote, frigid because she couldn’t orgasm in the missionary position, which to me just is a normal person. But she was on this quest to figure out what was wrong with her. Nothing. And to better understand her own sexuality. And she became a student of Freud’s, his analysts, and like he was her analyst. And eventually she came up with her own theories and diverged from him. And, you know, he’s famous for saying that anatomy is destiny. And if you’re having sexual problems, it really goes back to something in your psyche and you should see a therapist and work it out. And she eventually said, no, I think it’s actually just my anatomy. And I can change my anatomy because I have science. And in her mid-forties, she was able to go interview hundreds of women at their gynecology exams and take genital measurements and ask them about their experiences during sex. And she found out that tons of women had the same sexual experience as her shocker and that there was a huge variation in people’s genitals and where their clitoris were. And she kind of separated those out, and then she went maybe a little off the rails here and said that if the clitoris is too far from the vagina, you probably won’t have an orgasm during penetrative sex. So I’m going to move mine closer and hack the system. And that was the experimental surgery that she came up with with the surgeon at the time. She did that three times, did not go well.
S2: Silicon Valley rose get way too much credit for being biohackers.
S3: Yes, she was a biohacker. It’s so complicated, right? Because it’s just totally remarkable what she achieved, like publishing the kind of research she did in medical journals, like under a male pseudonym and really challenging Freud and making some great points about female sexuality. But then what she actually came up with, like, it’s really, you know, it’s really sad, these horrible attitudes, telling you what experiences were okay and what we’re not for people to literally change their bodies.
S2: There’s something so admirable about that gumption to be like, I’m experiencing a problem. I’m going to, like, roll up my sleeves and, like, figure out a very, very material way to fix it.
S3: Right. And this insistence on her own experience. No, no. I cannot transfer my clitoral orgasm to my vaginal orgasm. I like my clitoris. I consider it an important part of my body and my creativity and her words. And I don’t want to deny it. I just want to move it a little bit down.
S2: I just think it’s like almost like a classic scenario of like, you know, it took me well into my adulthood to realize there’s not anything wrong with me. Not like coming every time I have penetrative sex. Yeah.
S3: Why does it take us so long? Why don’t we all talk to each other more about this? I mean, maybe now we will. I don’t know.
S2: Yeah, I just think, like, that goes back to the tendency of, like, oh, if, like, things aren’t happening as like, I’m expecting them to. It’s I’m the problem is there’s a theme to this segment. It’s like maybe you’re not the problem.
S3: Yes. Yes. And actually, there were a lot of moments similar to this. Like in the end of the book, I go a bit into the history of surgeries done on intersex people, which are often non-consensual and done in infant hood and have horrible, serious consequences. And I was talking to a lot of activists, and they would say, what you need to understand is that our bodies are not the problem. The culture is the problem. Our bodies don’t need to be fixed. The culture does. And that really struck me. We need to turn this problem around in many cases and stop considering the bodies of certain groups to be a problem that needs to be solved.
S2: Even when I think about the whole world of like vaginismus and vulvodynia, which are technical terms for like basically peeing of various sorts during kind of trade of sex. In my own story and in stories I’ve heard from other women, there is also like just this feeling of, oh, like, if this part of me isn’t working. Something really fundamental is broken instead of like obviously like you might have a preference towards salt, towards like being able to have penetrative sex in your life for like your own pleasure. But there’s this whole world of, like, sex that isn’t just penetration. I think that, like, that also is it’s just, like, seen as this, like, little side thing.
S3: I really like how you framed how you framed it as anyone with a vagina kind of has to become an explorer or an experimenter of their own. Because it made me think that I talked with so many women in this book who were part of clinical trials and were doing it extremely willingly and openly. So some of them were for things like vaginal microbiome transplants, which is this new alternative to the rat poison that is really worth exploring and similar to a fecal transplant. It’s supposed to seed the vagina with a healthier ecosystem or one that is better at preventing infection. And so many of the women trying this were saying, like, I’ve been desperately dealing with this problem for years, and it’s really caused so many issues in my relationships and sex life and caused me so much shame. But also they were like, I don’t want anyone else to deal with this. I want to be part of the solution. And the same with trials. On whether menstrual blood could be used as a diagnostic tool for things like endometriosis and fertility, and basically kind of using it as a window into the uterus. And initially, doctors, like gynecologists were like, none of my patients will say yes to this. Like, they’ll be disgusted. They’ll never, like, give us a sponge with their blood on it. And everyone I talked to was like, Hell, yes, this is awesome. Why not? This is my menstrual blood is free. If they can help science and help women with endometriosis, I would love to do it. So a lot of these women were like eager participants in the scientific enterprise, and sometimes scientists are actually underestimating their desire to be part of the solution.
S2: We’re going to take a break here. But if you want to hear more from Rachel GROSS and myself on another topic, check out our Waves Plus segment is this feminist where today we’re debating whether the word hussy is feminist.
S3: And please consider supporting the show by joining Slate. Plus, members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast and bonus content of shows like this one. To learn more, go to Slate.com, slash the waves plus.
S2: We’re back. And now we’re going to be talking about ovaries. I realized reading Rachel’s work that I have spent a lot of my life sort of idly thinking about ovaries as a little like basket or module full of eggs. And it’s nice that I have them in my body in case I want to have kids someday, but otherwise they’re just kind of these little like egg container things that are hanging out and sitting there. Rachel This is not exactly right.
S3: No, actually. But you’re not alone in thinking that. Do you want to know how Ovaries got their name?
S2: Yes, they do.
S3: So in the 1600s, ovaries were just called female testicles. And.
S2: My God.
S3: I know you’re, like, surprised, but not so. You know, there was a long standing thread that women were kind of this stunted or inferior version of the man, which was kind of the ideal human body. And men had testicles, and females had something similar that was inside. But we weren’t sure what it did. It was either it made female sperm or it didn’t really do anything and it was just ornamental. A body without function. So 1600s. We don’t know what the ovaries do. And finally, this Dutch man named Reinier de Graaf, and he is the namesake of the graphene follicle, which is the one that populates every month. He found egg follicles in rabbit ovaries and he said, okay, these must be making eggs. And at some point they become embryos. So actually the ovaries have their own function and they contribute to reproduction in a concrete way. No, these are not testicles. We’re going to name them ovaries, which means egg baskets because they do something similar to the ovaries of birds. And surprise, nature had its mind on the female as well as the male when she was making humanity. Then we got the term egg basket, which is kind of how ovaries are conceived of in the popular imagination. But also, like, keep in mind this fundamental shift in how we pictured this bodily organ in the 17th century, because there may be another shift coming up soon. So fast forward to today. What DEGROFF didn’t know is that not only do ovaries make eggs, but ovaries are composed of many types of cells and tissue. And one of them is, I would argue, more important than the egg cell, and it’s called the granular cells. They surround the egg and they’re integral to an egg follicle. They can’t live without the egg cell that Excel can’t live without them. And they actually produce hormones. So estrogen, testosterone, progesterone that cycle throughout the entire body. And they’re not just important for creating the uterine lining, which is remarkable and happens every month for many women. But they support every system in the body, from bone health to brain health to blood. And yeah, these two little paired, as they call them, almond shaped organs are really these control centers that are supporting your whole bodily health, whether or not you intend to get pregnant.
S2: And so there are actually scientists that are talking about ways to, like, extend that control center function of the ovary and maybe even like delay menopause and all of the hard stuff that comes with that.
S3: Exactly. So this stuff is pretty controversial and sensitive. But what we can say is there has been significant scientific evidence found that human ovaries have stem cells in them which can give rise to new eggs. What we don’t know is whether that’s happening during your general lifetime or whether they’re just kind of hanging out in the wings waiting for something, whether they’re triggered by chemotherapy or injury or damage. So there’s been evidence of these stem cells first in mice and then in humans since like the early 2000s. And now some scientists are saying that we can potentially take out these stem cells and bioengineer like artificial ovaries or more eggs to stockpile. These are dramatic possibilities. And they also say a lot about how the ovary functions. So I am wary of kind of focusing too much on the new technologies that don’t exist yet, may never exist and have like a lot of ethical and legal hurdles to get past. For one, there’s a lot of debate over whether we should try to delay menopause and if we know enough about it to know that this would be good. But I do think that this work shows that we’ve been misunderstanding these organs and oversimplifying them. So they’re really thought of as degenerating organs in ovarian biology and in medicine. And you do hear that language like ovarian failure in ovarian exhaustion. And that’s how menopause is often described. But this work suggests that while there is like the loss of eggs that happens throughout your life, there may also be regeneration and growth and renewal happening. So those processes are not mutually exclusive. And that really changes how we think about what this organ is doing throughout your lifetime.
S2: So to just like live in the sci fi. Of it for a second. You can imagine a future in which scientists are helping your ovaries continue to produce eggs, or like implanting an artificial ovary which continues to produce eggs. And along with it, all of those like hormones that regulate your body. And with without them, you go into menopause.
S3: Right. So that is the concept that these scientists at northeastern Boston are suggesting. And like I said, there are a lot of questions because what they’re concerned with is the long term health effects of menopause, not the transitions. So not stuff like hot flashes and vaginal dryness, which are like all significant as well, but more about osteoporosis, heart health, dementia. So they think that by extending the ovarian lifespan, you can prevent some of these long term health effects. Keep in mind that nobody really knows an ovary working in an 80 year old woman. We’re not exactly sure what that would do, which goes back to how little we know about the system.
S2: And you spoke to Dr. Jen Gunter and O’Brien, who was actually like very resistant and maybe even, like offended by the idea that, like, you would need to stave off menopause.
S3: Yeah, I think she provided a really important perspective. She made the point that, like, ovaries are not failing. They’re supposed to stop making those hormones. Although fun aside, they do not stop making hormones after menopause. They’re still making small amounts of testosterone estrogen, which is cool. And so basically, she was saying that, yes, you definitely want to address the effects the patients are worried about, which you’re going to like differ based on your family history and who you are. But treating menopause as a disease and an anti menopause technology as a cure is what she really took issue with.
S2: Right. It kind of goes back to the measurements that we were talking about in the first segment. We’re like, okay, there’s like one step where you can do all this work to like map out what’s happening biologically in the body. And then there is that question of like, if you want to take that second step or, you know, like billion stop because this is like very complicated and like actually like start manipulating bodies based on it.
S3: Yeah. Like all the basic science we need to get there is super important. And one important effect is showing the huge natural variation among bodies, whether it’s in genital measurements or menopause, and it’s different effects on different bodies. Just do something about normalizing those differences is super important. And then at some point, people want to disrupt the process often and hack the system. And that’s where it gets like ethically murky. And it’s not questions about science, it’s questions about ethics and personal choice and personal freedom and risk.
S2: Right. And why are we doing this? And who wants to do it and who benefits from it? Right.
S3: And Jen’s really important, like feminist point is like who is telling us that menopause is bad and why is it not so much that we’re worried about heart disease, but that our society has imbued us with this idea that we’re a withered old crone and our life is over now and we want to be young forever because that’s what advertisements are throwing at us. Because if that’s what we’re succumbing to when we make a drastic decision and try an experimental technology, that’s not good. So I think she made a great point there.
S2: I’ve also been thinking a lot about like the idea that it’s supposed to be desirable to be fertile well into our late thirties and forties and, you know, however many years we could possibly extend it in the future with technology. Obviously, fertility is a really, really personal issue and people work really hard to extend their fertility and to to be able to have a baby on their own time span. We talked a lot about this, a lot in the in our IVF episode of the Lives from a few weeks ago. But I also feel like when I look at some of these technologies that do exist, that offer to extend my fertility for like quite a bit of money, a little bit of what it does to me is like, oh, of course you want to be as fertile as possible for as long as possible. Like, don’t you want to spend tens of thousands of dollars to freeze your eggs when you’re like in your early thirties, just in case you want to become a mom, as though that’s like.
S3: And so everybody has that goal, right? And then I think a medical ethicist made this point to me that I’ve always thought of that is like we do think of that as feminist, or at least we were taught to think of it as expanding our choices and our fertility options. But how much of it is that? Our society is structured around pushing us to work until a certain age and making it difficult to take time off work at a certain age or you fall off of the ladder. And so you are pressured to have that baby at 40 when the start. Sure our lives could look totally different.
S2: You can imagine like a sci fi future in which we’re all walking around with artificial ovaries and, like, having babies in retirement. And so much of this, like, really comes down to, like, I think in your own life, are you able to use these technologies to help enhance what you want, or are you feeling pressure from them? I know that they’re wonderful for a lot of people and really like life expanding.
S3: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I go into the history of IVF in the book too, and it’s remarkable, like female scientists who’ve made it happen in 1944 and just how much it’s expanded people’s options. But yeah, it is hard to untangle how much of it is expanding personal choice and how much of that choice is pressured and shaped by societal norms around you. And I did just want to make one little point, which is the scientists working on the artificial ovarian technology. It’s supposed to extend a hormonal function, but not fertility. You could do both, but they’re specifically thinking of the anti menopause goal.
S2: Right. There’s a tendency, even as I’m learning more about this, to just be like ovary is. Okay, eccentric automatically.
S3: Yeah, absolutely. People that study the ovary, they often think of the egg as the control center of the ovary. And the most interesting thing going on there and everything else is kind of just like chewed bubblegum. But with the discovery of how important these granuloma cells, hormone producing cells, are, came this appreciation for all the communication going on in the ovary. So it’s really like this network of chemical and electrical signals going on between granulomas and eggs and granules is in granulomas. And it has some of the most complex communication signals of anywhere in the body, including the brain. So, like, there’s just so much going on in there and we really don’t know a lot of it yet, but it’s definitely not just not just eggs hanging out.
S2: Before we head out, we want to give some recommendations. Rachel, what are you watching right now?
S3: Well, some journalist friends and I were talking and, you know, in this age of some of us working from home and needing more self-care, we realized that we all like to use masturbation for stress relief. And it took us a while to realize that we were doing it. But now we are all very bonded over this, and it’s literally self-care, taking care of yourself. And it’s a great addition to your short, angry daily walks and hot showers and lattes. And I highly recommend it. It costs nothing and has pretty much no drawbacks, except sometimes I get sleepy.
S2: I was going to say the falling asleep is like, okay, okay. You got her.
S3: Mock ups may vary.
S2: To block out the meeting on your calendar. Yeah, it’s. And it’s funny that, like, how did this come up with you and your journalist friends? Because it is like it’s kind of one of those conversations you have to like back into a little bit like.
S3: Well, these are very close friends and like it’s it was definitely like a text thread where we talked about everything and I think we were just discussing our stress this week and someone was like, Yeah, I got a bit more R rated when I am really stressed. What, what does that mean? Did you misspell Constipated and then found it and then realized what she meant? So unpack that more. And I was like, Yeah, totally. Me too. That’s how that happened. I don’t know. I have a lot of intimate conversations with my journalist text threads, though.
S2: Nice. I really like that. Mm hmm.
S3: What about you? What are you recommending?
S2: I am recommending wide legged pants. I was a little alarmed when I heard, I don’t know, maybe a year ago that, like, skinny jeans are out. I’ve been a person who, like, finds pants that I like and, like, sticks to them. But as I’ve started coming back into the office, I’ve embraced the wider legged pants trend. And I don’t understand how I used to do skinny jeans now after just a couple of months of wearing them.
S3: They’re back comfortable.
S2: They’re comfortable. I’m a huge fan of clothes that, like, feel like pajamas but aren’t pajamas. And, like, I’m wearing a really. Wide leg, like lots of extra fabric. It’s very comfortable.
S3: The wide leg pants are also great for roller skating. Hot tip.
S2: Oh, you roller skate?
S3: I do. I did break my ankle recently. Roller skating. But I am still a skater at heart.
S2: I’ve been rock climbing recently and sometimes I see rock climb gyms and I like. I think that’s even like even with the wide legged pants. That’s like a bridge too far for me.
S3: Oh, my gosh. Yeah, that’s intense, but just rock climbing. Super cool. You get so sore and so buff. That sounds like a great hobby. Yeah.
S2: Good stress relief.
S3: Oh, my gosh. Yeah. I want to go rock climb, masturbate.
S2: Rock climb.
S3: Do other things. It’s a solid day.
S2: Solid day.
S3: I feel accomplished just thinking about it.
S1: Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.
S2: Tick. That’s our show this week. The Waves is produced by Shannon Roth.
S3: Shannon Palus is our editorial director.
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S2: The waves will be back next week. Different host, different topic, same time and place. Thank you so much for being a Slate Plus member and sincere member. You get this weekly segment. Is this feminist? Every week we debate whether something is feminist. And this week we’re talking about the word pussy. So last summer, I ran a an argument by the author of a book called Pussy Pedia, arguing that we have all of these different parts vagina, vulva, clit, ovaries, open tubes that are kind of generally called like the reproductive system. And we need a better word to refer to all of that that doesn’t center women and folks with those parts as just like baby making machines. And Zoe Mendelson, the author of Pussy Pedia, which is like this encyclopedia of all of those parts, proposed that the word we use should be pussy. Rachel, what do you think about calling all of that pussy?
S3: Yeah. I mean, first of all, I love Pussy Pedia and Zoe. You know, I have nothing against pussy. I enjoy pussy. I just think it depends on what context we’re talking about. I think if pussy serves you in your personal everyday life and you can use it to communicate what parts you’re talking about to someone else and feel pride and not shame about it. Awesome. I think I’m concerned with what word can we use? We’re talking within the medical system and we need to be like scientifically precise. And I still don’t have a good answer. So, yeah, exactly. As you said, I definitely came to feel like reproductive system was super reductive and didn’t work for a lot of reasons, particularly saying that the point of these organs is to reproduce. So reproductive and sexual system is way too much of a mouthful and not a good way. And I think sorry.
S2: We love all of the reproductive sex jokes here.
S3: Good. Because I have an entire books worth of them that didn’t make it in, so I’ll be utilizing them today.
S2: Vagina Obscura. Part two. The jokes.
S3: The jokes. An oral history. Yeah. So sometimes I would say, like the vagina at all and the vagina and colleagues, which was just like for me. But I really don’t think that science and medicine have a great overall umbrella term yet and I think we still need to work on that. Yeah. Pussy. But can we come up with more and can people just do me if they think of something?
S2: The thing that I like about Percy is that once you get past, it’s like vulgar roots as a term. You kind of, like, can’t help but smile when you say it. And I really like that energy of, like, delight that it has. And I really challenge, like any scientists or medical experts or anyone who has like a penchant for jargon to come up with a term that is as delightful and also sounds a little bit more like medically accurate.
S3: Oh, I love that. You’re right. Percy is delightful and I’m smiling as I say this, so I just can’t argue against it. So I guess we need a scientific policy.
S2: Term and a scientific policy.
S3: Term. Yeah. So whoever is listening, help us out here.
S2: I think where I kind of come down on this is like the word pussy isn’t feminist or not feminist. Like it’s kind of just a word and it can be used in different contexts that’s either like derogatory or supportive. But you actually came across something really interesting in your, in your research for this book about whether like talking about the vagina and studying about the vagina is considered to be a feminist pursuit at all. Could you tell our listeners a little bit about what you found when you asked researchers about that? Like, I almost want to say like activists where their work and whether or not it existed.
S3: Yeah. So all of the researchers in this book who study ovaries, vulvas vaginas, clitoris and uterus and ovaries, I just found myself asking this one question, which was Do you consider your work feminist? And for most of them, I thought it would be an obvious yes, because the way they describe their science is like we’re lifting up these anatomical myths, getting rid of them and empowering women with better information about their bodies, helping them live fuller lives without this like, layer of shame. And I was really surprised that a lot of them were like, Oh, no, this is science. I was like, Well, is it feminist science? And they’re like, I would prefer to just call it science. So they really shied away from the term. And like you were saying, I got the sense that they did feel that feminists gave them an air of activism. And I wondered if actually female scientists were even more sensitive to this, that they were trying to avoid having anything held against them in their work, like they’re already working to be taken seriously, given what they’re studying and how frank they are in their language. And so they don’t want to label themselves as something that might come with this cultural baggage, and it might be relevant that they were in their fifties and sixties, these scientists. So I know the word kind of changes, balances over time.
S2: That is so fascinating because it seems like anything to do with studying the vagina and is like empowering folks with vaginas is inherently feminist and it. Yeah. I mean, I think it can make some kind of sense. If I think about it in terms of like as a researcher who’s kind of going into this uncharted territory, you don’t want to put a target on your back and you don’t want to like call attention to the fact that, like you could potentially be aligned with this movement to liberate women and his and his allies who are not. He wants to.
S3: Be aligned with that.
S2: Who wants to who wants to be a lot.
S3: Right. Yeah, right. Right. It was like a little disappointing or maybe a little bit sad, but I think it’s just for practical reasons and kind of just shows how the word does mean different things in different communities. I think they’re already working hard to get grant funding and to say my work is objective and scientific, not that they should have to, but this just makes it one step harder for them. Even though they would admit or not admit they would state, yeah, I want women to be more empowered about their bodies. Yeah, I feel like this is kind of rebellion, like saying that this organ is for female pleasure alone. It has nothing to do with a penis. But then when it came to labeling it feminists like. No.
S2: I’m seeing some parallels to our initial question here of is the term post-feminist because we don’t have this word for this like the vagina, etc., the reproductive and sexual and also sometimes other stuff system. And there’s also this like a little bit of like hesitation to align one’s work on this system as part of like a larger structural movement and collection of things. If we don’t admit that all these things are kind of working in concert to like a larger goal, like, I don’t know, maybe about like is a survival mechanism so they can go under the radar a little bit, right?
S3: But then overall, is that having the effect of making us kind of fragment and separate out these disparate parts of this work similar to like a big complaint I have about how we label the female parts as there’s this tendency to reduce and separate, like, like Freud talking about the clitoral and vaginal orgasm, which, you know, total B.S. But there’s always like, oh, this isn’t part of that. This is separate, this is a different type of experience. So you learn to treat your body not as like a unified whole, but as a collection of parts that aren’t really working together. So, you know, is feminism the pussy? Like, do we need an integrated, better way to get all this work under one umbrella? I don’t know.
S2: I think that it’s like it can just be a lot easier to say, like, don’t mind me over here. I’m just concerned with, like, the shape of the clitoris. This isn’t like, really related to something larger.
S3: Right? And then hope someone else will pick up the pieces and put it together. That’s fascinating. I do think it’s about going under the radar or not wanting to align yourself with something that feels kind of biased because, you know, scientists are really sensitive to bias. Even though they can really miss some of their own personal biases, they want to portray themselves as objective observers.
S2: Yeah, well, dare I say, Vagina Obscura, the book unites all of these parts and presents them as part of a cohesive whole.
S3: Oh, my gosh. Thank you. That is the goal.
S2: Is there something you’re dying to know if it’s feminist or not? We would love to hear from you. Email us at the waves at Slate.com.