Steam-Cleaning Your Vagina–and Other Insults

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There are a million ways to fix our sexual bodies—none of which are necessary.

New wellness entrepreneur Gwynyth Paltrow has proposed the latest: steam-cleaning your vagina and uterus.

While the practice was part of some indigenous cultures many centuries ago, these days virtually 100% of Western health experts say it’s a bad, bad idea (and regarding the uterus, simply impossible). Either your vagina is sick and needs medical attention, or it’s healthy and needs absolutely nothing.

With a few exceptions, it’s pretty easy to tell which yours is—an unpleasant smell, taste, or discharge generally let you know. Itching and burning are pretty clear signs, too.

At the other end of a woman’s body, there’s renewed interest (primarily commercial interest) in the drug Addyi (flibanserin), supposedly addressing low desire in younger women. In clinical trials it worked for a few respondents, but for most women its results are negligible—primarily because low desire in pre-menopausal women typically has lifestyle, relationship, and/or psychological components.

And sometimes a woman’s “low desire” is well within the typical range, and her desire for more desire may simply be unrealistic. Or the “problem” is the contrast with her partner’s higher desire level.

Steam-cleaning is only the latest means of addressing non-existent female sexual issues. Others include anal bleaching, labiaplasty (reduction surgery), and vaginal “rejuvenation” (tightening or removing wrinkles, or both). And let’s not forget good old-fashioned breast enhancement, now the most common cosmetic procedure. Last year some 290,000 got it—the equivalent of every adult woman in San Francisco or Austin.

Unfortunately, instead of activists criticizing Gwynyth Paltrow for promoting the idea that vaginas need special exotic cleansing, they’re mostly repeating the tired old idea that female sexuality is SO much more pathologized than male sexuality.

That encourages the false and politically damaging dichotomy between women who have it hard and men who have it easy. Instead, men and women should appreciate each other as having to constantly fight against the consumerization of our bodies, particularly our sexual bodies.

Seeing women as a special class of victim also relieves them of responsibility for ingesting harmful cultural myths and pathologizing their own bodies and sexuality. You feel bad about your labia? Don’t blame the patriarchy. Your partner pressures you to lose weight or get a boob job? Don’t blame the patriarchy. You’re ashamed of your fantasies? Don’t blame the patriarchy. Your church shames you for your kink or your abortion? Don’t blame your church for your inhibitions—quit your damn church.

* * *

It’s a political, psychological, and relational mistake to competitively measure who has it worse, men or women. Both genders age, and are discarded as sexless (and don’t tell me about George Clooney—how many men are George Clooney?). Both genders struggle with access to sex education and contraception.

Like women, men are confronted with social pressures about their sexuality. Men are taught to feel sexually inadequate, and are constantly encouraged to fix their bodies and sexuality.

Look at how Viagra is handed out every single day to men who do not have erectile dysfunction (ED). Docs giving a man Viagra are saying “your expectation of getting rock-hard on demand regardless of circumstances is reasonable; your body is the problem.”

It’s a rare MD who asks simple questions like, Are you drinking when you’re trying to get erect? Do you really desire the person with whom you want an erection? Are you simply trying to have sex with a total stranger at a club or party? Are you angry with your would-be sex partner? Is there a disagreement about contraception?

Simple questions like these would cut the prescription rate of Viagra dramatically—while educating and comforting men in the process.

Then there’s the penis enlargement industry. Devices, drugs, creams, and exercise programs promise glorious expansion—and are you sure you don’t need this? Don’t you care about your partner’s ultimate pleasure? It’s a hard pitch to resist, especially when most men are watching pornography featuring genital freaks of nature.

Circumcision reversal is another industry promising higher self-esteem, more pleasure, and more partner satisfaction—all of which can be developed with exactly the penis you have, circumcised or not. The same is true for devices and exercises that promise to stretch your scrotum.

Finally, there is enormous pressure on men to ingest testosterone—via pills, shots, creams, patches, and non-prescription crap you can get at health food stores, late-night television, or the internet. It rarely helps with sexual function, although it can cause a lot of other health problems.

Again, doctors don’t ask enough questions before prescribing T. But too many men are searching for the Fountain of Youth. Or the Fountain of Better Sex Without Better Communication.

Just as I sympathize with women about their besieged sexual bodies, I sympathize with men as well. As time marches on (stomping all over our aging bodies), as a primary relationship gets more difficult, or as other life challenges appear, the relentless cultural questioning of a man’s sexual adequacy continues.

For all but a tiny sliver of medically compromised people, none of these “improvements” is necessary. Human sexual bodies are mostly fine, if we leave them alone. Most of us could express our sexuality in perfectly enjoyable ways if we accepted ourselves. But of course we don’t.

Religion works hard to make us feel guilty about our sexuality. Government works hard to shape (and often condemn) our sexual fantasies. Politics works hard to limit our access to miracles that could make sex easier and safer, like the morning-after pill. The media work hard to persuade us that we must fix our sexual bodies, and every week shows us exactly how.

These undermine male and female sexuality alike.

Yes, capitalism goes after female sexuality like a hungry dog pursues a meaty bone. It goes after male sexuality as well. If men and women could see each other as allies in attempting to overcome this—and yes, that includes the patriarchy—we could make some actual progress and all be better off.

But if women insist they have it worse, and men have trouble generating a reasonable level of empathy about it when they themselves feel unending cultural pressure, the patriarchy—and the church and the government—win.

And that’s no good for anybody.

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