We Brits are known for being a bit prudish and often, our health suffers because of it. According to a survey by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, around 3,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year in the UK, and it’s the most common cancer in women aged 35 and under. Smear tests can prevent 75% of these cases, yet a third of the women surveyed said they delayed getting a smear test because of embarrassment. It sounds extreme, but our unease with our vaginas could literally kill us.
And we aren’t the only ones with this problem. Nina Brochmann and Ellen Stokken Dahl have been travelling the world talking about vaginas since writing their book The Wonder Down Under. First published in Norway last year, the ‘user guide to the vagina’ has just been released in the UK, on International Women’s Day.
One of the biggest reasons Ellen and Nina started working in this area as medical students was Norway’s lacklustre sex education. They also joined a national scheme helping sex workers and refugees.
Then in 2015 they started a blog called The Genitals. Originally aimed at poorly educated teenagers, they soon found that their audience was much, much bigger – to date, the pieces on their site have been read 1.4 million times. A host of book deals later, it turns out there was more of an appetite for discussion of this topic – by people who knew their stuff – than they could have ever imagined.
It’s not just their topic that’s unique, it’s their refreshingly non-judgemental approach to all things female. And most importantly: the emphasis they put on women’s desire. “Education is about restricting sex, it’s not pro-sex,” says Ellen. “We need to discuss female desire. We don’t learn enough about that in high school. If you don’t write about female desire then women don’t know the size of their own clitoris.”
In the book, Nina and Ellen don’t shy away from anything, exploring periods, sex, babies, discharge, virginity and female genital mutilation – all with a clinical eye and a practical and engaging approach. You won’t believe half the stuff you learn from reading it – or rather, you won’t believe you didn’t know it already. They even have some incredible revelations about the clitoris, a part of the female anatomy which has been hugely underserved by the male-driven world of science. “People just don’t find it very important. But it’s empowering for women,” says Ellen.
The extent to which Britain's limited sex education is skewed towards not getting pregnant will ring true with anyone who's ever tried for a baby. Only last month doctors from the Fertility Education Initiative told The Times that girls needed to be taught more about how and when to get pregnant. Ellen is noticing the repercussions of this knowledge gap right now, aged 31: "All of my girlfriends are trying to get pregnant. And I can’t tell you how many calls I get asking ‘How do I get pregnant?’" she says incredulously. “We spend all of our youth trying not to get pregnant, and then suddenly we’re like – how does this even work?!”
There are of course many reasons why women aren’t able to talk about their health openly and comfortably. Nina experienced this firsthand, growing up in the more conservative west of Norway. “It’s very hard to be open about who you are in more conservative cultures,” she recognises. “Our work with refugees was one of the things that really motivated us to start off with this work,” adds Ellen. “We met women who were scared of using contraception because they were scared people in their family would find out and think they were having sex. But they weren’t, they were just having really painful or problematic periods, and they needed contraception for that but they were scared to use it because of the social repercussions.”
But this goes further than religion and cultural practices. One of the biggest myths that the pair is trying to bust is entrenched in popular culture; what they call "the vagina fraud". Put simply? “There’s absolutely no medical test that can prove if a woman is a virgin or not.” But what about the hymen? “There’s so many examples in popular culture, where people talk about the hymen and virginity, as if you are totally different before and after.” Even practised doctors have absolutely no way of telling whether a woman is a virgin. “This holiness about the vagina is unhealthy. You wouldn’t call a lesbian grown woman with lots of sexual experience a virgin, it’s absurd.”
So how has this myth stuck around for so long? “Every culture has been spending so much attention on female virginity and not male virginity,” suggests Nina, explaining that it may have a lot to do with men wanting to make sure they were bringing up their own children. Women know their baby is theirs; they live with it for nine months. Men don’t. “It comes down to men trying to control a woman,” says Nina matter-of-factly.
From virginity to pregnancy to the anatomy of our vaginas, there is so much that we don’t know. And this is a problem, for men and women, because women’s everyday problems aren’t taken seriously. At all. “The point is that the majority of society are heterosexual and live in heterosexual couples when we are adults, so we spend a lot of our adult lives with men,” says Ellen. “And the fact that we can’t talk openly about these things that are such a huge part of our lives, really puts a strain on women.”
Time to get to know The Wonder Down Under.