With the Vagina Museum set to open its doors officially on 16 November, Development and Marketing Manager, Zoe Williams, tells us what the inspiration was behind the museum; the roadblocks they’ve faced along the way; and why a physical space dedicated to learning about vaginas and vulvas is a necessity.
Half of the people in the world have one, so why do so many of us balk at even using the word “vagina”? This question was central in founding the Vagina Museum, the world’s first bricks-and-mortar museum dedicated to vaginas, vulvas and the gynaecological anatomy.
The way we talk about this perfectly ordinary part of the anatomy is shrouded in shame, stigma and silence, which creates a climate in which unrealistic and often harmful myths can flourish.
2016 research by the Eve Appeal found that an alarming 65% of 16-25 year old women say they have a problem using the words “vagina” or “vulva” and nearly a third of women age 16-35 say they have avoided going to the doctor altogether with gynaecological issues due to embarrassment. However, in older age groups, the embarrassment about using the correct words or visiting a doctor were far lower.
The Vagina Museum’s aim is to celebrate the gynaecological anatomy with a programme of exhibitions and events in a real physical space that can act as a forum for much-needed conversations.
We started out in 2017 with pop-up exhibitions, and following a successful crowdfunding campaign earlier this year have been able to move into a premises in Camden to open our inaugural exhibition, Muff Busters: Vagina Myths and How to Fight Them. Along the way, we’ve found that one of the biggest challenges we’re facing is the problem that to rather a lot of people, the word “vagina” is something which shouldn’t be said.
We’re finding ourselves constantly battling algorithms that assume even the merest mention of vaginas is inherently obscene.
We’ve found our emails blocked by spam filters – sometimes even when contacting people who work in the health sector! Social media platforms like Facebook insist we’re violating their community standards and won’t let us promote our work – a struggle shared by Dr Jen Gunter in promoting her book about vaginal health earlier this year.
Organisations we’ve worked with, such as our graphic designer, have been blocked from sharing their work through their networks. The Vagina Museum shouldn’t be provocative – but as things stand, we are. Since younger age groups are more likely to be online than the older groups, is it possible that this digital silencing is contributing to the younger demographic being less comfortable with talking about the gynaecological anatomy? We don’t know, but we know but the algorithms aren’t helping anyone have an open conversation.
Digital algorithms are of course a reflection of negative societal views on vaginas, and the idea that giving a name to a part of the anatomy is rude or dirty. The silence breeds shame and stigma, and the shame and stigma breeds silence. It’s a vicious circle that needs to be broken. How can you express gynaecological health concerns if you don’t feel comfortable to name the part of the body affected – or if you’re not even sure about the right words to use? How can you get to know your body and understand what’s normal if you can’t talk about it? How can we even begin to talk about consent when there’s certain words we’re not supposed to use?
There are conversations that need to be had, at any age, and our mission is to provide a space for having these. We want to destigmatise the gynaecological anatomy and give everyone the confidence to talk about it. We want to raise awareness of the gynaecological anatomy and health.
We want to challenge the conditions that lead to silence. There’s nothing vulgar or offensive about vaginas or vulvas.
Because of this, our exhibitions will be free to enter and available to view online. Everyone can benefit from talking openly about vaginas, vulvas and the gynaecological anatomy. For some, even saying out loud “I’m visiting the Vagina Museum this weekend” is a giant leap towards breaking the taboo – and from there, we can all really start talking.