Why are so many women so self-conscious about the smell of our vaginas? And what’s causing that insecurity? And why isn’t the world equally squeamish about semen? Kristen Cochrane investigates…
Is there anything more embarrassing than talking about feelings? What about talking the smell of your vagina?
It seems that we are a lot more comfortable talking about the substance that exclusively comes out of the penis—aka semen—than the female equivalent. In Gaspar Noé’s 2015 film Love, there is a now-infamous “3D cum shot” scene. In mainstream porn videos, women’s faces are the canvases and men’s penises are the paintbrushes, out of which the paint (read: semen) is sprayed.
Contrast this familiar image with the thought of period blood, the substance that exclusively comes from the vagina. Can you imagine if Gaspar Noé had a 3D period blood scene? I think the power would shut down at Fox News and The Daily Mail.
The uneasiness we have with the vagina has had many attempts at explanation. In Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History, Emma L. E. Ross writes that artist Judy Chicago’s 1971 “Red Flag” photograph of a woman taking a tampon out of her vagina was controversial because it showed the vagina in a non-erotic way. This is one approach to thinking about why it’s so awkward to talk about any smell of any vagina, or of a vagina serving a purpose other than an object in which the privileged gender can derive pleasure from.
In their paper “Socio-Cultural Representations of the Vagina” in the Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology, researchers Virginia Braun and Sue Wilkinson have written that “women’s bodies have been (and continue to be) a site of struggle for definition and control.” For Braun and Wilkinson, scholarly literature on the vagina is rare and paradoxical. As far as representations go, representations of the vagina are predominantly negative. Could this be why we are so reluctant to talk about the relationship between women and what our vaginas can smell like?
The negativity in which the vagina is discussed could help us understand the narratives that tell us that our vaginas always already smell bad. Sociologist Anthony Synnott reminds us of the vaginal smell economy that is sustained by our insecurities about our smell. Think about that section in the pharmacy: there are wipes, powders, sprays, insertable gels, etc, all with the ambition of making us smell “fresher” or “cleaner.” While it’s obviously good to keep e. coli bacteria out of your lady garden in the interest of avoiding a painful UTI or bladder infection, we don’t really need these products. Water is fine. If you feel that you smell, which is usually from groin sweat or an unbalanced pH, you can dab yourself with baking soda. If you think that you genuinely smell like fish, you could have bacterial vaginosis, especially since 1 in 3 people will get it at some point. But other than that, you really don’t need to be dousing your private parts in chemicals and spending your money on expensive products that serve no purpose other than to temporarily make you smell like bad perfume. That money could be spent on far more important things—beer, books, whatever.
Synnott brings up the scholar Wolfgang Fritz Haug, who wrote that in late 1960s Germany, 43% of women from age 16 to 60, and 87% of 19-year-old women were buying products that would hide their body odors. But it’s Synnott’s mention of writer Germaine Greer, who once said that companies have invented “the problem (at one and the same instant its solution) of vaginal odour… After all, it’s not as if the streets had been littered with those overcome by vaginal fumes.” Which is true, I think?
Even though there hasn’t been a vagina smell panic in the streets, Jim Drobnick tells us that “vaginal odor was considered so beyond public discourse that overt mention of it did not occur in Western literature until Henry Miller’s 1922 Tropic of Capricorn.” Miller’s books, however, were only published in the 1960s after being banned for decades.
And sometimes, it feels even talking about vagina smells has been banned from public discourse. I’m still waiting for the day that talking about it becomes normalized—outside of a context that tells you how to fix your broken vagina.
*** This article has been amended to correct the claim that water is always okay for everyone’s vagina. The pH in tap water varies, but is usually not pH correct. (Many thanks to Vagina Health Queen Vera Papisova for pointing out this oversight!) While a lot of gynecologists will say just use water or soap and water, anyone who has issues with BV or yeast infections could have issues with this. If someone is concerned about odor, and it’s not from an infection, the safest thing to suggest that would be healthy for everyone is a pH correct soap or a pH correct wipe. Anything that doesnt match vaginal pH levels can fuck up your ph real quick, and that is the most important thing when it comes to vaginal health. – Kristen
Kristen Cochrane is a writer and academic in Ontario, Canada, who’s researching some very interesting things, like queer Latin American cinema, and the fetishization of the female tennis body. Read her most recent essay for Slutever, “The 11 Best Films of the New Queer Cinema Movement,” HERE :)