An historical evaluation of the sweet vagina

We used to love vaginas

Thousands of years ago, the female genitalia were held in great respect and awe, with our monthly cycles deemed sacred and a mystery, one that gave women the magical power of conceiving and giving life.

The yoni (Sanskrit for ‘origin, womb, source’), a symbol of a female’s vulva and vagina, was celebrated and revered. It came in the shape of flowers, a triangle and fruits, with the belief that people who wore amulets and had carvings of the yoni would receive greater fertility and protection. While that may not be entirely true, it shows that the female reproductive system was revered.

Rock carvings of goddesses with their prominent vulvae were placed at sites of worship, with proof of such sites still existing today in parts of New Zealand, Thailand, Southern California and Yemen. In some parts of Europe, statues of a squatting woman with her vulva displayed were found, Sheila-na-gig, speculated to be a fertility goddess.

This era of female worship has somehow diminished and ultimately vanished, being replaced by poor self image and a lack of appreciation of the vagina. Instead of worshipping the labia, women get them cut off (labiaplasty).

Early civilisations and the vagina

The mythical vagina became part of the ancient civilisations’ anatomy studies. In ancient Egypt they conducted vaginal examinations on women to check for gynaecological problems.

Moving on to the Grecian times, the vulva and vagina were also medically considered by Greek doctors. They had procedures that are described similarly to our current pelvic examinations, and during Hippocrates’ time (c. 460-c. 377 bce), they already had knowledge pertaining to common diseases of the female genitalia such as pelvic inflammation, ovarian cysts, uterine prolapse, and even knowledge about cervical dilatation.

Although general medical knowledge of the vagina had already begun, it still took a while before anyone really paid any attention to it and studied it in detail. Why? The female reproductive system was for many years considered to be a direct reverse of the male reproductive system, much like a sock or a glove turned inside-out.

What does this mean? Without actually dissecting a real woman’s cadaver, physicians then believed that women were inside-out versions of men – the penis when turned inside would be the vagina, the testes would be the ovaries, the scrotum would be the uterus. Even the great Claudius Galen, court physician to Marcus Aurelius of 130-200 ce who conducted numerous dissections of female animals, thought this.

The 1500s to 1900s

In the following years, more dissections were made on male subjects that brought about more medical knowledge of human anatomy. Unfortunately since the cadavers were only male, no new information about the female’s differences with males was established.

In the 1500s there were more developments by Gabriele Fallopio of Modena (1523-1562) and Matteo Realdo Colombo (1516-1559). Fallopio accurately described and named the female fallopian tubes, while Colombo introduced the terms ‘labia’ and ‘vagina’. He was also the first to give details on the clitoris.

Even more accurate information on our female sexual organs were discovered in the 17th century Regnier de Graaf (1641-1673) mapped out the different and specific female parts by using actual female cadavers. His records showed a good description of the female external genitalia, the clitoris, the mons, the hymen, the urinary opening, the internal pelvic organs and the vagina.

In succeeding centuries however, much of this knowledge was not used because of the ensuing conservative way the female genitalia was regarded. To give an example, in the 1800s Dr. William Goodell told his students to keep their eyes fixed on the ceiling while they are conducting a vaginal evaluation.

Not only were the forms of diagnosis shrouded in ambiguity but also the vaginal treatments. In the 20th century, bed rest and vaginal opium injections were the usually-prescribed treatment of vaginal problems. This pretty much alleviates the symptoms while leaving the cause untouched.

A wonderful breakthrough came when Frederick Taussig, an American doctor, published the first medical book about the vulva in 1923. It was entitled Diseases of the Vulva, and it became the standard medical text in the United States about the female genitalia.

It was followed in 1969 by the book Benign Diseases of the Vulva and Vagina, written by Herman Gardner and Raymond Kaufman. It included in detail many of the problems pertaining to the vulva and vagina.

The 2000s and beyond

In 2015 we can still say that there are only a few well-written medical books that focus on the vulva and vagina or the female genitalia. One such book is The V Book by Elizabeth G. Stewart M.D published in 2002 from where most of the details of this article are gathered.

Why are there only a few sources of accurate medical knowledge giving us needed information? Some may say it could be because we shy away from talking about sex and vaginas. But isn’t sex a part of our daily lives, and wouldn’t that also mean that our sexual organs should be given the same reverence and care as that of any of our body parts?

May we learn to desire knowledge and information about our body parts – even those we used to shy away from – that we may put to good use our current advancement and medical breakthroughs.    

References​1​

  1. 1.
    Stewart EG, Spencer P. The V Book: A Doctor’s Guide to Complete Vulvovaginal Health. Bantam; Revised ed. edition; 2002.


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Veronica Danger, BHSc(N) Naturopathic Practitioner

Veronica Danger, BHSc(N) Naturopathic Practitioner

Veronica Danger is a qualified naturopath specialising in vulvovaginal health. Veronica earned her Bachelor of Health Sciences (Naturopathy) at Endeavour College of Natural Medicine in Melbourne, Australia. Veronica is a proud member of the Australian Traditional Medicine Society (ATMS).
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