As a sex therapist, Emma Waring is all too aware of shame in the consulting room. Here, she challenges us to stop giving women and girls the impression that their genitals are 'nasty' and to help them celebrate the bodies God gave them.
We all experience shame to some extent and exploration of this often emerges during sex therapy. It is particularly prevalent in Christian women. Much of the theological groundwork for what became orthodox or traditional Christianity was laid down by church fathers who were influenced by Greco-Roman culture. The Greco-Roman empires had explicit assumptions about the high value of certain "bodies" which included upper class, well-educated males, and a lesser value on the bodies of women, those enslaved and children. It was these privileged, well-educated men who became the church fathers and early Christian writers. These writings also encompassed sexual theology that has influenced church teaching on this subject for thousands of years.
This teaching includes writing about the division between the flesh and the spirit. It claims there is superiority of the mind over the inferiority and danger of the body and its potential for uncontrolled passions. Some early writers have even gone as far as interpretting the story in Genesis and the fall of humankind as the result of Eve tempting Adam. Dale and Keller in their book Advancing Sexual health for the Christian Client (2019) said: “It did not take the church fathers long to leap to the idea that women are at the centre of it all-the cause of sin itself.” While Saint Clement of Alexandria (150-215BC) wrote “Every woman should be filled with shame by the thought of being a woman.”
It is no surprise then that women are charged with needing to uphold sexual purity which is often seen an being incompatible with sexual pleasure. But here we find a double standard not just in Christian teaching but in society in general. I can think of a dozen or more derogatory names used to articulate women deemed to be sexually “promiscuous”. There is no such terminology for men, at worst they may be called a “player” a “ladies’ man” and many see this as a badge of honour.
Saint Clement of Alexandria (150-215BC) wrote “Every woman should be filled with shame by the thought of being a woman.”
So how might these messages have filtered into the lives of women today? Many women grow up with instruction that their genitals are "dirty" and should not be touched. I have many female clients tell me that as young children they were chastises for touching themselves. "Nice girls don’t do that sort of thing". It is very rare for my male clients to say the same.
The problem with this negative response from parents is that it reinforces a belief that the female genitals, are "nasty" or in some ways distasteful. This view has been up-held by the historical cultural message that menstruation is also distasteful and should not be talked about. Boys and girls have been educated separately which creates a sense that menstruation is a shameful secretive thing, to be kept hidden rather than a normalised part of life for both boys and girls, men and women. As recently as 2015, feminist artist and activist Rupi Kaur posted a picture of herself in bed with menstrual leakage. She wanted to highlight what many women experience every month and she has the added plight of suffering with endometriosis a condition that causes heavy bleeding and debilitating pain. Instagram removed the post.
She responded: "Thank you @instagram for providing me with the exact response my work was created to critique. You deleted a photo of a woman who is fully covered and menstruating stating that it goes against community guidelines when your guidelines outline that it is nothing but acceptable. The girl is fully clothed. The photo is mine. It is not attacking a certain group. Nor is it spam. And because it does not break those guidelines I will repost it again. I will not apologize for not feeding the ego and pride of misogynist society that will have my body in underwear but not be okay with a small leak. When your pages are filled with countless photos/accounts where women (so many who are underage) are objectified. Pornified. And treated less than human. Thank you".
Negative response from parents reinforce a belief that the female genitals, are "nasty" or in some ways distasteful.
Another negative message that perpetuates shame in women is the way sanitary products and feminine hygiene products reinforce the notion that this part of the female anatomy is "unpleasant". We are presented with a plethora of feminine hygiene products that "keep us fresh" and "banish odour". Why are women’s genitals singled out for this type of special hygiene requirement? The vulva and vagina do have a delicate pH balance which can be upset by harsh chemicals so non irritating products may be needed by some women but why are these products not simply called "vulval wash"? One might also ask where is the equivalent "odour banishing, hygienic, feel fresh" penis wash for men?
Not only is society set on making the female genitals, hygienic and odourless they need to be hairless and atheistically pleasing. This has been fuelled by the women viewed in pornography. The biggest rise in cosmetic surgery is for women seeking labiaplasties. Surgery aimed at reshaping and reducing the labia. This surgery carries the risk or scarring and altered sensation which can significantly impact a woman’s ability to enjoy sexual pleasure - but maybe that’s not important? This is voluntary genital surgery, what about the cultural and religious messages behind the practice of female genital cutting?
We need to celebrate our female bodies and to do this we need to be intimately connected with them especially if we want to experience sexual pleasure. If I am working with a female client who doesn't have knowledge of her anatomy, I will encourage her to a look at her vulval area in a large hand held mirror. Every woman’s vulva is like a snow flake - beautifully made and completely unique. For some women this is hard especially if they are battling long held beliefs from childhood that their anatomy is dirty or distasteful.
If I am working with a female client who doesn't have knowledge of her anatomy, I encourage her to a look at her vulval area in a large hand held mirror.
If we have children, particularly daughters we need to talk positively and proudly about our own bodies and their bodies. If we notice our children touching their genitals, I believe we need to positively affirm that doing this feels nice and then gently talk about the importance of doing this in a safe private space such as a bathroom or bedroom.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that with cultural and religious massages passed down so many centuries women struggle to enjoy and celebrate their bodies, and these keep them in a place of shame which significantly impacts the ability to experience sexual pleasure with their partner.
Society is changing. We are starting to have more positive discussions about menstruation, the menopause, gender equality and celebrating being female and all that encompasses. As Christian women we should be at the forefront of these discussion, shouting loud and proud: “For you created my innermost being you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your worked are wonderful, I know that full well.” Psalm 139:13-14.