Commentary Sexual Health

Vulvas and Vaginas Smell Like, Well, Vulvas and Vaginas

Martha Kempner

Judging by Internet users' Google searches, individuals have a lot of anxiety about the way their genitals smell. But the best thing to do is get used to the scent and learn to love it.

Last week, Rewire began examining the research of economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, who recently analyzed Google data to gain insights about what Americans are really thinking about sex. His results, which he reviewed in a piece for the New York Timessuggest that people in the United States have some real anxiety about our genitals.

As we discussed last week, users identified as men seem to be focused on whether their penises are big enough. When it comes to female genitalia, however, the issue isn’t the size—it’s the scent. According to Stephens-Davidowitz, most inquiries into vaginas seem to be related to health issues, but about 30 percent focus on how to shave them, tighten them, and make them taste better. And then there are the questions about how they smell: “Women are most frequently concerned that their vaginas smell like fish, followed by vinegar, onions, ammonia, garlic, cheese, body odor, urine, bread, bleach, feces, sweat, metal, feet, garbage, and rotten meat.” Although male-identified users don’t ask Google all that many questions about female genitalia, when they do, odor is usually the issue. In fact, Stephens-Davidowitz reports that the most frequent search attributed to men on this subject is about how to tell a woman that she doesn’t smell all that good. (My answer to that, by the way, would be: “Don’t.”)

Part Two of this series will focus on allaying those concerns: Most often, vulvas and vaginas smell like, well, vulvas and vaginas.

Before We Talk Scent, Let’s Talk Name

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In his research Stephens-Davidowitz looked at Google searches for the word “vagina,” which is not surprising: Most people—those who don’t default to “hoo-ha” or “va-jay-jay,” anyway—tend to use “vagina” to refer to female genitalia as a whole. Unfortunately, this isn’t really accurate and can cause some confusion. The vagina is actually on the inside: It is the muscle that connects the uterus to the outside of a person’s body. Though some think of it as an eternally open tunnel, most of the time, the walls of the vagina are touching. If a penis or tampon goes in, or a baby comes out, the vagina stretches to the necessary size. (It doesn’t stay stretched, however: The muscle is very elastic.)

Instead, the parts that most people are probably asking about are the external parts of female genitals, collectively called the vulva. Essentially, the vulva is made up of everything one can see—and most likely smell—between a person’s legs, which includes the mons pubis (the fatty tissue that covers the pubic bone); the labia majora and labia minora (the outer and inner lips); the clitoral hood (which protects the clitoris); the clitoris (the only human body part that has no other function than pleasure); urethral opening (the hole where urine comes out); and the opening to the vagina.

So What Should Vulvas Smell Like?

This is a hard question to answer, because every person’s vulva smells different and everyone’s nose has its own opinion. In their book Read My Lips, experts Debby Herbenick and Vanessa Schick suggest that vulvas smell like salt, yeast, or slightly sour milk. I’ve heard other people relate the smell to foods like fish or onions, which arose in Stephens-Davidowitz’s research—as did sweat, which makes sense, given that vulvas have a lot of sweat glands to help cool them and the body down. The word that comes to my mind most is “musky.”

All of these variations are perfectly normal. And it’s also normal for the smell to vary a little bit depending on where people are in their cycle, what soap they used, what laundry detergent they washed their underwear with, and if they just had sex. There is also some evidence that someone’s diet can impact their scent. Research from Oregon State University has suggested that eating foods with strong scents of their own—such as coffee, onions, or garlic—as well as consuming excessive meat, dairy, or alcohol could make for a stronger-smelling vulva. (To be clear, it’s not a direct connection; you won’t end up with latte-scented genitals if you hit up Starbucks too many times.) The researchers suggested that avoiding these foods and eating a lot of whole grains, fruits, and veggies could lead to a milder-smelling vulva. That said, any changes caused by diet are likely minor, and it seems silly to forgo your favorite garlic bread or medium-rare hamburger for this reason alone.

People should know what their own vulvas generally smell like, though, because some infections can change that normal scent. If you notice anything radically different, get it checked out by a health-care provider. Otherwise, don’t worry, and remember that some people find the scent of a vulva to be an integral part of sexual experiences.

Taking Care of Your Vulva Is Easy (Do Almost Nothing)

Some of the other Google searches Stephens-Davidowitz found suggested that vulvas smelled like urine or feces. This makes some sense: The urethral opening is part of the vulva and the rectum is not that far away. By the end of the day, some smells may be shared. All I can say here is that some basic maintenance—wipe carefully from front-to-back every time you go to the bathroom, so as not to get germs from feces on one’s vulva—will go a long way. Regular showers are also a given.

There are lots of companies that would like you to believe you need special body washes and perfumes for “down there,” but I have to call foul on that. Washing one’s vulva with normal body soap should work fine, unless the area is particularly sensitive, in which case unscented or delicate soaps will do the trick. And don’t bother with the fragrances, as they can be irritating.

As for the vagina itself, no cleaning is necessary. The internal organ cleans itself through secretions. Douching—the practice of forcing water or chemicals into the vagina to clean it—has been found to be harmful. It can increase the risk of some sexually transmitted infections, as well as a common infection called bacterial vaginosis (BV), which happens when the delicate balance of “healthy bacteria” to “unhealthy bacteria” is thrown off. BV (which isn’t considered an STI) is more annoying than it is dangerous, but it can increase the risk of contracting STIs; pregnant people with BV are more likely to deliver early and have low birth-weight babies.

And, here’s something I never thought I’d have to say—don’t steam-clean your vagina. This hopefully rare practice made news a few weeks ago when Gwyneth Paltrow, actress and proprietor of the lifestyle website goop.com, described a spa treatment she had recently had: “The real golden ticket here is the Mugworth V-Steam: You sit on what is essentially a mini-throne, and a combination of infrared and mugwort steam cleanses your uterus, et al.”

As many doctors have written about since, there is no scientific evidence that V-steaming is helpful and there is no reason to clean your uterus—it does that itself every month by shedding the inner lining during menstruation. It is also unlikely that without forcing it up there (which could be really dangerous), the steam is getting anywhere near the uterus. Most of the time the cervical opening to the uterus, called the os, is only open wide enough for sperm to get in or menses to get out. It is only during childbirth that the cervix would dilate enough for anything like steam to get through.

Whether or not the steam gets all the way up there is irrelevant, though, because it can harm the vagina along the way by throwing off the balance of bacteria, like douching does. Unlike douching, however, there is also the potential for burns—clearly something no one wants.

It’s Your Smell

If your or your partner’s vulva smells pretty much like it did yesterday, last week, or the last time you had sex, then that’s its natural, normal smell. It’s part of you or part of them. Though Google will probably point to a lot of advice on this subject, no search is going to come up with a safe or proven way to change it. If there really is too much of a urine or sweat scent for you or your partner to be comfortable, consider adding a shower and some soapy loving as a prelude to whatever else you had planned for the night. But don’t resort to special soaps, perfumes, douches, or steams. The best thing to do is get used to the scent and learn to love it.

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: Women Want More Sex Than Men Think, and Who Needs a $15K Vibrator?

Martha Kempner

This week, there's not enough of an important syphilis drug to go around, a new study shows that men don't know how much sex their female partners want, a beer company unveils a new same-sex marriage ad, and a sex toy recommended by Gwyneth Paltrow's website is gold (literally).

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Temporary Penicillin Shortage Could Be Dangerous for Pregnant Women with Syphilis

The development of antibiotics in the 1940s ushered in a new era in which bacterial infections—including syphilis, one of the oldest sexually transmitted infections (STIs)—could be treated or cured. With that came the ability to prevent congenital syphilis, which occurs when a pregnant woman passes the bacteria to her infant. Congenital syphilis can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, severe illness in the infant, and even early infant death. And, as Rewire recently reported, it is on the rise; between 2012 and 2014, there was a 38 percent increase in the rate of congenital syphilis.

The good news is that if a pregnant woman is treated with an antibiotic at least 30 days before giving birth, there is a 98 percent cure rate, meaning her infant would not be born infected. The bad news is that, until next month, there is a shortage of the one antibiotic approved for treating syphilis in pregnant women.

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Bicillin L-A, an injectable form of penicillin that is also used to treat other infections such as strep throat, is manufactured by Pfizer. The company said in April that it was experiencing “an unanticipated delay in manufacturing,” and that it would be shipping just 30 percent of the usual supply until July.

Typically, pregnant women are tested for syphilis during their first prenatal visit. If infected, they are treated with three injections of Bicillin L-A. In an attempt to keep these routine “test and treat” efforts going despite the shortage, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has asked that health-care providers refrain from prescribing Bicillin L-A for any infection other than syphilis if other treatments are available.

Supply issues are unfortunately common in the pharmaceutical industry. NPR explains that generic, injectable drugs—like Bicillin L-A—are particularly susceptible to shortages because they are difficult to make but cheap to purchase, meaning few drug companies manufacture them. If those companies experience a difficulty in manufacturing that forces them to shut down temporarily, such as rust in the equipment or mold in the factory, there is no other supplier to pick up the slack.

Luckily, Pfizer expects to be back to full capacity on Bicillin L-A by July, which will help make sure there are no disruptions to efforts to prevent congenital syphilis. This is particularly important given the number of cases that have been seen in recent years and the seriousness of the outcomes. In 2014, there were 438 nationwide cases of congenital syphilis, which led to 25 stillbirths and eight deaths within 30 days of birth.

Women Want More Sex than Their Male Partners Think

There is an enduring myth that men always want sex and women, well, not so much. It turns out that women in long-term relationships with men want more sex than their partners realize. To determine if perception and reality differed, researchers conducted three studies with couples—44 couples in the first study, 84 in the second, and 101 in the third. All but ten were opposite-sex couples.

Though questions varied according to the study, each participant was asked to keep a diary that recorded some combination of the following factors: their own sexual desire; relationship satisfaction; commitment to their partner; and their perception of their partner’s sexual desire, relationship satisfaction, and commitment. Couples were also asked to keep a log of their sexual activity. Couples in the third study were asked to record how motivated they were to avoid sexual rejection on any given day.

While men in the study did report higher levels of sexual desire than their female partners, what was more striking was that across all three studies men consistently underestimated their partner’s desire. The researchers are not sure why men’s perceptions were so frequently off but they have at least two theories.

First, as Amy Muise, the lead author on the study, told Fusion via email it might be about avoiding complacency: “We don’t know exactly what men do when they underperceive, but it’s possible that this keeps them from becoming lazy about maintaining their partner’s interest.”

Alternatively, men may perceive less desire from their partners as a way to avoid sexual rejection. This is supported by the additional finding that men were particularly likely to underestimate their partner’s desire on days when they felt ill-equipped to handle rejection.

Of course, it could just be that men have been trained by every television show, movie, and magazine to believe that women just don’t want sex as much as they do.

No matter where the misperception comes from, the results of this study once again point out how important it is for couples to communicate openly and honestly about what they want and how often they want it.

Bud Light Ad Celebrates Same-Sex Marriage

While Budweiser ads of the past seem to have mostly celebrated bikini-clad women and Clydesdale horses, a new ad released in honor of LGBT Pride Month takes a big turn for the beer company. The ad depicts scenes of a wedding and features actor Seth Rogan and comedienne Amy Schumer leading a beer-bottle toast to the groom and the groom.

The company said in a press release: “June is the height of wedding season, and it is also LGBT Pride [M]onth in America. That’s why right now is the time to spark a national conversation by celebrating every kind of wedding—and everyone’s right to marry whoever they choose.”

The ad was released in partnership with Ellen DeGeneres and first appeared on her social media channels. The company will continue to air the ad on social media and plans a primetime television airing as well.

Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop Suggests a Gold-Plated Vibrator

You may remember when Goop, the lifestyle site launched by Oscar-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow, suggested steam-cleaning vaginas with the herb multwort, a practice that was roundly criticized by experts as unnecessary (the vagina cleans itself) and potentially dangerous (steam is hot). Goop made news again recently with a sexual-health suggestion that may be good for vaginas, but not so great for bank accounts.

Suggested on the website’s list of favorite sex toys was the LELO INEZ, a 24-karat gold vibrator that costs $15,000. Other pricey toys included a whip for $535 and a vibrating necklace for $395.

We here at This Week in Sex are all for sex toys. But we want to assure you that there a lot of good sex toys out there that won’t break the bank. You should be able to find some reliable toys for between $35 and $65 and even less, if you want to visit a local pharmacy and find vibrating rings (which, as an added bonus, are often packaged with a condom).

Analysis Violence

Missing and Murdered: No One Knows How Many Native Women Have Disappeared

Mary Annette Pember

“When Native women go missing, they are very likely to be dead," said Carmen O’Leary, coordinator of the Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains in South Dakota.

This piece, the second installment, was cross-posted from Indian Country Today with permission as part of a ​joint series​ about the missing and murdered Native women in the United States and Canada. You can read the other pieces in the series here.

Although Trudi Lee was only 7 when her big sister went missing back in 1971, she wept when she talked about that traumatic event 45 years later. “Sometimes I would catch our mom crying alone,” Lee said. “She would never tell me why, but I knew it was over Janice.”

Janice was 15 when she went missing near the Yakama reservation in Washington. Although her parents reported her missing to tribal law enforcement, there was never any news of the lively, pretty girl. “Mom died in 2001 without ever knowing what happened,” Lee said. “We still think of Janice and would at least like to put her to rest in the family burial plot.”

“It happens all the time in Indian country,” said Carmen O’Leary, coordinator of the Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains in South Dakota, a coalition of Native programs that provide services to women who experience violence. “When Native women go missing, they are very likely to be dead.”

Indeed, on some reservations, Native women are murdered at more than ten times the national average, according to U.S. Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, who presented that gruesome statistic while addressing the Committee on Indian Affairs on Violence Against Women in 2011.

Unlike Canada, where Indigenous leaders and advocates have pressured the government to begin to confirm the numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women, the United States has done little to address the issue.

Although the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the Tribal Law and Order Act (TLOA) have helped bring attention to this high rate of violence and have begun to address gaps in law enforcement for tribes and federal authorities, there is no comprehensive data collection system regarding the number of missing and murdered women in Indian country.

Under VAWA 2005, a national study authorized by Congress found that between 1979 and 1992 homicide was the third leading cause of death among Native women ages 15 to 34, and that 75 percent were killed by family members or acquaintances.

And that horrific toll might actually be higher. “The number of missing Native women was not addressed in the study,” noted Jacqueline Agtuca, lawyer and policy consultant for the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center. “Currently, we do not have adequate information on the numbers of missing Native women in the U.S.”

The high rates of sexual violence against Native women are inextricably tied to the likelihood of them going missing; violence, disappearance, and murder are closely interconnected. “Tribal leaders, police officers, and prosecutors tell us of an all-too-familiar pattern of escalating violence that goes unaddressed, with beating after beating, each more severe than the last, ultimately leading to death or severe physical injury,” Perrelli said in his 2011 speech.

According to advocates like O’Leary, there is little hard data about missing and murdered women, only anecdotes that tell of the pain, loss, and anger of loved ones. “Missing and murdered Native women are a non-story in this country. You really don’t hear about them unless you happen to know the family. Officially, these cases seem to get brushed under the rug. No one wants to talk about them,” she said.

Indeed, law enforcement officials questioned for this article seemed reluctant to discuss the issue.

According to NamUS, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, there are approximately 40,000 unidentified human remains either in the offices of the nation’s medical examiners and coroners or that were buried or cremated before being identified. NamUs, operated by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), is a national repository and resource center for missing persons and unidentified decedent records. It offers a free online search system.

Troy Eid, former U.S. attorney for the State of Colorado, notes that protocols for taking missing person’s reports and sharing with other agencies vary widely among tribal law enforcement. “Some offices may simply write down the information or may not record it at all,” Eid said.

Eid served on the Indian Law and Order Commission created under TLOA. After two years of field research, he and fellow commissioner released the report, A Roadmap for Making Native America Safer, in 2013. The report describes law enforcement jurisdiction in Indian country as “an indefensible morass of complex, conflicting and illogical commands,” and blames the U.S. government for creating the situation.

Of the 12 tribal law enforcement agencies contacted for this article about procedures for taking missing person’s reports, just three responded: The Navajo Nation of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah; the Barona Band of Mission Indians in California; and Red Lake Band of Chippewa in Minnesota. All reported that they have designated protocols for taking reports as well as computer terminals that can access the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database.

As far as tribal law enforcement working with other agencies, federal and local, Eid noted that those relationships also vary widely: “The relationships swing from good to almost nothing, and even to outright hostility.”

To help address such issues under the direction of the 2010 TLOA, the DOJ announced the launch of the initial phase of the Tribal Access Program for National Crime Information in 2015, in which tribes would be able to both report and access crime information in the federal NCIC database. Ten tribes were selected to participate in the pilot program and were to receive NCIC terminals. DOJ officials did not respond to questions about the number of tribes that currently have access to the NCIC terminals nor to questions regarding funding for future tribal access.

Although the Tulalip Tribe is among the ten participating in the project, it has yet to receive a NCIC terminal despite offering to pay for it, according to tribal attorney Michelle Demmert. “We need full access now to this database. I doubt that any other municipality or state would need to work so hard to justify meeting the needs of the community,” she said.

Native peoples are not the only ones who are underserved by America’s approach to helping to find and identify missing persons. Reveal, a project with the Center for Investigative Reporting, published an extensive investigation in 2015, “Left for Dead: How America Fails the Missing and Unidentified,” which lays out how U.S. authorities mishandle these reports. According to the article, the FBI refused to provide access to its data on unidentified remains despite requests from Reveal under the Freedom of Information Act.

Clearly, missing persons and unidentified remains are not a top priority for law enforcement. But for Native women, whose numbers may be greater and whose loss may go unreported, the issue reflects a wider systemic failure of the United States to meet its trust agreement with tribal nations.

“There is so much fear and distrust of law enforcement among our people that they are often reluctant to report loved ones as missing or to report sexual assault,” noted O’Leary.

This fear adds to the lack of accurate data not only about missing and murdered women but also about those who have been raped. Contacting law enforcement can bring unwanted scrutiny to women who are victims of violent crime.

As an example of that, O’Leary pointed to the 2015 abduction of Edith Chavez from Minnesota, in which Chavez suspects she was drugged and taken to Williston, North Dakota. She managed to escape and reported the incident to Williston police who refused to take her statement and instead checked her record. The result? They detained and charged her for an unpaid traffic ticket from 2011.

According to the Guardian, the Williston police department did not respond to requests for comment but instead issued a press release claiming Chavez had smelled of alcohol and had been to a casino. Police later dropped charges against Chavez.

“Native women are not often seen as worthy victims. We have to first prove our innocence, that we weren’t drunk or out partying,“ said O’Leary.

According to Laura Madison, who along with Lauren Chief Elk helped launch the Save Wiyabi Project, “Indigenous women go missing twice: Once in real life and a second time in the news.”