When I was in high school, I ferried more than one friend down to my town’s branch of Planned Parenthood for a pregnancy prevention method after they revealed to me they had become sexually active. My mother gave birth to me when she was 17—it was unplanned—so I had grown up aware that magical beliefs or ignorance didn’t protect anyone from pregnancy. I wanted my friends to be smart about sex.
I eventually landed in my high school principal’s office for writing and publishing an article in the school newspaper about Planned Parenthood and all the services it offered. Later, I wrote a comprehensive article about various methods of contraception and how to access them for a newspaper with a focus on supplying knowledge to vulnerable teenagers who had fled abusive homes.
So, as my two daughters grew up, the “sex” talk should have been a piece of cake. Except that I forgot one important thing about being an “enlightened (aka cool) mom”: The next-to-last person a pubescent girl wants to talk about sex with is her mother. I had read all of the advice columns that suggested that kids would ask questions as they became curious. My girls asked me nothing. When I tried to bring it up, they fled from the room.
It was those memories of my failed attempts at talking to my girls about “the wonder down under” that came to mind while reading an eponymous new guide written by Norwegian sex educators Ellen Støkken Dahl and Nina Brochmann. I found myself wishing that I had possessed this book not only when I had been in my teens and first sexually active, but also as a mother. The book seeks to answer many a young woman’s questions about sexual anatomy. Topics include the anatomy of the clitoris, whether shaving one’s pubic hair makes sex better, and how to tell when you’re “in the mood” for sex. And the book is not limited to cisgender heterosexual girls: The educators regularly include discussions of lesbian desire and a discussion of how “gender” is not a term that refers only to male/female by discussing, from a medical standpoint, “genetic,” “physical,” and “psychological” gender.
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Thankfully for my girls, they had close friends, and as the collective moms of my daughters’ friends discovered, sometimes it was easier to speak to a trusted female adult who wasn’t your mom. I heard from friends when my daughters’ questions had been asked, and I shared when their daughters asked questions of me. The girls were aware of this. That information was being supplemented by their school’s comprehensive sex education program. The only promise I extracted from my daughters was that when they felt ready to have sex, they would ask me to make an appointment with the gynecologist for them, which I would do without moral judgments. We all kept our end of that bargain.
Had The Wonder Down Under: A User’s Guide to the Vagina been around at that time, things may have been a lot easier, as the girls could’ve consulted the authors for answers to questions they were too shy to ask their mom. The guide comprises six sections: genitals; discharge and periods; sex; contraception; abortion; and “trouble down below,” which provides information on various types of infection and conditions such as endometriosis. The book does not include a section on pregnancy because the authors argue that those questions are better answered in the many guides to the 40 weeks of pregnancy that are out there. And in the section on abortion, Støkken Dahl and Brochmann discuss the sequence of events to expect with RU-486–the more common form of pregnancy termination in Europe—offering minimum information about surgical abortion. Because the book is more of an educational resource than political tome, it does not get into the complexity of abortion as a personal/moral/religious decision.
The book is written in a tone that comes across as an older, experienced sister speaking to a younger sister. And while its message is decidedly sex-positive, it makes sure to deconstruct the idea that the desire for sexual intercourse is a natural drive. Instead, they argue that sex is a “reward,” based on the writings of Emily Nagoski, whose book, Come As You Are, presents new scientific evidence about female sexuality that disrupts previous interpretations of women’s desires from male standpoints. Write Støkken Dahl and Brochmann:
As long as sex gives enjoyment and is pleasurable, it’s like a natural drug for the brain: we want to have more. Desire is stimulated and we begin to seek out situations in which we can get sex. And that’s where we come to Nagoski’s important point: If sex doesn’t serve as a reward for you, e.g., because it’s painful, carries associations with earlier assaults, or is just plain boring, your desire diminishes. The system only works as long as sex serves as a reward for the brain. In other words, we’re not born with a sexual appetite, we become sexually desirous.
In another discussion, the authors discuss first-time sex, and do a lot to demolish myths about virginity. The biggest myth, which has proven fatal in countries where religious dogma has the force of law, is the belief that first-time sex involves tearing the hymen, thus causing a woman to bleed. These myths even extend to pop culture mainstays such as the HBO series True Blood and the CW’s Jane the Virgin, which perpetuate notions of copious bleeding confirming virginity. The educators then provide lots of information about the anatomy of the hymen, demonstrating that only about 50 percent—on average—of hymens will “tear” during first sexual intercourse.
I must admit that when I first read this section, I became furious all over again at the lengths that many women are forced to go to in order to make sure they bleed on their wedding night. In the western period referred to as the “Middle Ages,” elaborate wedding-night ceremonies saw couples put to bed with witnesses to make certain the marriage was consummated and that the bride bled upon the sheets. Those ceremonies still exist in various cultures—Armenia, Georgia, and Tonga, for example—and the consequences for not being a virgin can be dire. In a novel about Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad, Jasmin Darznik writes of how the poet’s marriage was destroyed after an invasive virginity test tore her hymen prior to her wedding night. It’s bad enough that the patriarchal emphasis on virginity has led to suppression of women; learning that bleeding hymens are poor predictors of virginity feels like yet another example of fantasy thinking that gets women killed. And some women are anxious enough about the issue that some will pay thousands of dollars to have a hymen surgically “restored.”
The section on sex also provides helpful information on orgasms—or not—including information on positions that facilitate more stimulation of the clitoris, sex toys, and, of course, masturbation. And while they stress that it’s not necessary to have an orgasm every time, they also provide their version of an “orgasm bible” that provides a ton of information on how to improve one’s chances.
It’s clear that both Støkken Dahl and Brochmann approach the issues of contraceptives and disease prevention from a scientific position. The various contraceptive methods are presented with both pregnancy-prevention and disease-prevention in mind, although the authors’ discussion of disease emphasizes that it is not a moral judgment, a punishment, or anything other than a biological process that sometimes occurs from human contact. And their discussion of herpes is one of the best that I’ve ever read: a focus on its ubiquity among humans rather than a discussion of how having herpes will ruin your life. If it sounds like they’re diminishing the threat of sexually transmitted infections, rest assured, they’re not. But they also do not preach the “sex is death” version of disease prevention so popular among those whose moral beliefs have turned sex-education into abstinence-only-until-
Their discussion of contraceptives is practical, in that it asks questions about convenience and the need for consistency, and scientific, in that it presents a handy chart showing the differences between “perfect” use and “expected” use. The authors emphasize that even a perfect form of birth control will not work if the person using it doesn’t follow directions. Their discussion of hormonal birth control includes known risks, such as headaches, weight gain, blood clots, and stroke. But Støkken Dahl and Brochmann make the point that those who argue that hormonal contraception is not “natural” misrepresent the occurrence of side effects among those who use the pill.
The “anti-hormone” crowd puts emphasis on the idea that hormonal birth control is some kind of threat to the body, but many of their arguments rest on a notion of “nature” that rejects science. They see taking a pill as the introduction of a foreign substance into the body. In articles on “natural mother” sites and even in some of the more mainstream press, articles that urge women to consider non-hormonal alternatives hype the “risks” as if they are common, and warn that many users will end up with blood clots, or suffering from strokes at an early age, or dying from reproductive cancers. Many of these scary articles substitute feelings for data.
In The Wonder Down Under, the discussion of what constitutes a side effect is especially informative and the authors also discuss “risk” and “side effect” in pages of interesting scientific detail. It is clear that both Støkken Dahl and Brochmann have anticipated a lot of criticism from those who worry about taking medication to prevent pregnancy, and they answer many of the common objections on the merits of the scientific evidence.
The most valuable discussion of contraception is presented in a “Contraception Guide” at the end of the chapter. Rather than focus on percentage rates of failure, the guide asks readers to evaluate what the most important aspects of birth control are for them. Thus, suggestions are made for those for whom avoiding pregnancy is the number-one priority, but also which contraceptives to go with if “I’m at high risk for blood clots, stroke, or heart attack,” or “I have endometriosis,” or “I want to hide my method of contraception from other people.” These are just a few examples of the eleven scenarios women have most often presented to the authors, and they provide advice for all of them.
If you’ve been looking for a way to introduce the topic to a daughter, sister, niece, friend, or lover, or if you want to learn more about your own body, The Wonder Down Under is a terrific way to go. Despite my own sense that I was well-informed about sex and reproduction, I had a number of moments when I learned new things about my body and women’s health. I didn’t know about the prevalence of endometriosis, nor that the structure of the clitoris is so extensive, nor how declarations of sex as a “basic need” misinterpret the myriad ways our desire operates.
I do wish that the authors had provided some basic scripts for women who wished to start discussions with their health providers, their lovers, or others. The authors seem to assume that if readers have this information, they will speak up for themselves at their next annual exam, or the next time they have sex. Even when many of us know what is correct or what we want, we can struggle to figure out how to bring up these topics. Just as they provide handy charts and guides to orgasm or birth control, I would have loved to see a list of suggested conversation starters or a checklist of questions for a doctor.
And of course, because this book was written originally for a Scandinavian audience, there’s an assumption made that everyone wants women to be well-informed about their bodies and confident about sex. Here in the United States, where access to birth control is being lost, seemingly by the hour, knowing how emergency contraception works isn’t going to do you much good if a pharmacist decides that it’s against their “moral code” to give it to you without an argument. But in a book that aims to provide women with a scientific guide to their own bodies, perhaps the feeling was that the politics would be a distraction from the information.
This is a handy guide to sexual anatomy. Its user-friendly layout and judgment-free discussions offer lots of information. Whether used as an introductory guide for young women or to answer questions when you think you “know it all,” this book has multiple uses and offers moments of delight. In the midst of a time period where women are under constant attack because of our bodies, this celebration of the wonder down under is refreshing.