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Viva La Vulva: A Culture of Sex Positivity

Jenna Luxon talks to York student Phoebe Crossing about creating sex and body positivity project Viva La Vulva

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Image Credit: Phoebe Crossing

Like most British 20-somethings, when you say the words ‘sex education’ to me, my mind immediately jumps back to sitting in a secondary school classroom where the only person in the room who wanted to be there less than you, was the poor maths teacher being made to stand in front of a room full of rowdy teenagers and spout forth something that was educational in name only.

These hopeless classes, taught you nothing you didn’t already know and ended with little plastic sperm key rings being handed to you on the way out, seemingly as some kind of bizarre reward for making it through the hour(I’m sincerely hoping that’s a universal practice and not some weird quirk at my school only.)

All that this national curriculum variety of sex education really taught anyone was that learning about sex, relationships and our bodies in general, was something to gloss over. It is something no one really wants to talk about in too much depth, a subject that is covered to tick a box, but if you want any specifics you better go and find them out for yourself.

And of course, teenagers do. They go and find their education elsewhere, from those oh-so-reputable sources of the media and pornography. It is here that individuals and society as a whole begin to encounter some serious problems, as the images we find are not and were never designed to be educational ,they are nowhere near reality, in fact in most cases they could not be further from it.

This insufficient education and the dangerously unrealistic imagery found in pornography and the media hold many problems for us all. The first being that they perpetuate an environment where talking about sex and our bodies is not normal or comfortable. It is something you joke about, something confined to a game of ‘never have I ever’ at pres but not for a serious conversation over a coffee with a friend. It creates an environment where asking questions about sex and our bodies is unusual and unwelcome,where we go out on our own to find information and simply assume what we find is factual –spoiler alert, most of the time it’s not.

These are all issues that third-year York Midwifery student Phoebe Crossing is concerned about .Back in March earlier this year, Phoebe set up her project Viva La Vulva Casting to challenge the damaging ideas that poor education, the media, pornography and so many other factors in society perpetuate about female genitalia specifically. Phoebe’s project uses plaster casting techniques to educate those with a vulva about their anatomy, spreading body and sex positivity in the process, and is a perfect example of an art project doing the work that other institutions are failing to.

After being inspired by her own experience casting her vulva while travelling in Germany, Viva La Vulva Casting began with Phoebe just running casual one-to-one vulva casting sessions from her home. Yet in just the short time since then, the project has grown dramatically allowing Phoebe to now use a studio space in York and run larger group workshops.

If the term ‘vulva casting’ has left you drawing a blank, then you are most certainly not alone: Phoebe’s project is often met with confusion. What Viva La Vulva Casting workshops allow people to do is make a plaster cast of their vulva, which are the external female sex organs. The process of casting is entirely private. The materials are mixed by Phoebe, who also provides instructions but the process of casting itself is completed entirely by the individual themselves. Whilst this may seem like an unusual idea at first, the motivations behind this project are fascinating.

Phoebe herself is a fierce believer in the importance of sexual health education and sex and body positivity. Through her vulva casting workshops she aims to give people the opportunity to connect with and learn about their bodies. Giving female genitalia a spotlight in this way and designing a space for the appreciation and education of this part of anatomy is of great importance in our society that generally teaches us to ignore vulvas.

What casting as a process allows, that other forms of art do not, is for a personal involvement in the art creation process. As individuals apply the cast to their bodies themselves, they have the opportunity to connect to their bodies and learn what it looks and feels like. The process of creating the art is as personal and empowering as the final product.

What is also key for choosing casting as a method (as opposed to photography or drawing for example) is that casting captures the vulva perfectly, recording every tiny detail of the body in actual size yet not in a graphic or sexualised way. This makes it ideal for the educational purpose it is used for yetis separate enough from the body for the focus to be on the real aesthetic of the vulva not the sexuality of the person it belongs to. Where photography of genitalia may be associated with pornography, casting strikes the perfect balance between intimacy and accuracy.

What Viva La Vulva Casting does alongside allowing individuals to learn about their bodies, is raise a broader awareness of vulva diversity. In 2016, intimate care brand Bodyform reported that 73 per cent of women don’t technically know what a vulva is and that 42 percent of women have felt embarrassed about their vulva. This percentage increases to 63 percent amongst 18-24 year olds.

It is not surprising therefore,that this same study found there was a 45 percent year on year increase in labiaplasty or vulval surgery. This is an operation that alters the appearance of the vulva by shortening or reshaping the labia minora or the flaps of skin either side of the vaginal opening.

While there are some rare instances when labiaplasty may be medically necessary,in the majority of cases it is a cosmetic decision. Despite the fact it is entirely normal to have noticeable skin folds around the vaginal opening, more and more women are choosing to have this operation.

Along with the usual dangers associated with any operation, this procedure (that costs anywhere between £2,000 and £4,000) can have side effects of soreness, bruising and swelling. The surgery can also result in bleeding, infection, scar tissue and reduced sensitivity in the genitals which can reduce sexual pleasure.

The fact is that unless you’re having sexual experiences with other people with vulvas,you’re probably not going to come into contact with anyone’s but your own. This means that for many, pornography is one of the very few places where female genitalia are seen. However, the images it represents get no where near to representing the diversity of what natural and healthy genitalia can look like.Yet this extremely narrow perception of what a vulva looks like causes women to judge their bodies as not living up to these expectations and in turn to feel shame, embarrassment or inadequacy, increasingly leading women to opt for expensive and potentially dangerous cosmetic surgery to reach what they incorrectly perceive to be the norm.

The dangers of these distorted ideas about what your genitalia should look like,and these feelings of shame and embarrassment, extend beyond the risk of doctors charging women ridiculous amounts of money to perform medically unnecessary surgery. There are many other consequences that affect all those who perceive their vulva to be in someway inadequate - whether they are considering, or more to the point can afford, surgery to alter that or not. These feelings brought about by unrealistic imagery and poor education can seriously affect women’s self esteem: it affects their ability to love themselves and by extension to love others.The ability for these people to connect and develop their sexual relationships, whether that be with themselves or with a partner are implicated too seriously. Like so many issues,this is an instance where the effects on the individual are part and parcel of the effects on society. The way individuals think about their bodies, sex and the way their personal relationships and mental health are affected are implicated by the practices of society in general, by the way we talk about and show bodies in education and the media. At the same it is us as individuals who make up society, it is our responsibility when we see a problem like this one in our culture and in our selves to rectify this in whatever way we can.

This is why projects like Viva La Vulva Casting are of such great importance to everyone in society,not just those who have a vulva. They create a space for an accepting and educational discourse about our bodies. They allow for the reality of what our bodies look like to be given focus as opposed to what we are told they look like. In the long run projects likes Viva La Vulva Casting are telling us that our bodies do not need to fit in to some idea we or anyone else has in their minds of what they should look like. Crucially it educates us all about vulva diversity which will, in turn, hopefully help to curb the worrying trend of increased genital cosmetic surgery among women.

Phoebe runs workshops throughout the year in York and is hoping to arrange workshops in cities across the north in the near future.

If you are interested in attending a vulvacasting workshop or simply finding out more about Phoebe’s project you can follow her Instagram @vivalavulvacasting or email vivalavulvacasting@gmail.com

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