Review: 'Vagina Obscura', by Rachel E. Gross

obscure VAGINA An anatomical journey By Rachel E. Gross Your vagina is a mystery, an enigma, a world largely unexplored, underestimated...


obscure VAGINA
An anatomical journey
By Rachel E. Gross

Your vagina is a mystery, an enigma, a world largely unexplored, underestimated and misunderstood since the beginning of humanity. It holds more secrets than the Sphinx and can seem more distant than Mars, more unknown than the ocean floor. Because until recent decades – when people with vaginas made strenuous strides in science and health – the pursuit of this knowledge was left to men. To put it lightly, they blew it.

As Rachel E. Gross demonstrates in “Vagina Obscura,” the impact of this neglect cannot be overstated. Taking readers on a vast journey across continents, cultures, centuries and even species, Gross reveals a startling disparity in Western medicine and academia: while huge sums of money and dedication are invested in the understanding of penises, the female body is ignored. Like tradition, this misinformation and shame is still passed on to girls today.

Gross experienced this “knowledge gap” firsthand at age 29, when she was prescribed what was “essentially rat poison” to treat a bacterial infection in her vagina. That’s when she realized “I knew next to nothing about how my vagina worked” – and no one else really does either.

She cites Darwin’s diary entry stating that a woman’s purpose was to be “a sweet, beautiful wife”, “an object to be loved and played with.” Better than a dog anyway. Freud, who admitted he knew little about women (that “little creature without a penis”), would influence gynecology throughout the 20th century, and even today.

It wasn’t until 1993 that a federal mandate required that “women and minorities” be included in clinical trials. It wasn’t until 2014 that the National Institutes of Health opened a branch to study vulvas, vaginas, ovaries, and uteri. And in 2009, bioengineer Linda Griffith opened the first and only US lab (at MIT) for endometriosis research. “My 16-year-old niece was just diagnosed,” Griffith says in the book. “And there’s no better treatment for her – 30 years younger than me – than for me when I was 16.”

In the 1980s, medical textbooks called endometriosis “the disease of the career woman” – language that had been recirculated for generations. A century earlier, coinciding with the first wave of feminism in Europe, doctors – underpinned by Freud’s 1895 “Studies in Hysteria” – suggested that higher education and careers “could siphon the blood of their uterus to their brain”. In the 1870s, higher education was thought to “shrink a woman’s ovaries and prevent her from fulfilling her maternal duties”.

Of course, the word “hysteria” – derived from the Greek hysterical, or womb – has been used to degrade women for centuries, as one of the first mental health issues attributed solely to them. Gross adds to this story the recent argument that hysteria was endometriosis all along. If true, “it would constitute one of the most colossal mass misdiagnoses in human history,” according to a 2012 paper by Iranian endometriosis surgeons, who “subjected women to murders, madhouses and lives of relentless physical, social and psychological pain.”

Gross undertakes a Herculean task, exploring female anatomy from a medical, social and historical perspective, in eight chapters whose subject matter ranges from the glans of the clitoris to the ovum to the vaginal microbiome. Some passages are medically dense and can make the delicate wince. But Gross manages to make sawing up corpses and injecting silicone into two-pronged snake vaginas acceptable, without undermining the seriousness of the resulting revelations.

She does this through personal stories, such as those of Miriam Menkin, the first researcher to fertilize a human egg outside the body; OB-GYN Ghada Hatem, which performs clitoral restoration surgery on women who have undergone genital mutilation; Aminata Soumare, a young French girl whose clitoris was excised as a baby in Mali; and gynecologist Marci Bowers, who has elevated gender-affirming surgery to an art form, prioritizing building a functioning, responsive clitoris.

And it’s no wonder the clitoris has been “demonized, dismissed, and left in the garbage heap of history.” An organ that exists almost entirely below the surface of the body, it has been called “shameful member», or « the shameful member », by a French anatomist in 1545. Because, extraordinarily, it is the only human organ whose primary function is pleasure.


obscure VAGINA
An anatomical journey
By Rachel E. Gross
Illustrated. 307 pages. WW Norton & Company. $30.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Review: 'Vagina Obscura', by Rachel E. Gross
Review: 'Vagina Obscura', by Rachel E. Gross
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