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Ethics, aesthetics and euphemism: the vulva in contemporary society
  1. Lucy Julia Cox
  1. General Practitioner and Director of GP Update Women's Health Course (Red Whale), Saxonbrook Medical, Crawley, West Sussex, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Lucy Julia Cox, Saxonbrook Medical, Maidenbower, Crawley, West Sussex RH10 7QH, UK; lucyjcox{at}

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The vulval taboo

Western society considers itself free, liberal and nurturing of gender equality, yet women's genitalia remain a taboo subject. Women rarely say the word ‘vulva’, and instead describe their external genitalia using a vast array of different terms, often using euphemisms (e.g. ‘down below’) or incorrectly calling it ‘vagina’.1

The lack of appropriate vocabulary reflects a general lack of knowledge of female genital anatomy and function. Sex education focuses mainly on reproduction and hence on the vagina, an internal structure which most children have no experience of and can't see.2 A physiological analogy would be to teach the role of the throat in swallowing food without mentioning the tongue or mouth. A research paper examining female sexual terminology suggests that “societal silence regarding the role of the clitoris may act as a symbolic clitoridectomy”.2 This pervading ‘vulval taboo’ means that women are often not comfortable openly sharing genital insecurities.

Vulval vanity

In recent years the internet has become a source of information, and has brought female genitalia out of the shadows and into public scrutiny. Popular culture is increasingly sexualised with acceptance of nudity in the media, and popularity of skimpy, tightly fitting fashions. Images of hairless, minimalist pudenda on pornographic websites may skew women's views of their own genital normality, as well as changing men's expectations. This has contributed to a change in beauty ideals and introduced a culture of genital modification.3

The Brazilian effect

Society usually regards hairiness as unfeminine4 and women from different cultures have removed body hair in varying amounts since ancient times. However, it is only in recent decades that pubic hair removal has become a popular Western trend. Around 85% of British women report pubic hair removal.4 An American study found that total hair removal is fashionable among young women, and reasons for genital …

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  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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