I’m pretty consistent about not consuming pop culture that I consider politically dodgy. Despite a cover photo of a very mystical-looking John Travolta—captioned with a promised revelation about how he’s raising his son from the dead—I resisted buying this week’s National Enquirer. Equally, I don’t watch reality television because I think, to put it mildly, it maligns all participants. For the same reason I give commercial breakfast TV the widest of berths. That, and it’s largely trash.
My righteousness however, completely falls apart when it comes to stories about random objects inserted into vaginas; about medical professionals painstakingly explaining why such practices really aren’t a good idea. I absolutely recognise that my clicks only add to the readership and justifies further vagina-centred nonsense ‘news’. But I’m powerless. I’m clicking and I’m reading and I’m tweeting. I absolutely cannot survive a minute longer without knowing which supermarket special I should keep away from my nether regions this week. Each click and I’m introduced afresh to a world where ingenuity, groceries, and genitals collide in a possible medical disaster.
My news day started with a warning in a British paper about women advised not to put icy poles into their vaginas as a means to beat the heat. The sheer stickiness aside, my thoughts straight away went to practicality. Is the insertion happening while you’re in the 7-Eleven or do you need to bring an esky and take the chilly treats home? Are certain flavours more… refreshing than others? How long does the cooling sensation last? How many icy poles are we going through per summer?
Icy poles—inappropriate vaginally, in case it needs to be stated, because of irritation, infection and, I imagine, probably bees— joins my vault of stories centred on things we shouldn’t spread our legs for. A few examples from my personal reserve of ‘when good vaginas go bad’ tales:
Doctors warn against putting wasp nests into vaginas in an effort to tighten and ‘rejuvenate’.
Doctors warn against ‘vagina scraping’, a procedure deployed to remove traces of your ex.
Doctors warn against putting glitter in your vagina as a means to ‘add sparkle and flavour’ to your secretions.
Doctors warn against putting parsley in your vagina to induce periods.
Doctors warn against putting garlic into your vagina to treat yeast infections.
My own smartarse interest in genital-related theatre aside, what do these stories reveal about our culture? Surely there’s a way to elevate my private preoccupations to scholarly enquiry.
Such stories reflect the contemporary mediascape where oddball stories—be they consumer boycotts or planking/Tide Pods/Momo murder challenge stories—play out in a small handful of online videos only to be reported as though they’re a phenomenon; as though all the kids are doing it. Take for example, a tweet from someone reporting on two patients using vacuum cleaners to suck out a month of periods at once. Isolated cases that end up being reported as though this madness is happening in emergency hospitals round the world. Published on news sites, such stories provide severely bad data on the ubiquity of stupidity.
Another aspect is the post-truth era we’re in where traditional sources of knowledge—GPs and gynaecologists, for example—are regularly eschewed in favour of crowd ‘wisdom’ or, worse, celebrity counsel. While I’m not sure that reading about Gwyneth Paltrow and Chrissy Tiegen steaming their vaginas, or Shailene Woodley exposing her bits to the sun to heal ‘genital issues’ is particularly contagious, nonetheless they’re indicative of an embrace of alternative therapies. Whether it’s aromatherapy or astrology or gems and crystals—the latter, incidentally, which apparently also gets shoved internally as part of some Chakra-cleansing malarkey and, quite obviously, done against medical advice—Dr Google takes us in some strange directions and not all ‘content’ found is created equal.
Most troubling, such stories play into eons-old myths and stigmas about the vagina as a mysterious place. A dangerous, cavernous, perhaps even toothed place. A place where things—babies and blood and discharge and pleasure—emerge but also where things enter. Fingers and penises and sex toys at the tame end of the spectrum, and then everything else of questionable-quality on the other end.
Wile lots of non-typical things readily become objects used in and around genitals for happy recreation—think electric toothbrushes and candles and carrots—the what-not-to-put-in-your-vag stories are seldom tales of pleasure. Rather, they frame the vagina as a wasteland. As a gross place, a disgusting place, somewhere random objects are shoved and where ideas of awfulness —of smell, of slime—hinge. And where women, naïve, often embarrassed about their bodies, and lacking in general genital knowledge, do stupid reckless things rather than getting actual medical help.
Of course, as with almost everything, weird and often not wonderful insertions populate an entire sub-genre of porn. The meme of ‘anything is a dildo if you’re brave enough’ plays out all over the dirtier parts of the web. It takes an awful lot to shock me, but months on and I’m still scarred from stumbling across a video of a woman using a fried chicken leg as an autoerotic aid. (As a vegetarian this triggers me in ways that all the other bizarreness doesn’t quite manage to). And while I’ll still laugh at the icy poles and lower-risk insertions, l’d be remiss not to mention the woman who died during a BDSM session because a Wartenberg wheel —a toy normally reserved for external play—was used internally. To tragic effect.
Commonly these please-don’t-insert stories are gussied up as health warnings—the quoting of doctors bolsters the idea of them being serious rather than salacious—but of course, at best they are click-baity ways to read about vaginas in the ‘clean’ part of the web. At worst, they disseminate ideas about new ways to dispose of that Calippo and help to normalise the idea of the vagina as somewhere unclean. Cue the ready-made market for douches and deodorants and other nonsense products that have no place up there either.
Lauren Rosewarne is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne and currently a Visiting Professor at Wesleyan University, USA. She is the author of ten books on gender, sexuality and the media.