I came across Lynne Enright’s book, Vagina A Re-Education whilst working in Waterstones after my A-levels. Initially, it was shelved alongside brand-new releases, however it soon joined the few other books with such titles like Women’s Health A to Z or Naomi Wolf’s Vagina, in the section titled ‘Illnesses and Conditions’. This bothered me – it seemed indicative that these sections had been designed by a man and books by, and for, women and other marginalised genders were being simply fit into whichever category was deemed least offensive.
I tell Lynn Enright this when we logged onto zoom.
Lynne acknowledges that her book isn’t one easily categorised: “It’s not something you seek out during a specific bout of illness, it’s more about wellness – that wellness has become so associated with something other, but it should just be part of the everyday life and education.”
This was Lynne Enright’s first book; yet it wasn’t her first ingress into these subjects. She has written regularly regarding topics of health: “I am really interested in health and I love that as a subject. I wasn’t ever a health journalist per se, I started out in fashion.” Lynn categorises herself more as a feature writer, writing on a range of topics that interest her.
The genesis of this book is in her time as a journalist, specifically working for The Pool. Lynne was Head of News and Content when she worked there and noticed a trend: “whenever we did stories about fertility, infertility, pregnancy, abortion, miscarriage, even smear tests, there was a really big response. I think information regarding those topics traditionally considered as ‘women’s issues’, have been neglected elsewhere in the regular media. And more widely in society, there are taboos around miscarriage, abortion, major infertility. So these pieces did well, and even the stories that didn’t get huge numbers you could see people on social media who were very engaged, and starting their own discussions – I think they felt heard and listened to and it was something that was obviously important to people.”
Lynne talks about how she could see this happening, set against the backdrop of her home in Ireland: “I have always been very involved in and passionate about the repeal movement in Ireland. We all knew it was coming for quite a while, but it happened around that same time though speaking about this book, and it just felt like a lot of those things were connected to, the bigger almost philosophical questions about consent or how we talk about sex. They connected to the reality of women and people in Ireland – that they weren’t allowed to access abortion and that was fundamentally connected with a lack of basic information about our bodies, so it was those things together that made me realise there was a book in it and that it was something worth doing.”
Her book also generated some personal revelations once she started to do the research: “I realised that I was learning stuff that I’d never known or been taught, and I was in my thirties writing this and had been through lots of things, had an abortion, was starting to receive fertility treatment, had been having sex for fifteen years and still there were things that I didn’t know. Realising that, whilst being very enlightening, was also troubling…”
Lynn’s personal experience informed her writing, however through the process of talking to people to further research her book, she was astounded by the universality of her own experience: “I grew up in Ireland, and I was in the state school system which the vast majority of people are. And here most state schools are run by the Catholic Church and so sex education was really lacking, but I was really surprised as I was interviewing people for research for this book, to realise it’s basically lacking everywhere.”
She goes on: “You know, it’s very rare to come across a country that has really nailed sex education, and you can come across schools, individual schools that have done very well but that’s almost random, it is usually down to the head teacher in the school or if there is a teacher that feels passionately about the subject and would like to take it on.”
Lynne further remarks on the absurdity of sex education being regularly outsourced: “in Ireland it is often outsourced to a Catholic campaigning group – it’s bizarre that we allow that aspect of education to be so unregulated, it’s not as if we’d let a campaigning group just come in and teach any other subject, but that happens with sex education.”
Lynne has said “it’s time for quite a revolutionary shake up of sex ed” – I now wish I’d asked her what she thought of the series Sex Education!
The conversation moves forward, as Lynn creates a persuasive argument for sex education needing to continue past the point of our school lives: “there’s only so much that you can teach in school and it has to be age appropriate, and then you’re out in the world.”
She talks about an article that she wrote regarding the controversy about the blood clots caused by the vaccine and the pill: “I don’t think that it’s really a fair comparison as there are different types of clots, factors etc. However, I think it was connected to the fact that women feel like they’re prescribed the pill, without really much consultation, they’re not told about the side effects or the risks. In the UK and in Ireland we have a health system that’s quite like paternalistic, that presents the authority of doctors, and we don’t often feel that we can have an open two way conversation about our health or our bodies.”
We voyage into a discussion about the issues with the Conservative government stripping back funding of the NHS, which has left people without having a two-way conversation because you need to get in and get out “and this conversation can’t be done in 10 minutes”.
Lynne articulates her gratitude towards the NHS, especially in comparison to other health systems globally, yet she highlights the issues including often it being challenging to seek a second opinion: “And it’s not impossible, and you can do it but it’s not made easy for people, and, and you know I think doctors do point out that you need to advocate for yourself. I feel like I didn’t really know that you should until recently, I think it’s more a part of American culture, but not so much in British culture. I don’t think we really think about self-advocacy and we don’t go to the doctor having necessarily engaged with what we think is wrong with our own bodies. We should continue to have an ongoing conversation and relationship with our own bodies.”
We need to recognise how institutions have a role to play in this. I reflect to Lynn on the circumstances of my own arrival at university, having been an avid reader of feminist literature since fourteen. I’d read a myriad of books including Lynn’s, finding myself surprised by just how many people didn’t know basic information regarding sex, contraception or how to even discuss their own sexual pleasure. I truly believe that universities have a bigger role to play than they currently accept in helping to provide key health services and educate more widely. Lynn and I find ourselves in agreement, however she goes further: “I think as we grow and enter into different institutions, they need to take on the mantle of education. I saw that Channel 4 introduced a menopause policy, but recently they introduced a pregnancy loss policy as well. Institutions throughout our lives have a role – in some cases to educate, and in some cases to facilitate and to acknowledge that there will be challenges and circumstances that people will face like illness or like menopause and miscarriage, which aren’t illness but need that same sort of framework to be dealt with in a workplace environment.”
I shift the conversation to a question I’ve been wondering since reading her book – why call it Vagina A Re-Education? A lot of the issues regarding the lack of sex education and issues surrounding sexual pleasure can be boiled down to the vagina/vulva divergence. Most people use the term ‘vagina’ to refer to the female genitals, when the vagina is technically the muscular tube leading from the external orifice to the cervix of the uterus. The vulva encompasses the exterior female genitals including the clitoris, and thus is incredibly important when discussing issues such as female pleasure. Lynn says: “Really the title is because vagina is still what most people say, and, and that’s that.”
She elaborates a bit: “I didn’t really grasp that point but I started researching and even in the early drafts of the first chapters I was talking about the vagina. Then actually I read a theorist who makes the point that by not naming the vulva we’re doing it a disservice that rang true and it suddenly made me realise that we don’t talk about the vulva.”
Lynne and I further voyage into a discussion over the importance of names, and that how the names we are comfortable using in society are informed by this patriarchal lens of childbirth and heterosexual sex: “We don’t think about, you know as uncomfortable as we are talking about vaginas, we’re more comfortable talking about them because they facilitate childbirth.” And this is what Lynn Enright plays with in the title of her book– that comfort level that we have with the word, and the fact that we regularly mean the vulva when saying vagina is emblematic of how far sex education and our social understanding still have to go.
We’ve discussed at this point sex education and its various flaws, so I enquire if there is an ideal sex education that she would like to see?
Lynne pauses before saying: “Around the time I was writing this book, I spoke to people from Australia, Lebanon, Ireland and the UK, and what everybody has in common was that pleasure was never mentioned. I think that it’s quite tricky because, you know, that not necessarily the point of school, like school isn’t there to teach kids about the pleasures of sex, but at the same time if it’s never mentioned, then you are doing students a disservice.”
“When you have an education that focuses on sex as something to be sort of avoided for women, it often then positions them as the basic gatekeeper. The women I spoke to, when they were teenagers, sex had been positioned as something that men would want from them, and that it was their job to protect themselves against pregnancy but also male desire. The male desire was positioned as a more forceful, more powerful desire than female desire which wasn’t mentioned. I don’t think that you can really have a have a good interesting robust conversation about consent, without talking about or at least acknowledging pleasure, and the fact that female pleasure exists.”
“That’s what I mean we have to be quite revolutionary and radical – I think it’s still quite bound up in gender norms and it’s still a little too squeamish”
She is willing to conceded that there are certain priorities in the sex education that should remain: “Of course, the main things you are going to have to focus on are preventing teenage pregnancy, girls, women and people with vaginas needs to know about their periods and those are completely valid.” However, she wants it said that sex education “shouldn’t just be scary. And so many of the women I spoke to felt honestly quite scared after their sex ed classes and that’s not right.”
We discuss how divisions in schools between boys and girls and the patriarchal value placed on boys’ sex education versus girls’ further facilitate this fear: “periods become something that only girls have to learn about – it makes them quite private and it continues that taboo – they are engrained into the education system that protects boys from hearing about those things.”
“I knew all about wet dreams. Firstly, I felt that like they were really common and everybody got them and that’s actually not the case, but also wet dreams, they’re not particularly relevant to me as like a teenage girl, you know? But I feel like that was comprehensively referred to in my sex education, and I think there is a disparity there.”
I enquire further about the thread in her book regarding damaging myths, in particular the hymen. She entitles her chapter on this topic ‘The Hymen, a Useless Symbol’: “You know, the way we talk about the hymen is particularly dangerous, because whilst other myths are damaging, this myth – the definition itself – is not correct. The hymen as a ‘seal that’s broken’ – that’s untrue. I think it’s really interesting that we’ve come to understand a piece of our bodies, a physical thing, completely according to patriarchal values – that’s just quite striking.”
She sits back for a second, before continuing: “I went on this kind of journey of realising the extent of the harms that those myths can cause and the ramifications of them – how every time you’re told a lie or not told the whole truth about your body, it disempowers you and that can have devastating consequences.”
I ask her a final question: ‘it’s now two years since you published Vagina A Re-Education, is there anything that you think you would include now that you didn’t include at the time?”
She pauses before saying: “The discussion about trans rights is more relevant than ever and sadly the situation for trans people has become even worse, so that is still something we’re really fighting for.” In the introduction of her book, she acknowledges that “not everyone who has a vagina is a woman. I know that there are women who do not have a vagina. I recognize that we are living in a time when there is, especially among young people, an increased reluctance to see sexuality and gender as fixed and binary. I think this will only be a good thing for vaginas and people who have them … this book generally refers to cisgender girls and women when it says girls and women, largely because I am constrained by the currently available data and research.”
She goes on to state that: “When I was writing actually, I had to rely on data from the US about black women’s maternal health because there wasn’t the data to discuss the situation in the UK. And now since I’ve written a book, figures have been released that show the UK is even worse – the outcomes are even more dramatically different in the UK. Also, there’s more and more information coming out about fertility and infertility and the disparities within communities, accessing that treatment in the UK, but also about the success rates. So, I think those are all things that I would have liked to have looked at and this illustrates there is still work to do.”
Finally, we discussed how the categorisation of her book inspired a change in Waterstones – we introduced a Women’s Health section. Lynn’s face lit up, and our interview concluded talking about the importance of change: “The thing about change is that you have to keep going. This book involved realising something that all feminists realise – that there have been women doing this work for literally centuries. Change isn’t linear, and you have to keep going and keep building off the work that has been done before.”
Image Credit: Lynn Enright