Vagina dialogue


Carefree vagina adSome things can't be said with a knowing smile or impunity. Holocaust jokes, for example, or Zoo Weekly's competition for 'the hottest boat people', clearly cross the line from 'edgy' to plain old bad taste.

The American stand-up who cracked a rape joke then suggested the heckler who yelled 'No rape is funny' was impeding free speech and should be gang-raped found that there are consequences of free speech — namely, free and robust negative feedback. 

But neither, it seems, can we use the proper terms for mammalian genitalia. Recently Johnson & Johnson ran 'Carefree' ads that talked unblushingly of women's vaginas, inter-period discharge and daily smells. (We are all somewhat sensitive of intimate smells, from bad breath to sweat and secretions.)

According to some of the complainants, we shouldn't talk about such things. Or not like that. Or not on my television. We would, it seems, prefer be coy about our LadyGardens, or 'monthlies', or secret women's business.

The ad hit the jackpot in the UK, New Zealand and in Australia because it called a vagina exactly what it is, and talked about what their products are meant to do, in plain and simple language. Are we really offended by such frank terminology? Or should we be?

Republican congressmen in the Michigan House of Representatives said as much when a congresswoman (married with three children, Lisa Brown), in opposing their bill to limit access to abortion, concluded her 13 June speech by saying, 'I'm flattered that you're all so interested in my vagina, but no means no.'

The Speaker promptly banned her from voting on not only the bill in question but an unrelated bill on school employee retirement benefits, because of her 'violating the decorum of the House'. One of the offended Republican congressmen exclaimed that what she had said was so offensive that 'I don't even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company.'

So even women shouldn't say or hear the word vagina. Such a bad word, vagina.

Vaginas have several purposes, from congress (sexual) to birthing. They may take many shapes, colours and configurations. Their (drawn) artistic images were removed from a Facebook page set up by Spinifex Press just a week or so ago. They don't show up on women no matter how tight their jeans or bathing togs. One is the true, unspoken, subject of Shakespeare 's Much Ado About Nothing.

They are objects of fetishism, sexual objectification, obsession, pleasure and revulsion. Some are mutilated or disfigured by cultures seeking thereby to control women's perceived 'lust' or filth; or forbidden in temples and church, tainting the full humanity of their possessors who may traditionally be required to sequester themselves during menstrual bleeding, discharge, or after birth.

Here's the thing.

Though I was surprised when I saw that ad, I was not offended. It's manipulative, because it's designed to, and effectively attracts, attention.

I'm used to feeling space-invaded by ads for packed condoms that look like deodorant roll-ons, which look like vibrators; product placement of nostrums for flagging desire such as 'horny goat weed' or pills like Viagra; by dirty great yellow billboards shouting 'Make love last longer', and visions of phallic shaped ice-creams, or white-foamed and overflowing snack drinks, during kiddy-TV watching time.

Until very recently commercial products for absorbing menstrual blood simply didn't exist. This had a dreadful effect on women's participation in community and public life, as well as their religious oppression.

One magnificent Indian man who saw and understood that embarrassment about menstruation harms women's rights, has found a way to produce low-cost, highly-effective menstruation pads and tampons. These allow adolescent girls in village communities to continue to go to school after menarche, and adult women to move freely about, communicate and participate in the social and cultural life of their community, all month round.

This great man has lost his house, his family and his marriage, but his factory and marketing to the poorest of the poor is, in every sense, a divinely benevolent ministry.

Here in the West we are seeing the next phase of normalising menstruation. It has taken a long time. The very first person to say 'period' in a commercial was Courtney Cox (now Arquette) in 1985. Before that, ads just hinted that Johnson & Johnson made something that created more feminine and desirable women. Its ads for the superior absorption of pads with wings for 'heavy days' appeared to prove that menstrual blood is blue.

Since every woman bleeds, every woman has to manage menstruation for years. Since there is little competition for the huge women's market, period-products fall to be marketed in accordance with women's sensitivities. Since period products are pricey, and we are still affected by cultural conditioning not to discuss menstruation, Johnson & Johnson can't lose with this message. Even the criticism does its promotional work.

Women are more than our vaginas, which have daily functions compatible with public life; menstruation and odours are all normal and prudish (as opposed to familiar, jocular) euphemisms that encourage denial, concealment, ignorance, myths and humiliation for every woman.

It's all rather a storm in a diva cup. 

Moira RaynerMoira Rayner is a barrister and writer and former Victorian Equal Opportunity Commissioner. 


Topic tags: Moira Rayner, Carefree, vagina



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Existing comments

Moira you make a very cogent or maybe even a blase argument for more exposure of the intimate of a woman. But Moira do we really have to discuss on national media so much intimate details? Is it really important? Are menstruation and female bodily functions and areas new? Is sexuality new? tampons might be newish but where and what tampons are used for is not new.

Must everything about a woman be used to "sell" items? Because ultimately this is what it's all about. The next we will see or hear as a follow up is a remedy or camouflage for those bodily "smells" which are discussed. Is there nothing sacred left?

I understand that "women are more than our vaginas" but does this have to be paraded on prime time TV and other media? Does this liberate and empower us women? What rot. In fact this is what had lowered the status of woman, the fact that she has been portrayed and shown as such a usable commodity.

Why isnt the bodily smell of men shown/discussed on prime time TV? Because women have accepted their overtly sexualised images and have agreed and enjoyed being protrayed as such.

Anne Lastman | 25 July 2012  

Bravo Moira!
Jesus healed the woman with the issue of blood because her bleeding made her an outcast. She was unclean and could not eat with people or attend the synagogue. Anyone who touched her had to go through ritual washing to make themselves clean again. Jesus knew she had touched him and said 'Your faith has made you well'. Jesus put before the people the issue of justice and two thousand years later we are still trying to deal with God's magic number 28 and justice. Ah! We are such slow learners, but thanks to sanitary products women can enter the age of wisdom and embark on positions only reserved for men, long before we are considered over the hill.

Years ago I remember a male colleague telling me I had bad breath and due to practicing Natural Family Planning I was able to tell him it was due to my being fertile at that time. He blushed and disappeared.

Noreen Larsson | 25 July 2012  

You're right that 'feminine hygeine' products are expensive. On top of which, there is Goods and Services Tax charged on tampons because the mostly male Australian government saw fit to class them as 'luxury items'. Recently, I saw an aisle in my local Kmart store for 'Adult' products. Intrigued, I saw what it actually contained was feminine hygiene products. Since I got my period at the age of eleven, I do not believe pads for menstruation are an 'adult' product. It perpetuates the view that a woman's period is a topic that is dirty and should be censored.

I am really disappointed with society on this one, and I think the government should take the GST off tampons immediately, and refund every woman the average GST they have already paid for them across the years. It is sexist and ridiculous. Pads and tampons are as necessary to women if not more so than items exempt from GST like milk and bread.

Bronwyn Lovell | 25 July 2012  

I'm a 76 year old Melbourne grandpa,founder of the AIDS care charity "The Australian AIDS Fund Inc".. and I was recently diagnosed with lung cancer.

My shock diagnosis will mean I'll have to close my 25 year old charity...but first I want to clamour about African vaginas because they may be my last project.

Many schoolgirls in Africa abandon their education because they don't have sanitary pads...they go without or use torn up newspaper. They're never"carefree".Some believe heir monthly bleed is due to witchcraft.
I have begun a project in Uganda....a 2 woman team visits spend an hour talking about body changes...and the other teaches the girls how to make do it yourself re-usable cloth sanitary pads and also prepare materials to be used in the next school. We also supply the girls with 4 kits of last a full year.The total cost..caring for up to 300 girls in 3 schools...$950....that's barely $3 per girl.Have covered 5 schools so far...around 550 girls. Want to help?My life and my money are running low...why not make a girl's life really carefree rather than something to smirk or laugh about?The Australian AIDS Fund Inc.,PO Box 1347,Frankston,Vic. 3199 (

Brian Haill - Melbourne | 25 July 2012  

As a doctor I am troubled by the common use of "vagina" for the full works of the female private parts. The vagina is the internal tube; the outer parts are properly called the "vulva". Tampons go in the vagina, pads on the vulva. The term "vulva" has no equivalent in ordinary speech. I imagine that when people say "fanny" or such they are envisaging the full works. There's an anatomical term for the full works, the "pudendae". It means the shamefuls. "Privates" feels better.

Michael Grounds | 25 July 2012  

Yes, it's been an interesting debate - and a storm in a *moon* cup, I think, Moira! I was more annoyed that once again the marketing industry has created a perceived need that does not exist. Are they going to market men's sanitary products for male secretions?

MBG | 25 July 2012  

Mission accomplished. We are all talking about it and Johnson and Johnson got the reaction they wanted. No, it's not needed, but it's not wrong and it's not sacred either - it's just about money. It's like Nestle selling "nutritional" snack food to developing countries - expanding markets. And it's not sexist - what about the Palmolive Gold deodorant soap ads from the '90s targeting men's BO problems? And also, there IS a product for men's leakages. It's called the condom.

AURELIUS | 25 July 2012  

I find the whole article and advertisements abhorrent. Why should such personal matters be made so public by a giant pharmaceutical company except for profit. I find these ads embarrassing and humiliating to sit through with my sons, daughters and husband or any one else. There is no need for such matters to be discussed in public. There is plenty of knowledge and material available for women to know what is required without making such an unwholesome, undignified advertisement about bodily functions. There should be a far more dignified comportment about our physical bodies than this demeaning and mortifying manner

Terri | 25 July 2012  

I don't like commenting when something has been labelled a feminist issue - who am I to comment on how women are treated and feel in our society? - but I'm also not entirely comfortable with how this advert has been defended. We don't have toilet paper companies advertising how well their product 'wipes the poo from people's bottoms, preventing them from getting brown stains on their undies'. And if someone did put out such an advertisement, appearing in prime time while people eat their dinners, I think they'd be roundly criticised. Now, maybe I have to learn to put up with bodily discharges being openly spoken about on prime time television. Or maybe we've pushed the envelope a little too far on this occasion.

Joseph Vine | 25 July 2012  

I agree with everything you have said. Now can we debate the issue of making a normal physiological process shameful in order to create a market. I will buy Carefree products when they make something to mask the smell of post-pubescent male urine.

Liz Munro | 25 July 2012  

reproduction is part of living - sweating is part of living - Only 5% of men used under arm deodorants in the 1950's - and then the marketing boys got to work - why is the smell of sweat any less pleasant than Chanel No.5 ? Because somebody told us so and we were too umnsure of ourselves to say rubbish. Just get used to the human condition and the all the facts of life - perspiring is good for the body - why is its smell not good - because some idiot told us so - amd we were bigger idiots to believe it

frank hetherton | 25 July 2012  

Reminds me of an old joke: a man writing to the manufacturers of Tampax saying 'I've been using your product for three months and I still can't swim or play tennis'.

Penelope | 26 July 2012  

I do not agree that this is a storm in a diva cup. I am not sure that these women's issues should be subject to public advertising for commercial purposes. I believe these issues are private for women and their partners. I do not believe it is a free speech issue. I would prefer Johnson and Johnson to spend their advertising money on subsidising education for teenage girls and women in schools, doctors' clinics and family planning centres. I am also surprised that tampons are categorised as luxury items for GST purpose. It is interesting that the use of the word vagina has been used for artistic purposes in both the visual and performing arts in recent years. I have not been offended with this, but have found it interesting that conservative men have been extremely offended (it is also interesting that these same men are also extremely uncomfortable with nudity) as well as some younger and older women have been uncomfortable with the public use of this word. I am not aware of any feminist intellectual critique of this word use. Is there any such critique? In my opinion one of the most effective artistic references to women's genitalia is Robyn Archer's song 'Menstruation Blues', which is both graphic and sensitive.

Mark Doyle | 26 July 2012  

I always thought those words couldn't be offensive because they are in Latin. Maybe the old language is sexier than I thought.

Dally Messenger | 26 July 2012  

I find this article and the adverts mentioned to be very offensive, disgusting and repugnant. Our society has descended into a world of coarse gross vulgarities and tawdry meretricious tasteless advertisements, language and opinions. There is no dignity, no decorum to be found. Immodesty and impurity of mind, speech and dress abound. A polite, decent and discerning culture is finished by todays' grossness. The author of this article sadly seems to find solace in describing bodily functions in detail in a public forum. Bodily functions are a private matter and should be treated as such.

Trent | 27 July 2012  

Thanks Moira, again! Blessings, Trisha B

Patricia Bouma | 27 July 2012  

Gosh! I can't wait to see these ads!

cath o'dwyer | 28 July 2012  

Great article. I know several women who were never told about menstruation etc and then almost passed out when it first happened. So the more public conversations, the better. Until people are born and bred in test tubes, it may be the uncomfortable price we pay for all women to understand that vaginas are normal, healthy and lifegiving. Were there was as much furour about revolting condom ads and 'dirty yellow' billboards about which my newly reading children ask me regularly. Now those turn my stomach!

Alison | 30 July 2012  

Victorian era prudish attitudes aside, I'm curious if women who've seen the ad think perceive it as a women's ad, or a shoddily made ad made by insensitive men. I'm reminded by a scene in the ABC TV series Paper Giants with Ita Buttrose discussing a promotion campaign with two businessmen who wanted to insert a sanitary napkin in each edition of Cleo - unwrapped, no hygienic seal.

AURELIUS | 31 July 2012  

Periods in Sociobiology The Status of Women and Sanitary Protection I read about a tribe where women walk bandy-legged because of scratching from grasses they use as sanitary protection. The status of women depends not only upon education, but also on what is available for what is euphemistically called feminine hygiene. Women have suffered because it is not a topic for polite discussion. Yet it is a sociobiological issue, similar to how Chadwick’s clean water supplies eradicated cholera and typhoid more than medical science. When human females’ menstrual cycles began to differ from the oestrus patterns in other mammals, it made possible the development of human mating and family behaviour. But early humans could not understand the biology of female menstruation. Different societies developed different ways of trying to socialise the phenomenon - commonly but not always by fear, revulsion, isolation and adding it to the fact of male superior physical strength as a further reason for lower status for women. Today there are a couple of billion poor women need their lives made that critical little bit easier, and an additional ecological problem to avoid if we share our own improvident disposable solutions on any large scale.

valerie yule | 12 August 2012  

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