Ellen Støkken Dahl and Nina Brochmann, were both studying medicine in Oslo, Norway, when they wrote ‘The Wonder Down Under: A User’s Guide to the Vagina’ – since translated into 33 languages and a massive best seller. So what inspired these first-time authors in their mission to teach women (and men) about female genitalia? And what is it that they really want you to know?
We don’t like the word vagina, but we had no other option but to use it. “The vagina is only a muscular tube where you have penetrative sex, give birth and have periods. But it’s not really the site of female sexuality,” explains Nina. “There is so much else going on in the genitals that it is so reductive to always talk about it as the vagina.”
Using ‘vulva’ also brings problems – talking about the external female organs means you neglect the vagina and the inner genitals. Ideally, you’d use “female genitals”, but the pair found Brits don’t like - or use - the term. That’s why you’ll read it as ‘vagina’ on the front of the English language translation of their book. “You need to use words people understand and use,” explains Ellen.
One thing English is not short of in this regard, however, is euphemisms. Lady garden, flower, pussy, we’ve got them all - some vulgar, others decorative. If Ellen and Nina had to choose a favourite euphemism, it would be fanny. “It has a positive ring to it. It’s not used as a swear word but it sounds like granny,” Ellen laughs. We can’t argue with that.
Women from around the world have the same questions. The pair started working in refugee communities in Norway, with women who had come from countries such as Somalia, Eritrea and Afghanistan. Women from more conservative communities had very similar questions to women from Scandinavian countries, they found. “Women tend to be very sex positive. They are curious about their sexual lives and their bodies, and are very open in female-only forums,” explains Ellen.
The questions and myths are all the same, wherever in the world you’re from, reflects Ellen. “Even if we, as Scandis, have more sex education than most other countries, that isn’t enough,” she says. “We thought we could really make a difference to groups of women who hadn’t necessarily had the resources to learn about themselves beforehand.”
We need to talk about hymens. The belief that all women bleed the first time they have sex is a myth that Nina and Ellen are particularly passionate about busting. The hymen is an elastic rim of tissue, which cannot be used as proof of virginity. “You can’t see the difference when you examine most hymens - you can’t see that this is a virgin hymen and not. Words like ‘intact’ make no sense,” adds Ellen. In a helpful comparison, Nina explains that idea of losing your hymen “is like saying you would lose your knee from getting a bruise”.
The hymen myth is a misconception about the female body which carries “the largest consequences,” the pair argue, as in certain communities virginity and ‘honour’ play a pivotal role in a woman’s reputation and future.
Working with refugees, they became acutely aware of how “extremely worried” women were for themselves or their daughters. “Women were scared their daughters would have become ruined through play or tampon use,” Nina says. “Girls were contacting us for virginity certificate to say their hymen was intact as they may have had a sexual encounter in their youth and now they are getting married and they’re scared shitless of being found out.”
Hormonal contraception is not bad for you. “There is a myth that hormonal contraception is dangerous and unnatural,” says Nina. “It is particularly prevalent in feminist communities.” As a result, women are opting for non-hormonal alternatives such as the copper IUD or contraceptive apps. “We spend so much time calming women down saying there are great things about hormonal contraceptives and for most women it’s an excellent choice,” she says. “Some women do suffer from unbearable side effects - but that’s a very small minority of women.”
Addressing the issue of the link between depression and the pill, they believe media reporting is often sensationalist. “We aren’t saying women aren’t getting depression, we’re saying most aren’t,” says Ellen.
Women also express concern about skipping periods with hormonal contraception, such as the mini pill. But women don’t actually need periods, Ellen says. Each month we build a mucus membrane, like a nest for an egg, in preparation for a fertilised egg. If no fertilised egg arrives, the membrane breaks down, causing your period. “What you need is the spontaneous build-up of the lining - and you only need to do this when you want to get pregnant. Menstruation is just monthly blood loss. Skipping periods is totally safe.”
Use contraceptive apps with caution. There has been a rise in the use of contraceptive apps which help women track their menstrual cycles to highlight their most fertile time of the month. Think of it as the rhythm method with a hi-tech makeover. “These apps can also be great for some women - especially for women who are in stable relationships with stable jobs and who have a very organised life and who aren’t that scared of getting pregnant,” explains Nina.
The pair raise concerns about the effectiveness of contraceptive apps. “These are absolutely not for people who don’t want to get pregnant, because they aren’t that safe,” says Ellen, adding that in Sweden and elsewhere products have been marketed towards younger women through influencers. Conversely Nina adds that the app is “really good” for tracking fertility if you are trying for a baby. “I know a lot of people who use it to get pregnant.”
We need to include men in the conversation. Sex education in schools may be segregated in the UK, with girls and boys heading in different directions. But Ellen and Nina think this book, while aimed predominantly at women, is also for men, too. Why? “It’s because men have women in their life and if you understand the daily struggles of women you can be a more empathic partner,” says Ellen, adding that when it comes to contraception straight men should want to know what their partner is using.
“It’s also important to know what your daughter is going through,” she adds - in fact, the pair say a lot of fathers have bought the book in Norway to help understand how to raise their female children.
Humour is the best way to get people talking about taboo subjects. One of the most notable qualities of The Wonder Down Under is its down-to-earth, funny tone. Ellen and Nina say they have found humour and warmth to be a vital tool when working as sex educators. “Regular sex education is very negative. It’s all about preventing pregnancy and diseases and being careful about your honour,” says Ellen. “Changing the tone and talking in a positive way, we achieve a more friendly approach.”
The book uses cute illustrations and draws humorous comparisons to everyday life to make the information more accessible. Did you know, for example, that you bleed one single espresso cup every cycle?
‘The Wonder Down Under: A User’s Guide to the Vagina’ is out now, £14.99 (Hodder & Stoughton).