Whoa, that seems like a lot of rules! Isn’t there some sort of magic unifying principle!? We at the Hairpin traffic primarily in magic unifying principles, so we’re happy to relay that yes, there is one, and it’s pH balance. Your vagina needs to be a little on the acidic side (3.8-4.5) to be happy. Hairpin fave Kate Clancy has a long-form explanation on why this should be, but the gist is that your vagina contains multitudes: bacteria, yeast, and other organisms. The vag is healthiest when the Lactobacilli bacteria are in power; they output hydrogen peroxide to keep the pH down and inhospitable to the other bacteria. As rulers they are beneficial, kind, and stupid, and others lie in wait for their turn to dominate: specifically, gardnerella (bacterial vaginosis) and candida (yeast infection). Your quest is to prevent this from happening.
First rule is the easiest to explain: only douche with dreams, only wash with wishes. Companies that sell douches are pulling the ol’ inventing a problem (“an aspect of your body is hateful”) that can be solved by their product (“hooray, now it’s roses”). What makes them go from “the worst” to “the actual worst” is that douching gives you the problem when you didn’t have it before! Routine douching, especially with commercial preparations, disrupts your flora and increases your risk of getting BV and acquiring STIs and other infections. That fact, and the fact that Summer’s Eve has wasted the amazing domain “thatsvaginal.com” on a now-abandoned corporate blog authored by a fake guy and his talking cat are but two reasons you should put Big Douche out of business. The Crunk Feminist Collective has the rest of them.
The vagine is a mucous membrane, so nothing harsh, tingly, burny, perfumed, or scented, whether it’s actually going in (tampons, lube) or just hanging out outside (pad). The no-bubble bath or scented detergents thing? It’s real. Allergic reactions are unpleasant on their own and make you more susceptible to everything else. Like yeast! Anything sweet or flavored can feed yeast, whether it’s strawberries or lubricant flavored like them. May I humbly suggest letting your mouth eat that instead? There’s also been a connection proposed between yeast infections and lubricants that are kept slippery by glycerin, which breaks down to sugar. There’s no published evidence yet, but if it does bug you, Cory Silverberg will get you to some glycerin-free options post haste.
Like absolutely nobody I know, yeast prefer to eat their sugary treats in damp, dark solitude. This is why anytime your bits are damp or can’t breathe can be triggering for an infection: synthetic underwear, skinny jeans, hanging out in a wet bathing suit for too long, whatever. Dry it off after showering or if you’re sweaty; just a friendly but firm pat pat pat. (Mighty sweaty: pure cornstarch.) Dry off anything that goes in there, too, after you’re done with it, like your menstrual cup. Try to get a cotton panel situation going; the only thing better than underwear made of pure cotton is underwear made of pure air. Whenever you can, let it go free, especially at night.
Condoms over everything expressly intended to give you an orgasm. Sex toys can transmit infections like BV, and the materials themselves can cause reactions. Non-porous materials (metal, silicone, $-er stuff) can be thoroughly cleaned; porous materials (jelly rubber, cheaper toys, probably sold as a “dong”) can’t. Don’t know what yours is? Throw a condom on it. Condoms over penises for the standard STI prevention reasons, but also for those with easily suggestible flora! Why? Because ejaculate is basic. Why would ejaculate be basic if the vagina’s supposed to be acidic? Great question. Why is menstrual blood basic? It’s because God was napping.
Lastly, try to keep the bacteria that comes from your butt in your butt and not anywhere else. (slow sage nod) E.Coli are harmless in your intestines but turn into superbullies in your vag, and will have your do-gooder Lactobacilli doing their math homework in short order. (E. coli is also the primary bug for UTIs!) Avoiding thongs, cunnilingus after rimming, vaginal sex after anal, or at least use a different barrier for it. Front to back, not just for wiping: the way of all things.
These rules are the general guidelines for making yourself less susceptible to possible infections and rashes and whatnot. But! There are some hardy vaginas out there. “Lola, I read those rules and I’m a bit worried. My ‘new moon’ ritual is a long bubble bath. Then I get out, empty a Honey Bear over the 'area' and tightly cinch plastic wrap around my pelvis. I don’t know, makes me feel strong. I have never had an issue, but this seems to break every rule — please advise.” I admire your dedication to a process that labor-intensive, and if it has caused you no ills, namaste! Do you.
Now that we’re all on the same page:
I need to ask a question, and it's real real personal. Long story short, my first boyfriend was totally grossed out by my vagina. He didn't like to talk about it, didn't like to hear about it, went down on me because he insisted it was what a 'good boyfriend' did but was always visibly turned off and yukked out by it. And now I have a bit of a complex. I know vaginas aren't gross, but I just can't seem to put any new partners through the punishment of having to do too much to mine. So twofold question — 1, How do I get over this, and 2, are there any safe non-irritating ways to freshen up my bits before sex so they are minimally icky?
Before we begin, did you know that your ex is so bored without you that he hangs out at home writing testimonials for douche websites?
(burns sage to smudge article)
I’ll answer the second part first because it’s simpler. In the interest of supporting your inalienable right to do whatever the hell you want with your body inclusive of thinking it is gross or doing a gross thing right now, here’s what I found. Violet Blue wrote a comprehensive article on changing the way you smell and taste, although don’t read it if you’re allergic to flowers being used as a metaphor for vaginas. If that’s the case, Go Ask Alice. For “freshening up,” plain water works.
Okay, now: how to get over it. You write that you know that vaginas aren’t gross. But I know being able to hold in your mind that something is “not gross” isn’t necessarily going to give you the confidence you need to accept any part of your body, let alone the genital part, let alone the genital part enough to drop it down on someone else’s face. That kind of not giving a fuck takes time to build, even for contributors to the latest edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves. (Which, by the way, was fun until a girl I was dating slammed me with “Well we can’t all be contributors to Our Bodies, Ourselves.”) How do you get there? My tactic was pulling in positive sentiments at a rate that would hopefully outpace the rate by which I was accumulating the shitty damaging ones. You know, the messages that hail from sexism, racism, classism, ableism, ageism, cisgenderism, and the other fucking intersecting vectors that converge on our bodies when all we want to do is get off. Or live!
Everyone has their own shit thrown at them, so I can’t tell you what is going to work for you specifically, but there are resources for everybody. Here are some pieces of what worked for me as a young able-bodied queer cis lady. I found that’s everything said about general body acceptance was ph-balanced for the bits, too: Ask Sugar/Cheryl Strayed killed it on the topic. And while we’re down there, if you’re feeling guilty about any fantasy you’ve ever gotten off to. Seeing Portrait of my British Wife, or reading Audre Lorde’s Uses of the Erotic, although maybe you’ll like it out loud better?
Betty Dodson talking here about claiming your vulva. By the way, I’ve always had this weird ability to time travel a tiny bit into the future, so I saw you load up that video. At :30 you were like "hahahaha omg” and you sent it to everyone on gchat but then around 1:00 you were like "hm" and by 1:45 you got out a hand mirror and as I smiled mysteriously and disappeared into glittery mist knowing my work was done I heard you like, "Ooh, maybe a little like an awesome and elegant mountain ... or the kind of frame you'd find edging a masterpiece in a museum. Not just any museum. The Louvre."
I don’t know what it’s going to be for you. Maybe you’ll have a similar moment to when an ex of mine at a house party leaned into me and whispered, “Do you mind if I go down on you later?” and I was like, “Why!” and he was like, “Umm, because it’s awesome!?” so plainly, like such a duh, that I became two people, the person from before who cared and the person who was now rolling their eyes at that person. You could listen to Peaches and Cream by 112 twenty times in a row or what about ... okay. Maybe it’ll be replacing this worry with another one, like horsemanship? Or we could just listen to Divine sing us this all-purpose nuclear option together.
In case you glossed over that -ism list before (listen I know it tastes like cardboard but it’s good for you), let me reiterate that the shit you may receive about your body has zero to do with your actual worth as an individual about to ride that pony and everything to do with the overriding norms that determine what kind of bodies are valuable in this culture. This means that your body being anything except itself has nothing to do with you. They don’t know you. They’ve never even MET you! You have a body that deserves to be conceptualized and desired in the way that you want it to be so as best as you can please GET IT, GET IT.
Go in! And if you keep going, which I highly recommend, you may encounter partners who will have an ethos that the smell/taste/appearance/configuration/whatever of your genitalia is unimportant in light of the fact that it’s hanging out on a body they want to make out with. Something like my friend Laura’s: “1. Treat it nice, 2. Let me look at it.” And even if you don’t encounter these (or any) partners, I Promise With a Fuckjillion Promise-Watts of Raw Promising Power that as you do this you will still be becoming that partner for another person, which is just as good or better.
Lola Pellegrino really missed you guys and is a nurse practitioner now. Do you have a question for her?