The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History by Emma L E Rees - review by Joan Smith

Joan Smith

That Which Must Not Be Named

The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History


Bloomsbury 354pp £19.99

It is more than four decades since the feminist self-help book Our Bodies, Ourselves offered women detailed instructions on how to look at their vaginas. My yellowing copy describes the way women learned to feel that their bodies were not their own, arguing that this ‘hands-off’ message had even more force when applied to the vagina. Over two pages, the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective gave matter-of-fact instructions on self-examination, advising women to prepare by collecting a strong torch, a plastic speculum, a mirror and a tube of KY jelly. Once everything was in place, they were ready to learn that the ‘pink area, which looks much like the walls of your throat, is your vagina’.

Was that it? Could this pink tube really have inspired such desire, fear and loathing over the centuries? It was a liberating exercise, especially for those of us who had heard all that nonsense about the vagina dentata in myth and literature. It’s amazing, in retrospect, that fearful and suspicious

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