Rachel E. Gross
W. W. Norton and company, $30
More than 2,000 years ago, Hippocrates, the Greek physician often considered the father of modern medicine, identified what became known as the clitoris, a “small pillar” of erectile tissue near the entrance to the vagina. Aristotle then noted that the seemingly small structure was related to sexual pleasure.
However, it wasn’t until 2005 that urologist Helen O’Connell discovered that the “little pillar” was just the tip of the iceberg. The internal parts of the organ extend around the vagina and into the pelvis, extending a deeper network of nerves than anatomists ever knew.
It took millennia to discover the true extent of the clitoris because sexism has long hampered the study of female biology, argues science journalist Rachel E. Gross in her new book, dark pussy. Esteemed men of science, from Charles Darwin to Sigmund Freud, viewed men as superior to women. To be a man was to be the ideal standard. To be a woman was to be a stunted version of a human being. The vagina, the ancient Greeks concluded, was simply an upside-down penis, the ovaries simply inner testicles.
Because men mostly viewed women’s bodies for their reproductive capabilities and interactions with penises, only recently have researchers truly begun to understand the full scope of female organs and tissues, Gross shows. That includes the basic biology of what “healthy” looks like in these body parts and its effects on the body as a whole.
dark pussy itself was born out of Gross’s frustration at not understanding his own body in the wake of a vaginal infection. After antibiotic and antifungal treatments failed due to misdiagnosis, his gynecologist prescribed another treatment. As Gross paraphrases, the doctor told her to “put rat poison in my vagina.” The infection turned out to be bacterial vaginosis, a difficult-to-treat, sometimes itchy and painful condition caused by an overgrowth of bacteria that normally reside in the vagina. (The rat poison was boric acid, which is also an antiseptic. “It’s basically rat poison,” the doctor said. “You’re going to see that on the Internet, so I’d better tell you now.”)
The book’s exploration of the female anatomy begins from the outside in, first traversing the nerve-filled outer bulge of the clitoris to the vagina, ovaries, and uterus. The final chapter focuses on gender-affirming surgery, detailing how clinicians have transformed the field for transgender people. (Gross is upfront that words like women and mens create an artificial binary, with seemingly more objective terms like “masculine” and “feminine” that do not work much better to encompass the diversity of humanity, including intersex and transgender people).
Throughout this journey, Gross does not shy away from confronting the sexism and prejudice behind controversial ideas about female biology, such as vaginal orgasms (as opposed to those that come from the clitoris) and the existence of the G-spot (Serial number: 04/25/12). Both of these “almost mystical” concepts derive from the male perspective that sexual pleasure should be easy for women, if only men could nail it. Nor are the most heinous crimes swept under the rug, such as racism, eugenics and female genital mutilation. Footnotes throughout the book detail Gross’s efforts to navigate controversial viewpoints and stigmatizing or culturally charged terminology.
To lift readers’ spirits, find the right places to offer a dose of wry humor or a play on words. He also shares stories of often-forgotten researchers, like the lab technician Miriam Menkinwho demonstrated in 1944 that in vitro fertilization is possible (Serial number: 12/8/44). However, Menkin’s paper in describing the first case of fertilization of a human ovum in a laboratory dish has been largely erased from history of in vitro fertilization (Serial number: 9/6/21). There are also plenty of opportunities to marvel at the power of the female body. Despite the entrenched notion that a person is born with all the eggs she will ever have, for example, researchers are now uncovering the regenerative properties of the ovary.
Studying female bodies more closely could ultimately improve quality of life. The search for cells capable of producing more eggs could lead to discoveries that could restore the menstrual cycle in cancer patients rendered infertile by chemotherapy or make menopause less miserable. Patients with endometriosis, a painful condition in which uterine tissue grows outside the uterus, are often ruled out and their symptoms downplayed. Some doctors even recommend getting pregnant to avoid pain. But people shouldn’t have to suffer just because they’re not pregnant. Researchers haven’t yet asked the right questions about the uterus or endometriosis, Gross argues.
dark pussy reinforces that female bodies are more than “walking wombs” or “baby machines.” Understanding these organs and tissues is important to keeping people who have them healthy. It will take many studies of the vagina to overcome centuries of neglect, Gross writes. But the book offers a glimpse of what’s possible when researchers (finally) pay attention.
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