Vagina Dispatches

Mona Chalabi and Mae Ryan

ENTRY CATEGORY: New Approaches: Arts, Lifestyle & Culture

TITLE 1: Guardian US

TITLE 2: Vagina Dispatches

RUNNING TIME: 01:01:33





In November, we received a message from a doctor. It read: “I had a patient (a 29-year-old new mum!) who came to me and told me she found a tumour down there.” After the examination, the doctor explained to the patient that what she had found was not a tumour, but her clitoris. “I ended up recommending your series to her and she loved it” the doctor’s message continued, “So good, so accurate.”

We created Vagina Dispatches, a four-part video series, because we realized many women (including us) didn’t know about our own bodies. In each episode of Vagina Dispatches, we (director Mae Ryan and producer Mona Chalabi) try to address issues surrounding sex and bodies that should be understood, but often are not.

Our goal was to make sure that if someone did have a question, the internet wouldn’t provide porn or frightening forum anecdotes – it would give them the information they needed. A community quickly grew as health professionals, teachers, parents and friends began sharing these videos and the much-needed information within them.

We worked with colleagues to make sure that the videos would be supported by other pieces of journalism, including an interactive quiz for people to test their knowledge, a Q&A with a doctor and first-person written narratives. Since most people can draw a penis, but few can draw a vulva we also built an interactive to challenge our readers to the task. By the time we closed our callout on 1 January 2017, we had received 22,002 vulva drawings.

The video series is structured as follows:

Episode 1: The Vulva

We built a giant vulva, talked to a gynecologist, a labiaplasty surgeon and a transgender woman, to find out what vulvas really look like. The goal was to expand people’s visual literacy about healthy female bodies. One particularly moving message suggests we succeeded: “Around the time I was 14 I figured out you could have [labiaplasty] surgery and decided that would probably be something in my future. Watching this first video totally changes that. Seeing you two courageously going somewhere no educator in my life has gone is inspiring and incredibly beneficial to my well-being.”

Episode 2: Stopping Periods

Period products are marketed on the basis of how discreet they can be because menstrual blood is still a source of shame. But our choice of contraception (hormonal IUDs) means that we have stopped our periods, so in this episode we wanted to explore the physical and cultural implications of that choice. To do so, we spoke to a doctor who believes that periods are unnatural, a former Olympian, a menstrual blood artist and a formerly incarcerated woman.

Episode 3: The Orgasm Gap

The data is unequivocal on the female orgasm – we know that heterosexual women are less likely than homosexual women or men to have one. But there’s still ambiguity about what the female orgasm even is. In this episode, we go to the lab with a neuroscientist who measures orgasms and speak to a psychologist, a sex educator and a pelvic floor therapist to find out about female sexual pleasure.

The topic of vaginismus, in particular, reached women who had previously felt alone. One viewer wrote “I had 10 years of painful sex due to vaginismus and felt too ashamed to talk to anyone about it - I just thought I was broken … Thank you for your work on this series and for highlighting issues like these. It’s very important; there’s no joy in a life coloured with shame.”

Episode 4: What You Didn’t Learn in Sex-Ed

It’s not just about sex. Sex education should be giving us the information we need to feel in control of our bodies and make informed decisions about them – but it’s failing. In episode four of Vagina Dispatches, we speak to our moms, friends and sex educators to find out why. Then we give the basics on some topics that are missing from the curriculum, from discharge to menopause.

This series isn’t simply educating a young generation, it has also helped to educate a generation who never got the information they needed. One reader, Fran, wrote “Now I understand my body and know that I’m not deformed. I can’t believe I went 32 years before I knew this. I watched your film and cried with joy. More education is needed.”