The talking ethnic vagina hand puppets featured in the recent ad campaign for Summer’s Eve “Love the V” female genital cleansing products have come in for a tsunami of criticism for racial stereotyping, widespread critique by feminist bloggers regarding the message that women’s genitals are stinky and in need of constant cleansing, and a drop-dead hilarious drubbing by Stephen Colbert, who proposed a brother-product, the Pine Fresh Scent Dick Scrub. Ouch! On June 27, Adweek reported that withering criticism has forced the company to withdraw the campaign.
|The Colbert Report||Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
|Vaginal Puppeteering vs. D**k Scrub|
To start with, the theme of the promotion is fatally muddled! While the new line of products entirely focuses on decontaminating the vulva, the campaign mantra commands “Hail to the V”—meaning “vagina.” The tag lines read “Say hello to your vagina, baby,” and the disembodied voice of one of the talking hand puppets proclaims. “I love my vagina.”
Medical research, the feminist self-help movement, which I worked in, and women’s own experience has shown that routine vaginal douching when no yeast bloom or infection is present washes out the normal acidity of the vagina that controls yeast and fights infection: douching actually destroys this protective capacity. I'm unaware of any research on exterior wiping, but given the hypercleanliness of most Americans, it seems redundant. Nonetheless, Stacie Barnett, PR executive for the Richards Group that created the campaign, told Tim Nudd of Adweek that “… there are a lot of women who want these products, right or wrong, necessary or not.” Yes! The money they don’t spend on beauty products can be spent on fructifying the genitals.
The bevy of Summer’s Eve products being touted to consumers include a “Cleansing Wash for the vaginal area,” cloths “designed to wipe away odor- causing bacteria,” a “time release deodorant spray,” “body powder,” and bath and shower gel “for a new kind of clean.” There's nowhere on the website to find out what these odor–defying ingredients consist of. The curious are told only that they are “soap-free, hypoallergenic and gynecologist tested.” Oh, right.
Laura Wershler, veteran sexual and reproductive health advocate (and blogger at re:cycling, for the Society for Menstrual Cycle research) observes that the campaign “seems geared to adolescents,” but if older girls and women are the target, “it’s incredibly condescending.” (Who makes this stuff up?) Wershler notes that PR Executive Stacie Barnett from the Richards Group in Dallas, the ad company responsible for the campaign, has said the message and goal of the larger campaign is “to educate women about their anatomy and break down taboos in talking about it.” Why then, she asks, don’t they consult sexual health educators or experts in discourse around women’s bodies when preparing their campaigns? “They might have saved their client from embarrassment and backlash.”
As disturbing, at least to long-time students of sexuality like me, is that none of the criticism has addressed the rampant misinformation the campaign provides to women and girls about their genitals and sexuality.
Mistake #1: A True or False quiz question asks us to assess whether the vulva is a single organ of the female anatomy. If you answered “true,” you would be wrong. Dinnnnnngggggg! The vulva, we are told, “is actually made up of several organs that reside on the outside of the female body,” including “the labia majora (or large lips), the labia minora (or small lips), the clitoris, the urethral opening and the vaginal opening.”
An organ, according to Biology Online, is “a group of tissues that perform a specific function….” How someone conflates discrete small structures with an organ is beyond me.
And these mistakes are rampant on the Internet. I was horrified to discover the Wikipedia entry for “vulva” classifies the clitoris and several of its associated parts as parts of the vulva, and not the other way around as standard anatomy texts would have it. The clitoris , with up to 18 associated parts, including the inner lips, is the organ of female pleasure that produces the orgasm. Vulva means “covering,” and in no way can be considered an organ because it doesn’t have a function other than contributing pleasurable sensations. With it’s 8000 nerve endings, the most in any structure in the human body, the clitoris is the organ of sexual pleasure and, if you are lucky, orgasms. In the Summer’s Eve version, the clitoris is demoted to just another exterior genital feature.
Mistake #2: The urethral and vaginal openings are counted as “organs.” Openings are nothing—negative spaces—that vanish if one looks at them too hard. No standard anatomy text counts openings as body parts let alone organs! See my book, The Clitoral Truth, for more detail.
Mistake #3: The Summer’s Eve website contends that “there are two types [of orgasm]: clitoral and vaginal.” Not! Kinsey pointed out that the vagina has few nerve endings so it cannot produce orgasms. He observed that it’s the densely innervated clitoris with its associated parts is the source of female orgasm. Masters and Johnson, the top-dog sexperts of the 1960s and ‘70s, agreed. In normal women, all orgasms result from sensory messages being sent through the clitoral nerve (called the “pudendal nerve”—meaning “shame”—in medical parlance) through the spinal cord to the brain. Actually, the brain is the master puppeteer of orgasm, but the clitoral muscles are the ultimate activator.
Mistake #4: “Female orgasms last approximately 20 seconds.” British orgasm researchers Roy Levin and Gorm Wagner report a range of up to nearly 40 seconds in a laboratory setting, and note that women consistently underreport the duration. Masters and Johnson called orgasms lasting up to one minute or more “status orgasmus.” Modern practitioners of Tantric sex recognize very extended orgasms that may occur in extended sexual sessions with full-body stimulation. And you can watch Annie Sprinkle’s five minute orgasm—no joke!—in her “Sluts and Goddesses” video! The problem here is that incorrect information disempowers women by lowering their expectations and diminishing their concept of their potential for pleasure.
Mistake #5. Summer’s Eve characterizes the putative G spot as a “Magical, mystical vaginal pleasure point most men never find.” Are there no lesbian muff divers out there? Not in the heteronormative Summer’s Eve conception, anyway. But they're right about mystical! “G spot,” short for “Graffenberg spot,” is a misnomer. There is no magic button, spot, or area in the vagina to press to bring a woman to orgasm. When a woman is aroused, the erectile tissue surrounding her urethra (named by the Feminist Women‘s Health Centers as the “urethral sponge,”) can be felt and stimulated through the vaginal wall. All women have a urethral sponge (or female prostate) and some find touch, pressure or vibration on it pleasurable and some don’t. The erectile tissue surrounding the male urethra is identical, but nobody is trying to isolate a spot on it! Bottom of Form
There are other mistakes, but I’ll leave it at this. Thanks to the broad-based critiques, the game, but misguided, and mis-informed Summer’s Eve ad campaign is being pulled. Other campaigns to make young women feel bad about their bodies and separate them from their money have been more successful, such as the recent Unilever “Dove Ultimate Go Sleeveless” deodorant that promotes a “clinical strength” product touted not only to combat offensive odor but to give a more attractive armpit. According to the Wall Street Journal, a Unilever survey found that women almost universally believe that their armpits are unattractive.
Being imminently reversible, these products are not in the same league as genital cosmetic surgery, butt augmentation, breast implants, and facial surgery—but all are aimed at convincing women that they are sub-par goods in the airbrushed world of “beauty,” and that throwing money at the problem will give one a competitive edge in the girl-eat-girl attractiveness market, and maybe even help them have that elusive G spot orgasm.
Feminist bloggers, activists, and academics, and even comedians like Stephen Colbert, are increasingly challenging the aggressive colonization of women ‘s bodies by the beauty industry, plastic surgeons, and big pharma, and are calling for more realistic ideals of attractiveness and worth that are based on women’s needs, abilities, problems and preferences, rather than being defined solely through men’s desires.