Vaginas are an unfair source of widespread confusion and embarrassment: Plenty of us don't know how they work or what they look like. But it's not just popular culture that gets vaginas wrong. Scientific and medical minds long misunderstood female anatomy. We didn't even fully know how the clitoris worked until 2009, and even today, many textbooks still misrepresent female sexual anatomy.
Of course, we have it better than women in centuries past, when blatant misogyny shaped much of the mainstream cultural and medical understanding of women's bodies. Early mansplaining about women's bodies were used to validate sexist legal policies, keep women out of school and generally make humankind squeamish about the female form. Here are some of history's craziest myths about vaginas:
1. Watch out, some women's vaginas have teeth!
The myth of the toothed vagina, called vagina dentata, was a legitimate anxiety expressed in cultural folklore everywhere from Russia to Japan to India. In many of these myths, brave men needed to remove or break these vaginal teeth before safely sexing up their lady friends.
2. Women's vaginas are just penises that got cold.
Galen, a second-century Greek physician, believed that the body was ruled by "humor" fluids. Men typically had “hot and dry" humors while women had inferior "cold and wet" humors. Under his theory, women and men had the same sexual system, but because women were "cold," their sexual organs had simply moved inside their bodies to keep warm. In early medical illustrations, women's sexual organs were labeled in comparison to their male counterparts; ovaries were "female testicles."
3. Educate a woman, and you'll ruin her lady parts.
Image: Kurt Hutton via Getty Images/Shutterstock/Huffington Post
This theory is brought to you by 19th-century Harvard Medical faculty member Henry H. Clark who spent his life fighting the good fight to keep women out of school. He said that women's brains couldn't handle the same strain as men's, and that ladies who pursued a college education risked stressing their brains and destroying their wombs. Other scientists of the time also cautioned that over-developing the feminine brain would make the uterus shrivel up. In this sexist fantasy world, women especially needed to avoid thinking while on their period. Ugh.
4. Women can't get pregnant unless they have consensual sex.
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In 2012, former House Representative Todd Akin and his merry band of anatomically-confused Republicans helped revive this terrible myth. Maybe they were inspired by the 13th-century British legal text, Fleta, which said that "without a woman's consent she could not conceive," and thus could be used to invalidate a woman's rape accusation if she had become pregnant. The belief lived on through 19th century medical books, to misguided politicians today.
5. Sideways vaginas = a thing.
Think of this as early "bro-natomy." The rumor that Asian women had sideways vaginas originated as racist humor amongst gentlemen visiting Chinese prostitutes in California brothels in the mid-1800s. The rumor was part of the larger cultural fetishizing of Asian women, and persisted through the Korean War, because some people enjoy their misogyny with a side of racism.
6. Beware: Woman's menstrual blood is potentially life threatening to men.
Menstrual blood has been considered dangerous to men in a number of cultures. A first century Roman Encyclopedia notes that Roman Pliny observed that "hailstorms, they say, thunder, and even lighting will be scared away" by a menstruating woman, while "meat will become sour and fruit will fall from the tree beneath which she sits.” Period-shaming continued, and in the 19th century, it was commonly thought that a man could contract gonorrhea from having sex with a woman who was on her period.