Why the world’s only Vagina Museum deserves a permanent home

OPINION: On Wednesday, when the Vagina Museum in Bethnal Green, U.K., was forced to shutter for the second time in less than two years, the community lost a vital sexual health resource

In the heart of London in the United Kingdom, the Vagina Museum offered free, accessible, inclusive sex education that most people didn’t get growing up. Or they did until Wednesday, at least. 

The world’s first brick-and-mortar museum dedicated to vaginas, vulvas and the gynae anatomy had been based in Bethnal Green since March 2022. Over the past ten months, they welcomed almost 40,000 visitors to their queer- and trans-friendly exhibits, proving just how popular the work they do is. Yet Wednesday, Feb. 1, was their last day in their current premises. 

It’s not the first time the Vagina Museum has had to move. The museum first opened in March 2020, then in September 2021, when the Vagina Museum’s lease for its first location in Camden Market came to an end and they spent six months trying to find a new location. 

Working with ENTER, a collective and creative hub opening up empty buildings to creative use, the Vagina Museum had opened in the space in a property guardianship—a set-up that allows a tenant to rent an empty property at a lower-than-usual rate in order to ensure the property is looked after and maintained while it is vacant. The flexibility of the arrangement meant that the Vagina Museum always knew they might be asked to leave on very short notice. 

But that foresight didn’t make the news any less devastating for the people who work and volunteer there—or the many visitors impacted by the Vagina Museum’s work. The director of the Vagina Museum, Florence Schechter, is disappointed that the museum is going to have to start searching for a new home for their vital education work. 

For their last three days in Bethnal Green, the Vagina Museum extended their opening hours to allow as many visitors as possible to see their current exhibit, Periods: A Brief History. The exhibit aimed to tackle the taboo that still exists around menstruation, exploring societal beliefs about periods that have impacted the lives of millions over the course of centuries. 

As well as learning about how different cultures view periods and the history of period products, visitors could also share what they think the future of periods could look like. Some people suggested “free period products for all genders,” while others wanted to see people normalizing period sex or public spaces providing “bins for period products in men’s toilets.”

The Vagina Museum’s educational work is essential and entrance to the museum is free. Always. “This information should not be kept behind a paywall,” Schechter says. “It’s too important. We need it to be accessible to everyone, regardless of their economic situation.”

The Bethnal Green location also offered the Vagina Museum a larger space than the Camden Market venue, allowing them to host pop-ups from health organizations like Terrence Higgins Trust, Endometriosis UK, The Eve Appeal, The Queer Parenting Partnership and Abortion Rights.

 

Their permanent exhibit, From A to V, covered anatomy, health and vulva diversity and activism. It included felt diagrams of the vulva, the clitoris and the internal reproductive system of people with uteruses, with all of the parts labelled. The exhibit aimed to bust myths like the idea that a hymen breaks the first time a person has penetrative sex. (The hymen is a skirt of tissue that exists around the edge of the vaginal opening; if it covered the entrance to the vagina, it would block the exit of menstrual blood.)

There were stained knickers on display to normalize discharge, and display of products that one absolutely shouldn’t use. The Vagina Museum is trying to combat the misinformation and shame that leads to people douching their vaginas, for example. Like many other products targeted towards people with vulvas, it’s simply unnecessary (unless someone has had vaginoplasty). 

And where else could you see a wall full of vulva photos that celebrates pubes and asymmetrical labia, as well as the diversity in their colour and texture? There are even photos of vulvas of intersex people, trans women who’ve had bottom surgery and people who’ve given birth.

Schechter isn’t exaggerating when she says that knowledge about vulvas and vaginas— knowledge that some of us are never taught about our own bodies—is “life-saving.” Take endometriosis. Even though it affects one in 10 people in the U.K., it can take more than eight years for someone to be diagnosed with the condition, which causes cells similar to the lining of the womb grows in other parts of the body (such as the ovaries and fallopian tubes) and can lead to excruciating pain. 

“People often assume that periods are always this painful,” Schechter explains. “Sometimes they go to the doctor, and their doctor will dismiss their pain and tell them to suck it up. We’ve had people who’ve come to the museum and realized that [their pain] isn’t normal, that it has a name. It’s given them the confidence to go to their doctor and advocate for themselves.”

In the U.K., Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) has been compulsory for all secondary school pupils since September 2020. However, the new guidelines for teaching RSE don’t mention pleasure even once. And while the U.K. government has mandated that there should be “an equal opportunity to explore the features of stable and healthy same-sex relationships,” this requirement sparked protests across the U.K. when it was announced in 2019. 

A petition to “Remove LGBT content from the Relationships Education curriculum” this January gained more than 200,000 signatures. In other words, while queer- and trans-inclusive sex education might exist in theory, there are a lot of people who are against it—and whether young people actually get inclusive sex-ed varies from school to school. That makes spaces like the Vagina Museum all the more important—they open up conversations people aren’t having elsewhere. 

A panel in the museum explains, for example, that 44 percent of parents in the U.K. use euphemisms like “fairy” or “tuppence” to refer to their children’s genitalia, and 22 percent never refer to vulvas and vaginas at all in front of their children. These euphemisms imply there’s something shameful about the vulva and vagina, when there isn’t.

This shame is part of why Schechter believes it’s important that the Vagina Museum does have brick-and-mortar premises. 

As of this week, the Vagina Museum team is actively looking for a new home—but finding one might not be easy. Because The Vagina Museum offers its exhibits for free, they can’t afford the same kind of rent that a for-profit business could. The pandemic might have left numerous buildings empty, Schechter explains, but that doesn’t mean that landlords have an incentive to lower rents. It’s less risky to just let a building sit empty. 

The fact they’re talking about vulvas and vaginas doesn’t help either. We live in an erotophobic society; one that is scared of sex. Even though there’s a huge appetite for the kind of education the Vagina Museum is providing—and even though you can walk into a pharmacy and buy a sex toys in 2023—not everyone is so comfortable with talking about vaginas. And not every building owner will be comfortable with the Vagina Museum filling their space with giant, glittery tampons. 

Capitalism is fundamentally incompatible with sexual liberation. It’s brilliant that we’re being encouraged to explore our sexuality and incorporate vibrators and lube into our sex lives, but sometimes it feels like sex-positivity is only acceptable if a company is selling it to you under the guise of “female empowerment.” 

The Vagina Museum isn’t trying to sell visitors anything—apart from maybe a T-shirt covered in illustrations of hairy vulvas or a feminist pin badge in their gift shop. They’re not trying to profit off visitors’ insecurities, which has let them build trust with the communities they serve. This is why Schechter is optimistic that the Vagina Museum will find a new venue. It might be a struggle, she says, but they have so much support from people who understand the importance of the work they’re doing. 

Schetcher says people believe in the Vagina Museum in a way they don’t believe in other non-profits or museums. “They want us to exist so badly because we’re a feminist organization that has strong values of intersectional radical feminism, and who act on those values,” she explains. “We don’t just do lip service—pun intended. We really do live those values and people recognize that.”

Quinn Rhodes (he/him) is a freelance journalist whose work focuses on queering sex and dismantling shame. He’s been writing about sex for six years, and his journalism aims to change how people think and talk about intimacy. He’s written about sexual health, reproductive justice, queer culture, and blow jobs for publications including VICE, Mashable and Cosmopolitan. Quinn was a Writer of the Year finalist in SH:24 and Brook’s Sexual Health Awards in 2022. His newsletter, Genderbent, explores gender, transmasculinity and mental illness at https://www.genderbent.co.uk/."

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