This article originally appeared on VICE Germany
I'm lying on my back, naked from the waist down, in some stranger's living room, while a woman named Jasmin is inspecting my vagina, when I experience a rare moment of self-awareness: I'd rather show randoms my vulva than talk about my feelings.
Jasmin is currently training to become a "Sex-positive Specialist" in the feminist sex shop Sexclusivitäten ('Sexclusivities') in Berlin. The shop's motto is "Women can do anything, but they don't have to". On some Fridays, the shop hosts workshops aimed at helping people better understand and appreciate their bodies. This week's theme is vulva watching, which is described on the event's Facebook page as: "Exchanging the gift of being seen and heard through our beautiful and unique pussies."
And so a few Fridays ago, I join a group of six women in their mid-thirties in the living room of Laura Merrit – the owner of Sexclusivity. Laura's flat is situated above her shop and it's largely decorated with items she also stocks downstairs: Dian Hanson's The Big Book of Pussy leans on a shelf directly above vagina-shaped pillows. On the opposite wall stands a cabinet full of glass dildos, egg-shaped vibrators, feminist porn and leather strap-ons. I can hear the muffled voice of a male client coming from the shop, but he isn't welcome into what Jasmine refers to as our "women-only salon of pleasure."
Whether it's through naked yoga, feminist porn viewings, workshops on female ejaculation titled "We shoot back" or vagina-massage classes, Laura and her team try to project body positive experiences. By making vaginas more "visible", Jasmin believes she can help other women develop a healthier relationship with their own bodies.
According to a study by the German Society of Intimate Surgery and Genital Aesthetics, roughly half of all women either completely dislike their genitals. "So many women are unhappy with their genitals, and people have such an unhealthy relationship with their sexuality because we don't talk about sex," Jasmin tells me. "Society teaches us to be ashamed. People who are insecure or curious turn to porn, where they get the impression that a perfect pussy is meant to look a certain way." Laura hopes that through these workshops, women will learn to approach their bodies more openly, confidently and beyond mainstream porn and gender stereotypes.
Sociologist Anna-Katharina Meßmer's work deals with beauty ideals regarding vaginas. "The most popular shape is the 'bread-roll'," she tells me over the phone, when I call to ask for context a few days after attending the vulva watching session. "It's about having the most tight, closed and smooth genitals, that show no sign of ageing, giving birth or sexual experience. It's not very realistic." Sex therapist Andre Bräu agrees, but also notes that because men's genitals "dangle in front of them," they grow up with a better understanding and appreciation of their bodies.
Back in Laura's living room, we are preparing for the vulva watching session. "I've never really looked at my vulva," one of the participants admits to nods of agreement. Two minutes later, we are all naked.
I lay down on my back with my hands on my belly and Jasmin kneels in front of me. After a few moments, I realise that being naked doesn't really bother me that much. I know and like my vulva – we've stared at each other through a mirror a lot. I can't really relate to the other women who haven't inspected their own because I was 7 years old, when I first became curious about my body. I've even encouraged ex-boyfriends to have long, un-sexual exploration sessions with my vulva. Allowing a stranger to inspect it almost feels like a natural next step.
At that point, I'm more worried about what to say in the discussion that is set to take place afterwards. So I try to think about everything else – the weather, my mother, my last Pap smear... But an alarming thought suddenly interrupts my zen-like state: "Fuck, I really hope my period blood isn't leaking," I worry. I almost forgot I am menstruating today.
Soon enough, the inspection is over and we all gather in a circle to discuss the experience – accidentally flashing each other in the process. Thankfully, I am not the only one who seems uncomfortable talking about it – most of the other women tell jokes about their session rather than discuss it in a serious way. Jasmin jumps in, saving us all from our embarrassment: "Every pussy is different, yet they are all beautiful. Ideally, I would love to ask all of my friends if I could see theirs too."
After the chat, it's my turn to inspect. Jasmin sits back on a pillow and spreads her legs. For five minutes, I just stare at her vulva. I try hard to keep a straight face and not think about how strange this all is. After a few moments, I tilt my head to the side and suddenly appreciate how different Jasmin's vulva was from mine.
We all have a little more to say on the second discussion session. I talk about how vaginas are portrayed in society, and how up until that moment, I had only ever seen other vaginas in porn and feminist art – never in real life. "At the beginning it was funny, but actually being naked isn't that bad at all," another participant says.
Two hours later, the workshop is over. By the end, everyone admits they feel that their boundaries have become a tiny bit more flexible. For some, it was being naked in front of strangers that did it, for others it was talking about their feelings, while a few had initially found it hard to keep their eyes open while staring at another woman's vulva.
I left feeling both satisfied and with a newfound respect for feminist projects focused on making women feel more beautiful and valued. "We all want to be visible," Jasmin summarised later. "That can be a challenge at first, but it can also be healing."