Ina recent survey of1,000 British women, 44 percent were unable to identify the vagina on a medical illustration of the female reproductive tract. Even fewer were able to identify the vulva, with 60 percent failing at this task.Overall, only one third of the women questioned could correctly place the six labels—vulva, vagina, cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries—on the diagram.
While the scale of this ignorance might seem startling, it's certainly not restricted to the UK. A smaller study of 236 US college students conducted in 2010 found 74 percent of men and 46percent of women questioned were unable to identify the cervix, while a startling 80 percent of men and 62 percent of women in the study were unable to locate the vagina correctly. In contrast, 73 percent of women and 56 percent of men in the US cohort were able to identify the clitoris—on a diagram, at least.
The British survey was carried out this summer on behalf of the Eve Appeal, a UK charity raising awareness and funding research into gynecological cancers. The charity is worried that this lack of knowledge among women about their bodies puts them at increased risk.
"The lack of basic knowledge about the female body is extremely worrying," Tracie Miles, a specialist gynecological cancer information Nurse at the Eve Appeal, said in a press release. "How can we expect women to know what to look out for in terms of unexpected changes in their vagina or vulva, or to be aware of the signs and symptoms of a gynecological cancer if they're not body-aware?"
Not everyone agrees that vocabulary is so vital. "Whilst it's concerning that so few women have a basic knowledge of their own bodies, it's more important that people feel comfortable talking to their doctor about their bodies, whether or not they know the correct names for body parts," Helen Stokes-Lampard, spokesperson for the Royal College of GPs in the UK, told VICE. "It is vital that people understand what is normal for themselves, so that when they notice changes in their bodies and their health, they are aware and can seek help."
Sex education has been part of the NationalCurriculum—the compulsory program of teaching—in UK schools since 1993.While a minority of schools retain the freedom to opt out and parents are allowed to withdraw their children from classes, science-based sex education is delivered to the vast majority of UK students. Despite this, there seems to be a huge gap in basic knowledge about reproductive anatomy and health. The confusion is everywhere, as evidenced by a headline earlier this summer from mainstream British news outlet The Independent: "Woman Makes Man Apologise After Punching Her InThe Vagina.
The most important thing, perhaps, is to know our own bodies and what is normal for us. And then maybe we should all just relax and enjoy our reproductive parts, whatever we call them?
Follow Kate Watson on Twitter.