“The Wonder Down Under”, a “user’s guide to the vagina” written by two medical students, sold out in three days when it was published in Norway last year. Since then, it has been translated into 31 different languages. If you’ve ever had a question about how your (or your partner’s) nether regions work, but been frustrated by a judgmental friend, a dismissive doctor or an unreliable website, this Baedeker of the bush could be the book for you.
I’ve been having sex for years. Is this really for me?
Sprinkled with pop-culture references, from Benedict Cumberbatch to the Full Moon Party, phrases like “shit happens”, and warnings that “when you’re drinking alcohol, it’s easy to become a bit less alert than usual”, “The Wonder Down Under” is clearly intended for young women. But the peppiness is accompanied by lots of stats and studies, and there are plenty of surprises for grown-ups too. Did you know that sperm can live in the Fallopian tubes for up to seven days? Or that pubic hair heightens sexual sensitivity?
Why should I trust these people?
When Nina Brochmann and Ellen Stokken Dahl sat down to write “The Wonder Down Under”, they might not have had their degrees yet but they knew what they were talking about. Both had years of experience as teachers of sexual health. And compared to their older, more established colleagues, their youth (Dahl is 26, Brochmann 30) is an advantage. They aren’t so immersed in their textbooks that they’ve forgotten what women do and don’t know about their “mice”, to use the authors’ preferred term. And as they realised when they started their blog, “Underlivet” (“Down Below”) in 2015, many women don’t know very much at all. Their inboxes were flooded with emails from women of all ages asking rudimentary questions about subjects Brochmann and Dahl had thought were taught at school. They realised that there was need among women not only for basic information but for reassurance: many readers were concerned that their bodies were in some way abnormal. Their warm, illuminating blog was so successful it became a springboard to their book.
OK. Give me a taste of what I can expect to read about.
The book’s main character, so to speak, is the clitoris. It turns out it’s bigger, much bigger, than you could possibly imagine. The tiny little nub located at the point where the outer labia meet is “just the tip of the iceberg.” Shaped like a wishbone 7-12cm in length, it extends down from the labia into the pelvis before splitting into two arms, which lie buried beneath the vulva. Each arm contains erectile tissue, and when a woman becomes aroused, blood rushes in, engorging the organ, which can swell to double its normal size. In other words, you get a wishboner.
If this description puts you in mind of the penis, that’s because “the clitoris and penis are two versions of the same organ”. They develop from the same basic embryonic structure, the genital tubercle, and are built and work in similar ways. The thin line bisecting the scrotum is in fact the seam which fused the labia of the genital tubercle – the authors sally forth gleefully with the line, “The penis is nothing but an overgrown clitoris with an inbuilt urethra.” Brochmann and Dahl’s dismissive tone is born of a kind of penis envy. For centuries, the penis has been poked and prodded by doctors and scientists who have overlooked the clitoris. As late as 1948, “Gray’s Anatomy” chose not to label the clitoris. Even today, there is still disagreement among experts over what the clitoris is formed of and how it works.
Noted. But the clitoris is just a warm-up act to the main event, right?
Wrong. It’s widely believed the “best” way to come is with a “vaginal” orgasm (a climax triggered by vaginal penetration only) and that an orgasm achieved through clitoral stimulation is somehow second rate. This is a total myth, and the person to blame is Sigmund Freud. In 1905 he advanced a theory that “clitoral orgasm” is, in a way, child’s play: on first encountering the male member, mature women will forget about the clitoris in their desire to be penetrated. But this distinction between a clitoral and vaginal orgasm has no grounding in science. The vagina itself – which is technically the tube in which the penis is inserted, not the entire edifice – is relatively lacking in sensitivity. The pleasurable sensation women feel during intercourse is the subterreanean clitoris being indirectly stimulated by the penis entering the vagina. Vaginal orgasm, in other words, is clitoral orgasm.
Next you’ll be telling me the G-spot is a myth too.
Well, sort of. It’s been suggested that if the G-spot does exist, it’s probably not a separate physical structure, but a point lying deep inside the clitoris which is massaged through the vaginal wall during sex.
What do readers make of all this?
One of the first Norwegian critics to review “The Wonder Down Under” wrote that after reading it, he never wanted to have sex again. Sigh. The plain-speaking tone – including liberal use of the word “discharge” – is the best thing about the book. That’s not to say it doesn’t grate at times. In an attempt to appeal to the general reader, Brochmann and Dahl sometimes come up with clunky analogies (cells from the uterus that migrate to other parts of the body are likened to British pensioners who move to the Costa del Sol). On the whole, though, this reader joins the chorus of women who’ve expressed their gratitude to the authors for guiding us down under so expertly. As an astonished journalist from the Times, Helen Rumbelow, put it: “How did I not know this stuff?” Now there’s no reason not to.
The Wonder Down Under by Nina Brochmann and Ellen Stokken Dahl (Yellow Kite) is out now