Vaginas no place for wasps’ nests. No kidding

Posted 21 May 2018

I RECENTLY came across a remarkable headline in the New York Post: “Doctors warn women against putting wasp nests in their vaginas”.

Those of us with the relevant anatomy are no doubt relieved to have been warned about this before we succumbed to the ever-present temptation to, well, put a wasp nest in our …

To be fair, the “all-natural” product being spruiked for vaginal rejuvenation does not actually contain live wasps, though it may contain remnants of larvae. The wasp nests, or oak galls, are ground up and turned into a paste for topical application.

As is so often the case with snake oil, the sites peddling this stuff use a bewildering blend of grand promises, ancient precedent and “sciency” language to support their marketing claims.

“In 41 BC Cleopatra captured Mark Anthonys heart, just as she had Julius Caesars,” one site says. “How did the ancient women capture the hearts of their men? Could oak gall have played a role?”

The link between Cleopatra’s amorous adventures and those questions is not made clear, but I suspect oak trees were as rare in ancient Egypt as correctly used apostrophes are on websites spruiking natural remedies.

Another site goes deeper into the science, saying biochemical analysis has found the oak galls to be rich in hydrolysable tannins.

“Other phytochemical contents including isoflavones (a type of phytoestrogen), vitamin A and C (antioxidants), proteins, minerals, calcium, fibers, carbohydrates, iron, and amino acids such as gallic acids, ellagic acid, and piperronylic acid ester. These phytochemical substances further identified have technical properties of astringent, antioxidant, rejuvenating, antibacterial, anti-fungi, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetes, and local anesthetic.”

Could diabetes be cured by applying ground-up wasp nests to the genitals? There’s a research question worthy of pursuit.

Californian gynaecologist Dr Jen Gunter has made a hobby of skewering some of the more weird and wonderful vaginal treatments available online.

Her round-up of things she warned women not to put in their vaginas during 2017 includes: Scandinavian vaginal highlighter, vaginal cucumber scrub, Vicks VapoRub, vaginal glitter and jade eggs (thanks for that one, Gwyneth Paltrow).

Oak gall, she writes, “follows the same dangerous pathway of other ‘traditional’ vaginal practices, meaning tightening and drying the vagina”.

Drying the vagina increases the likelihood of abrasions and pain during sex, leading among other things to a possible increased risk of HIV transmission, she writes.

Noting that one site selling oak gall warned it might sting on application, she goes on: “Here’s a pro tip, if something burns when you apply it to the vagina it is generally bad for the vagina.”

Whether it’s wasp nests, vaginal steaming (also advocated by Paltrow) or the more common practice of douching, why are women so easily persuaded their genitals are a problem in need of a, usually commercial, fix?

According to WebMD, 20–40% of American women aged 15–44 years are estimated to use a vaginal douche.

Reasons women give for using the products include odour reduction, cleansing after menstruation, and prevention of sexually transmitted disease or pregnancy.

There is no evidence douches are effective for any of these purposes and some evidence they may in fact increase risk of infection and pregnancy complications, WebMD says.

Yet pharmacies continue to sell them, and women continue to buy them.

Back in 2010, I wrote about a surge in demand for vulval cosmetic surgery such as labia reduction, fuelled by anxiety about conforming with some kind of female genital ideal or “norm”.

Shame about female body parts, and natural functions such as menstruation, is hardly new, but the mainstreaming of porn has undoubtedly made it worse – and, yes, I know pornographic benchmarking can contribute to male genital anxiety too.

When the only vulvas most heterosexual women ever see are the standardised, depilated, often not-quite-adult versions offered up by the porn industry, it’s hardly surprising they might start to wonder about the adequacy or aesthetics of their own equipment.

If we want to combat the wasp nest salesmen, we need to get rid of the shame surrounding normal female body parts and the normal things they do.

Jane McCredie is a science and health writer and editor based in Sydney. You can find her on Twitter at @janemccredie.

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