Review by Caroline Hippler: Read My Lips
Posted November 8, 2011
A comprehensive and warm look at the vagina and the vulva from Debby Herbenick and Vanessa Schick
How many people do you know that have a vagina? A lot, I bet. Heck, you may even have one yourself! If you look around, people with vaginas are everywhere. Kinsey Confidential’s own Debby Herbenick and co-researcher Vanessa Schick have noticed and they’ve written just the book for anyone living in a world with vaginas—Read My Lips: A Complete Guide to the Vagina and Vulva. The result is a thought-provoking yet approachable work doing double duty: part reference book, part pleasure read.
First, the authors would want me to clarify that the Vagina, though commonly used as an inclusive term, only refers to the interior workings, while Vulva refers to what we see on the outside—the labia, both major and minor, the clitoral hood/clitoris and the pubic mound. This type of critical but too often missing information is found through out the book. Read My Lips is broken up into seven chapters, each addressing one element of the life of a vulva. From pubic hair to pleasure, menstruation to vaginal self-image, Herbenick and Schick succeed in delivering an accessible, thorough and fun road map to life with vaginas and vulvas.
To be clear, an academic textbook this is not. Though it is thoroughly researched and referenced, and the chapters work well on their own (I can already see them on a syllabus next semester), Read my Lips can be picked up and enjoyed by anyone. By discussing our interactions with the vulva in a positive and inclusive way (establishing that genitals do not always equal gender, giving all choices equal weight), the authors have penned a book that people from all walks of life can read and learn from.
In the first chapter, we find a thorough, if slightly academic, explanation of the parts of the vulva. Part by part, we meet the subject of our book. By establishing a careful tonal mix of light-heartedness and plain facts in the first chapters, Herbenick and Schick ensure that readers of all kinds will find the information accessible.
How to care for the vulva and vagina is next discussed. Readers are guided through gynecologic appointments, menstruation, and some common complaints associated with the vulva and vagina. The standout of the chapter is that the authors go beyond a simple medical discussion; Herbenick and Schick look at the holistic side of medicine.
Next comes (no pun intended) the chapter on pleasure. This chapter has something for the sex newbie (why do we need lubrication?) and for the old pro (what are the four major nerve pathways?). Balancing scientific information with anecdotes, this chapter provides anyone who has a vulva or plans on engaging sexually with one plenty of tips and encouragement.
A study of playboy centerfolds, some surprising surgeries and the trickiest picture matching game you’ve ever played make up the fourth chapter. Here, the authors discuss the perception of what a vulva “should” look like versus diverse realities of people’s vulvas.
In the fifth chapter our researchers continue their direct and fair vulva discussion. When talking about menstruation products, the authors are very informative and complete, adopting a “to each their own” attitude that allows honest analysis of all sorts of products. And you’ll have a blast reading about their adventures in hair dyeing.
The pubic hair chapter goes into detail about the elements of hair care decision-making and makes for a great reference of hair removal products.
The book closes by summing up the vulva-positive message that permeates the book and giving historical context for vulva representation.
The strength of this book is that no one is demonized, pandered to, or left out. From the beginning the authors establish non-gendered and non-heteronormative language; they also discuss the inevitable slip-ups that will occur. Including this admission makes the authors human. That may be why reading this book feels like talking to a friend.
Any discussion of Read my Lips would be incomplete without the crafts. In addition to heaps of helpful information, the authors have provided several fun and vulva-positive crafts to try and enjoy—no passive recipients of knowledge here! Offering craft options allows readers to take their new love of the vulva and share it with friends. By including a strong reference section and index in the back, the book becomes yet more useful and useable.
From time to time the structure within chapters and sub-section titles hinder the flow rather than being useful checkpoints. I found myself questioning whether I was still reading a section or had moved on. Minimally confusing though it was, small structural discrepancies do nothing to decrease the utility or pleasure you will receive from the warm and direct discussions.
The vulva is not something to be scared of. It is not a shameful and it is not a secret. Debby Herbenick and Vanessa Schick have given us a work that will prove functional and fun for a long time. They give basics, discuss options and may contribute a recommendation. You will feel empowered, curious and a little more connected to your fellow humans.
Caroline Hippler is a graduate of the University of Michigan Women’s Studies program, Teach for America alum and former high school french teacher in Baltimore, and is a multimedia contributor to Kinsey Confidential.