The Yoni: Why We Need To Rethink Female Health
Why ‘Yoni’ is an important term, even if not the perfect one, that brings to light a new concept of female health.
Women are taught to have contradictory views of their own sex and sexuality. We are largely in the dark about the intricacies of our bodies. Many of us experience trauma, abuse, and pretty much all of us experience confusion. It’s only logical; start with contradictory modes of acceptable behaviour, throw in contradictory expectations that both our own and the other sexes have of us, sprinkle with a lack of information about our biology and combine with the unknowns that mar female health in general. Blend for a very particular insecurity-cocktail that makes it hard to know how to be, what we need, what we really feel, and how best to take care of ourselves. And let’s not get started on the ways ‘numbness’ is encouraged in men. The way we are taught about the body continues to be problematic, across genders.
Which is why when I heard the word ‘yoni’ for the first time, I wasn’t surprised at its usage and the practices that have sprung up around it. Women (and people of all genders) have been slowly carving away at the institutions and systems that have held us in bizarre states of malaise. Progress through inequality has been made, even if equality has not yet been achieved. And where better to begin the desire to rebalance than at the very core of female biology: cue the ‘yoni’.
What Is ‘Yoni’?
Yoni is a Sanskrit word, often interpreted as ‘sacred temple’, or interpreted literally to mean the womb, and female organs:
Such as “vagina”, “vulva”, and “uterus”, or alternatively [as the] “origin, abode, or source” of anything in other contexts.
It is a word that has gained traction precisely because it challenges the various terminology assigned to women’s biology in the past. This term used in this context is important for indicating the extent of the shift in thinking (or a desire to shift thinking) that has accompanied the female body more recently.
Leah Kaminsky breaks it down:
Anatomical terms we think ‘sound’ feminine often have anachronistic and inherently sexist origins. The word ‘vagina’, for example, comes from the Latin for sheath — a close-fitting cover for the blade of a knife or sword. Similarly, the Late Greek word kleitorís, which referred to clitoris, can be traced back to kleíein: ‘to shut away’. You don’t need to be Freud to see the outdated metaphors here.
Terms with sexist origins dominate the labelling of our bodies, as anatomical structures have perpetuated the idea “that advances are made by one individual — rather than the long collaborative process central to the process of scientific discovery.” Kaminsky also mentions Lera Boroditsky, associate professor of cognitive science at UCSD, who argues for a system “that is not centred around the historical victories of men ‘discovering’ body parts”. Rather, that terms should be descriptive and useful to the body’s owner. In terms of the wider picture of female biology, this appears a helpful way to rethink how we assign terminology.
‘Yoni’, however, is not that kind of term. It is not supremely descriptive, but it is evocative. It indicates the desire among (some) women to treat their sexuality as sacred and important. To acknowledge it is still largely not understood — that the gaps are to be explored, and are spiritual and positive in nature, rather than frighteningly unknown. It’s a desire to know that femaleness, to whatever extent, is made up of more than merely one organ, one aspect of genitalia, one term, one practice, one approach to health. For me, ‘Yoni’ is useful as a term precisely because it opens up the spectrum, and allows in our ability to value ourselves, for whatever biology we embody. It encompasses the physical and the beyond-physical — and, after all, female bodies are at the intersection of so many realms of human experience. What they represent, what they are understood as, is vastly complex.
A Problem in Science
In Angela Saini’s magnificent book Inferior, she outlines in detail the way biases in scientific practice have undermined our understanding of female health. A study published in 2012, by psychologist Corinne Moss-Racusin and a team of researchers at Yale University, explored the problem of bias in scientific culture itself. A hundred scientists were asked to assess a resume, half given a female name and half a male name. When asked to comment,
Scientists rated those with female names significantly lower in competence and hireability. They were also less willing to mentor them, and offered far lower starting salaries. [The paper also mentioned] ‘The gender of the faculty participants did not affect responses, such that male and female faculty were equally likely to exhibit bias against the female student.’ Prejudice is so steeped in the culture of science, that women are themselves discriminating against other women.
The fact remains that the inherent bias in scientific practice and culture means that understanding of some aspects of gender are prioritised over others. Some questions have been more avidly pursued over others. Without discrediting all science, Saini manages to helpfully point out the fact that we need greater understanding of female biology, and that feminism can help us to achieve this better understanding — understanding born through consideration of the biases that exist, to ensure that misinformation in female biology is curbed.
Of course, a spiritual-leaning term like ‘yoni’ does not cure us, but offers instead the notion that we can and will question what is meant to be ‘established’ knowledge of the female body. It is a marker in the attempt to shift thinking. And the battle is largely to do with how we think about the biology, rather than the facts themselves. Carol Tavris, a social psychologist, says of feminism and science,
For decades, feminism has been a lens that illuminated biases in science. It made science better. Women began studying questions about women’s lives — menstruation, pregnancy, and childbirth, sexuality, work and careers, love — that most male researchers simple weren’t interested in. When men did include women in their studies and found gender differences, they often concluded that women weren’t just different form men, but deficient. So feminism was a crucial way to explode beliefs that people held that were just wrong.
Saini and Tavris make the point that understanding in science is always accompanied by bias, even though we believe it to be an objective field — the impossibility of unbiased work, even in a field that considers itself objective, means that attempts to define any gender as superior or inferior is pointless and irrelevant. But it also means that we have to take extra care to ensure that the spectrum of gender is explored equally. Saini concludes:
Without taking into account how deeply unfair science has been to women in the past (and in some quarters, still is), it’s impossible to be fairer in the future. And this is important for all of us. Because what science tells us about women profoundly shapes how society thinks about the sexes.
In the space left by a lack of understanding, the idea of the ‘yoni’ emerges, and with it, practices like ‘yoni massage’, ‘yoni steaming’ etc. These are all ideas that feel like they belong very squarely in the hipster niche between the bohemian, goddess-loving rediscovery of female sexuality and fitspo-loving health addicts. It ticks the boxes of alternative thinking, and alternative health. While I cannot comment on the efficacy of such practices, my instinct is not to immediately dismiss them out of hand. After all, women looking to apply new ideas and new ways of thinking to their own health is valid and necessary, alongside changes in ‘traditional’ scientific practice.
We Don’t Fully Understand Our Sexuality
Alongside female biology is the much murkier question of sexuality. Not in terms of preference, but in terms of practice. The narrative of women as sexually submissive or less promiscuous than men is one that has been in embedded in the culture. The two have always come hand in hand — a suggestions that we are built a certain way, for a certain purpose. Both of these avenues require a fair amount of reassessment.
While we have made progress into the realm of understanding female sexuality more fully, our ancestral practices continue to plague us. In Wednesday Martin’s recent novel Untrue, she talks about the origin of misinformation on this front: plough-based agriculture.
How? She explains that before plough-based agriculture, women worked alongside men to perform the most essential modes of primary production, giving us equal footing in importance with men. The plough upset this, because:
Men have greater grip strength, throwing velocity, and throwing strength than women. For these reasons men suddenly had and continue to have a physical advantage in plough-farming settings… [this led] to a new and rigidly gendered division of labour: men outside doing faming; women specialising in secondary production, including childcare and good preparation inside the home. This…in turn gave rise to believe about the “natural role of women”…
This contradicts, in Martin’s view, the other aspects of femaleness — namely our biology.
Women are made for sexual gratification and for pursuing it, and for mating multiply, in ways that men — who come and are done — are not. Female biology suggests that women are built for sexual experimentation…
You can see more from Martin about why that is (she talks in depth about Himba women, who practice non-monogamy as standard, as well as the development of our biology, in particular the clitoris, amongst other things), but suffice to say here that there are emerging contradictory views against the line that women are made to be in the home, and experience much lower libidos than men, tethered to one male. This is obviously not everyone’s experience of the world anyway (as all members of the LGBTQ+ community can attest, and many other ‘straight’ women can probably also confirm), however, it does continue to influence the ways in which female bodies are understood.
A desire to break the established line, to try and get at the heart of a contradiction we increasingly feel, between what females are meant to be and what they are, demonstrates itself through the emergence of these alternative practices. These ‘alternative’ desires to reconcile the contradictions that continue to cause us the confusion between our sexuality, our health and our biology.
Putting the Alternative into Alternative Health
For those who aren’t familiar, ‘yoni massage’ is the practice of seeing a practitioner who will use massage techniques to discover and work through blockages in the body. This is a non-sexual touch, designed to assist women in pinpointing the places in which trauma, numbness, and other concerns are experienced physically in the body. By touching, and this can include ‘internal work’, women are supposedly given the opportunity to better understand their own bodies — the effects abuse, violation, violence, consent or lack thereof, illness, numbness, etc, have within the body itself. Juliet Allen’s Authentic Sex podcast does a relatively good job at introducing this practice, but doesn’t really talk through any of the medical information you might want to know before you commit. In fact, this podcast from the V Word is a very informative and purely medical discussion of the vagina, and is extremely important listening for ladies who just aren’t sure what’s going on down there.
The V Word
Listen to The V Word episodes free, on demand. Lady bit talks by lady docs. Two badass gynecologists tackling relevant…
I found that upon listening to both of these, I didn’t come away with a massive desire to be extensively touched by another person in order to understand my sexuality and history better. But I did question why that is: is it because I have internalised ideas about what my body is and isn’t, and I’m afraid to challenge this? Or is it simply that ‘yoni’ practices aren’t ‘scientific’ enough for me? Or is it something else?
Practices of yoni massage and steaming definitely absolutely belong on a celebrity blog, but they do also acknowledge the extent of misunderstanding and lack of awareness that we have of our own bodies. At the heart of yoni massage, for instance, is the desire to work through sexual trauma. If only there was a way to do this that was considered ‘medical’ but not ‘clinical’; looking and touching in depth the different parts of the body themselves that experience numbness, pain, etc (all the vestiges of trauma, lack of consent, etc), isn’t really a part of standard medical practice. Your GP will prescribe you what you need. You can be sent to counselling to talk through a problem or experience. But how often do we allow the healing of the body and the mind to overlap in one practice?
Traditional medicine has separated the mind from the body, thus the battle to legitimise and de-stigmatise mental health. It’s no wonder yoni massage has become a thing. It’s just one way that women themselves have noticed how each realm of ‘healing’ cannot be separated so severely, when our bodies are battlegrounds of expectations, beliefs, values and biology.
Ultimately, I do think there is a place for this kind of alternative exploration of health, particularly in the sphere of female health. As a cisgender woman, I am used to treating any non-sexual touch of my body, in particular the intimate areas, as medicalised and cold. I am used to the idea that I will have to undergo smear tests, that if I choose to become pregnant and have a child, there will be a lot more ‘invasive but not sexual’ touching that will go on. I have learned to mentally divorce myself from these realities. Because that is medicine, at the end of the day, and while ‘health’ is the goal, there is a tough psychological distancing that goes on between health and medicine — healing, it seems, has taken on both a clinical meaning and a more spiritual one, and the divide, while it feels large and contradictory, doesn’t negate either in my view.
We Need Ideas… Like What ‘Yoni’ Represents, But Better
Yoni isn’t a perfect term. It isn’t scientific. It isn’t descriptive. And we, as women, do need scientific practice to consider us more equitably. We need to better understand our biology. But in the meantime, we stand to gain from acknowledging the multiplicity of femaleness. We stand to gain from knowing that our bodies are not merely the physical — because they aren’t. Our bodies are interpreted, objectified, and layered with meanings that have very little to do with us as individuals. And a lot to do with society, its development and its values.
In the post #MeToo world, a mass reconsideration of consent has begun. The way our bodies experience sexuality is being questioned. And this is an important part of contemporary feminist thinking about who and what we are as females — legally, biologically, spiritually, aesthetically… We are longing for a safe space to understand. The concept of yoni and yoni massage as more than merely about organs, as more than mere practice, is the repercussion of limiting terminology and modes of thinking.
I want to be clear here: I am not telling you to go out and get a yoni massage, and please definitely do not go and try ‘yoni steaming’ (there is no evidence that this is ever necessary). Absolutely not. I merely wish to highlight the fact that perhaps female health does require reassessment in more than a clinical sense. Perhaps our bodies, their multiplicity, does require terminology that encompasses more than the merely physical. We require descriptiveness, we require integrated thoughts of other realms of our experience.
The same may well go for men, but I cannot speak for the male experience. My experience is female. It certainly seems the case that without a blended understanding of ‘health’, that includes more than the merely physical, both men and women suffer immensely and unnecessarily.
We need to strike the balance between utilising traditional modes of inquiry, alongside ‘alternative’ ideas about what matters to women. Because what matters to the scientific community isn’t always what matters to women. The more we break down the legacy of the plough, the legacy of established “natural” ideas of womanhood, the better we can get at finding truer understanding of ourselves.