For an entire month in 2018, science journalist Rachel E. Gross’ “vulva had felt on the verge of bursting into flames.” There were few options for contending with, let alone eradicating, the bacterial infection plaguing her nether regions. Her best hope? Boric acid—or, as her doctor put it, “basically rat poison,” which has been used since the 19th century in vaginal suppositories, as well as for killing roaches. Gross’ understandable alarm, as well as her frustration with her own anatomical ignorance, spurred her onto the wide-ranging investigatory journey she chronicles in her engaging and enormously fascinating debut, Vagina Obscura.
Thanks to entrenched sexism, any book about female anatomy and medical history is bound to have physically and psychologically harrowing passages. Gross’ is no exception. After all, it wasn’t until 1993 that a federal mandate forced doctors to include women and minorities in medical research. “Women—and especially women of color, trans women, and women who are sexual minorities—have historically been excluded from this supposedly universal endeavor,” she writes.
In addition to offering valuable historical context about the medical field’s reluctance to properly study cervices, ovaries, uteruses, et al., Vagina Obscura also serves up optimistic evidence for a more equitable future. Gross writes with enthusiasm about pioneering doctors and researchers and shares stories of the people who’ve benefited from their work. To wit: Australian urologist Helen O’Connell’s research on clitoral anatomy laid the foundation for reconstructive surgeries for genital-cutting survivors. Biologist Patty Brennan’s realization that female ducks’ vaginas rotate opposite to males’ corkscrew penises challenged scientific assumptions about copulation. The activism of Cori Smith, a 28-year-old trans man, has drawn attention to trans and nonbinary people with endometriosis. Gender-affirmation surgeon and transgender woman Marci Bowers is “pushing the boundaries of what surgeons can do to give patients the appearance and sensation they desire.”
Gross makes it clear that, if we want to advance our understanding and medical treatment of the human body, it’s going to take a village—one filled with people who are curious, compassionate and persistent. She’s certainly identified lots of them in Vagina Obscura, a book that is impressive in its scope and thrilling in the hope it offers to those whose bodies have previously been overlooked.