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A Vulva Phrenology Movement Is Exactly the Last Thing We Need

A woman sits in front of her laptop, rubbing her eyes with both hands in stress

Lydia Reeves’ Vulva Diversity Project is a work of art that was created to celebrate and normalize the great diversity that exists in vulvar anatomy and to pushback against the pressures that drive an increasing number of mostly young women and girls to seek out labiaplasty.

However, for anti-labiaplasty advocate Jessica Pin the vulvas featured were too diverse, sparking off what many have christened the birth of “vulvar phrenology”.

While Pin began by expressing her entirely appropriate appreciation for the vulvas with long labia featured in the art piece—a normal and natural feature that’s been stigmatized for years—she then went on to speculate as to whether several others included were “intact” or “mutilated.” Pin went so far as to tweet an image of the art piece where she had circled the vulvas she was sure were “natural” in red and the one she was sure belonged to a trans woman in blue while leaving the ones she was uncertain about uncircled. Though the initial tweet has since been deleted, she has shared the circled image again in other tweets.

Pin then went on to contact the artist and ask her whether two of the vulvas from the project belonged to trans or cis people. While the artist did confirm that the one Pin was certain about did belong to a trans person she did not in fact confirm that the trans person in question was a trans woman or had undergone surgery of any type (and has since disavowed Pin, the conclusions she has drawn and the way she’s weaponized her work).

Pin, however, assumed this was confirmation that she was looking at a post-op trans woman, and proceeded to send out multiple tweets declaring that surgically constructed vulvas look like genital mutilation and therefore should not be included in vulva diversity projects.

When numerous cis women responded to Pin’s tweets by pointing out that their non-surgically altered vulvas look just like the one circled in her tweet Pin doubled down, going so far as to claim they didn’t know what their own vulvas looked like.

Worse, Pin then started dming some of the women who had responded to her. In some cases just to argue, but in at least one asking them to submit pictures of their own vulvas so she could explain to them how they were wrong and didn’t really look like the plaster cast in question.

While cis women whose bodies resemble the vulva Pin has singled out for criticism have been negatively impacted, with multiple women talking about how they felt gaslit about their own bodies after reading her threads, the primary victims here are trans women. Though Pin’s statements were rooted in transmisogyny, and Othering trans women from the beginning, her rhetoric only grew more inflammatory the more criticism she received—culminating in a pair of now-deleted tweets in which she threatened to make videos teaching transphobic cis men how to spot the difference between cis and trans vulvas.

This insistence that vulvas cannot look a certain way without surgical intervention is not only psychologically harmful to the AFAB people whose genitals do naturally look like that but places all women in danger. The oft-repeated claim from transphobes that “they can always tell” has been disproven so many times, with numerous cis women being harassed and even assaulted because they failed to meet the onlooker’s arbitrary standard of femininity. Adding genital appearance to this list, with a handy guide for spotting “fake” vulvas, is likely to place all women at greater risk of violence from transphobic men who are now convinced their partner is a trans woman and are angry about it—something that already happens far too often.

Pin’s days-long Twitter rampage has already been picked up and weaponized by transphobes, and her aggressive, deeply transphobic statements coupled with her complaints about being “attacked” by trans activists will doubtless continue being used by them to further harm trans people.

We need a better understanding of AFAB anatomy. The clitoris is under-researched and genital surgeries performed on AFAB people, whether for cosmetic or serious medical reasons, frequently do leave the patient with impaired sexual function and other issues. The fact that plenty of professionals refuse to countenance the physical damage done during these surgeries as anything other than psychosomatic is a serious problem, as are the absurd beauty standards applied to vulvas that lead to people being shamed for their anatomy and persuaded to undergo unnecessary surgery to “correct” it. Creating a new, different, but equally narrow and unrealistic standard for “authentic” vulvas is in no way a solution to any of that, and blaming trans women for the medical abuse people with vulvas experience is an act of violence.

(featured image: filadendron/Getty Images)

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Siobhan Ball (she/her) is a contributing writer covering news, queer stuff, politics and Star Wars. A former historian and archivist, she made her first forays into journalism by writing a number of queer history articles c. 2016 and things spiralled from there. When she's not working she's still writing, with several novels and a book on Irish myth on the go, as well as developing her skills as a jeweller.