Which way to the Vagina Museum?

As some of you may know, last summer I came out as bisexual. Although a few of my friends are also bi, I thought that finding more people and getting a feeling of community would help with the intense loneliness and confusion that coming out brings (especially when you’re in your 30s and don’t want to go and party it out and make a lot of bad decisions, as I probably would have if I’d come out earlier). To help with this, I joined a bunch of bi groups on Meetup, and I’ve spent the last six months making excuses for not going to various social events. These excuses have ranged from a mild sore throat, to getting my braces put on my teeth that week (legit excuse), to having a few too many activities going on that week (my limit is three nights a week out of the house – any more than that and my introvert-o-meter goes haywire).

In the end, I finally RSVP-ed Yes instead of Maybe to a social with a group for bi women only, and the social event was to go to the Vagina Museum, in Camden. I’d been thinking about going along to the museum for a while anyway, so this seemed like a good opportunity. It was only after I’d clicked Yes and booked my ticket, to stop myself from backing out, that I realised that going on your first bi meetup with a bunch of women to a museum dedicated to women’s genitalia sounded like a scene from Fleabag. Go hard or go home, as they say.

The day arrived and I had indigestion most of the day, which I put down to nothing in particular rather than raging anxiety. This anxiety was increased because my braces had just been tightened and I couldn’t eat much – how to eat dinner before being at the museum at 6.30?? Should I pop home? Or eat at work? Or eat on route and find a bathroom so I could clean my teeth before I got there? So many questions but the indigestion sorted them all as I had no interest in eating anything. Drinking on an empty stomach it is!

As befits someone with an anxiety disorder I left myself plenty of time, so the bus actually got to the venue half an hour earlier. So as not to be that weirdo hanging around starting at my phone, I stayed on the bus intending to get off further down and walk up. Unfortunately the bus took a weird circle because of a one way system, so by the time I got off, I was in danger of being late. Just to make sure I would be late, I set off purposefully for several minutes in the wrong direction – striding up the street thinking ‘oh how strange, Gap/the Odeon/Masala Zone all used to be on that other road that isn’t Camden High Street – oh well, they must have moved’ before finding myself out in a wasteland instead of a bustling market, and turning round to power walk the other way.

Sweaty now, I marched up to the Stables, and would actually still have been on time had Camden Stables not been a TOTAL FUCKING MAZE so I spent ten minutes walking around in circles trying to find the place. GPS was shot because of all the walls and some of it being indoors, and the one map I found very helpfully didn’t have a ‘you are here’ arrow on it. The various food vendors all looked at me curiously as I walked past for the eighth time, but somehow I didn’t want to go up to them and say, ‘excuse me – which way to the Vagina Museum?’

Eventually, I arrived. For some reason, I had envisaged quite a large place, with its own bathrooms and a bar – just because that’s what I associate with the word ‘museum’, I suppose. As this particular museum is the first of its kind and a charity, and this is the first permanent space it’s had, it’s very small. Very, very small. A couple of rooms, actually, and one of them is the shop. I stared around but the woman who was organizing it was nowhere to be seen. I signed in at the front desk so I could go into the exhibition room, too flustered to really register the cute girl who looked at me with interest as I told her my name (although she may have just been intrigued by the anxiety aura I was giving off).

What to do now? As I was there, I thought I might as well learn about vaginas, so I wandered into the exhibition and began to read. Although I was encouraged to hear that the size of your labia and the tightness of your vagina aren’t affected by how much sex you have (contrary to every joke given on the topic by straight men ever) I was still wondering where everyone else was. A few women came in looking a bit lost and glancing at their watches, but to join them I’d have to leave the exhibition room! Would I be allowed back in? Paralyzed by indecision, I walked in a small circle for a while, rubbing my nose or playing with my earring about every two seconds, definitely not looking like a serial killer. The women seemed to be in their own group, regardless of whether they were also from the bi meetup, so I pretended not to see them anymore.

After rereading the piece on labia and vaginal tightness a few more times (apparently actual university textbooks in India claim that these things are affected by how much sex you have! This is outrageous) the woman I recognised from the meetup page turned up. I went over and introduced myself, and then confused her by blurting out that I was new (to what? The museum? The group? Bisexuality in general? Yes to all, thank you so much). Agreeing that we should take a look at the museum, we walked over to the piece on labia size and vaginal tightness and I affected a look of great interest as I read it for the third time. I read very quickly, and for all I know she does too – but anyway I stood there politely in case she hadn’t finished for some time even though, by now, I could probably have recited it.

We made a bit of small talk (nobody else seemed to be coming, but instead of acknowledging it we carried on going around as a pair, which made the whole thing feel like an extremely odd date) and it turned out she’s a psychologist. In another life, I’d have loved to be a psychologist, and as I work in an office, I immediately felt inferior. She asked me what I did, and I garbled something about a tech company, well a start-up, well not really a start-up anymore as I’d been there six years, anyway I’m the operations manager there – and she said, oh, you manage people? In an impressed tone, so of course I said yes I do, even though I don’t. Then I backtracked and said ‘well, only a few’ and she looked very confused, so to try to impress her, I said I’d implemented a wellbeing and mental health programme recently. That DID impress her, so I tried to explain what we’d been doing – which would have sounded much more impressive if I hadn’t been overheating so badly due to anxiety, and the power walk to get there, that I did it all while trying to take off my coat and roll up the sleeves of my shirt, without dropping anything or forgetting what I was saying. She then asked me what we’re doing to measure the impact of the programme, which to be honest isn’t its strong point, so I tried to explain that but all in sentences that started and then I forgot how they’d started, and then had to stop and start again.

To be honest, it was a relief to be given a diagram of women’s genitalia and asked to label as many things as we could, as a sort of test – as you go around the exhibition you’re supposed to learn them all. I was glad to find she was as clueless on this as I was, or at least pretended to be – we both just about managed to label the cervix and vulva but after that, we were lost. We quickly discovered, from the next part of the exhibit, all the different names for the parts of our own bodies, as well as the strange names women had given them when asked in a national survey. The only one I remember was ‘wee-wee hole’ instead of urethra, and I’d quite like to forget that as soon as possible.

The next part of the exhibition caused a tense silence – the first one, surprisingly – as it was about trans people and the importance of acknowledging that you don’t have to have a vagina to be a woman. As anyone involved with feminist or LGBT discourse will know, there are a group of people named ‘trans exclusionary radical feminists’ – or TERFs for short – who insist that trans women aren’t real women and that somehow or other trans people are inhibiting women’s rights. I think this is garbage, and it turns out, so did the woman I was with, but neither of us knew that then so we read the piece and moved on without comment, each hoping that the other wasn’t about to say, ‘but real women should be able to have periods/give birth’ or something similar.

The rest of the exhibition was really extremely interesting. We learned that you can still get pregnant if you have sex while standing up – the revelation to me was more that people thought sperm would all just fall out like that, rather than believing it would help you not get pregnant – and that vaginal discharge will often be slightly acidic, and that acid can, over time, bleach the inside of your knickers. I never knew. Also that the industry on women’s ‘intimate hygiene’ products to make your vagina smell like a garden/chemist/freshly-laundered blouse is worth trillions of dollars, a piece of news that made me very depressed, especially as many of these products will affect the pH of your vagina and lead to bacterial infections. We also saw that at one point, someone made something called ‘virginal soap’ – supposedly if you washed with it after sex, you’d magically not get pregnant (not sure if it was also promising to restore your virginity, something which seems a bit of a big promise, even for an advert).

Once we’d gone around the exhibition, we looked round the shop, determined somehow to get the most out of what was clearly a very strange evening. She was very nice, and we didn’t get on badly, but the premise of the thing felt odd – all we knew about each other was that we were attracted to more than one gender, and that’s a strange basis for meeting someone even if it does technically mean you have things in common. After perusing some excellent queer and feminist book titles, and deciding that, on the whole, we didn’t want a necklace or pair of earrings in the shape of labia, we left and said our goodbyes. We clearly weren’t enjoying each other’s company enough to go on for a drink, although we were very polite and hoped to meet each other again soon. Unfortunately, due to my own feelings of inadequacy around being bisexual, I came away from the evening feeling very sad and as if I’d failed an exam. I don’t know if the woman I met was joining the group to look for a partner – I don’t think I was her type, if so, even if I hadn’t mentioned a boyfriend partway through the evening – but regardless of what she wanted, I felt that I had disappointed her. I went home, had a big bowl of pasta (the indigestion had miraculously cleared and been replaced by gnawing hunger as soon as I found the damn museum), and then had a bit of a cry because I felt so overwhelmed and lost by the whole situation.

In hindsight, it was a fun and interesting evening, and if nothing else an excellent title for a story. I haven’t yet gone to any more meetups – the emotional reaction afterwards has, unfortunately, given me another excuse for why I shouldn’t go. However, hopefully I will find another one to pluck up the courage to go to soon – if you see one all about breasts, do drop me a note.

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