June 8, 2022 - 8:01am

The female body has been underestimated for literally thousands of years. Deep cultural biases predispose us to believe that while males are agents, females are more of an inert receptacle. We see being female almost as an absence of maleness, rather than being a specialised sex in its own right. Whatever unique features males have are signs of their superiority; any uniqueness on the part of females either counts against them or is of no interest.

Countering these biases has long been a feminist aim, and a new book by science journalist Rachel E. Gross is the latest contribution to this effort. In Vagina Obscura we learn about the vagina’s multi-layered defences against microbial invaders, the active role that egg cells play in fertilisation, and the internal anatomy of the clitoris, only recently discovered to be “ten times the size people thought it was”. Gross emphasises that much is still to be discovered: such basic questions as why we menstruate, for instance, remain a mystery.

The final chapter of Vagina Obscura, however, takes a turn away from the female body, instead detailing the latest developments in gender reassignment surgeries that fashion neovaginas out of penises. A recurring theme is that these surgeries are possible because both sorts of genitals develop from the same starting materials, so that changing from one to the other is just a matter of “putting the parts in the right place”. Marci Bowers, a medic specialising in trans surgeries, explains that “the penis is just a large clitoris. In fact, I don’t know why they don’t just call it a large clitoris”. This is despite earlier chapters detailing the underappreciated complexity of the clitoris, which, with arms and bulbs that project inside the body, is not simply equivalent to a miniature penis.

Bowers, who is given a glowing profile in Vagina Obscura, was the surgeon of a celebrity trans teenager who suffered serious transition-related complications, and may never experience sexual pleasure. The surgeon is on record saying that this is an expected side-effect for minors who transition — a snag that doesn’t get a mention in the book. Instead, in Gross’s history of trans surgery, individuals driven by desperate unhappiness to undergo experimental operations become pioneers in a golden age of genital rearrangement. Any difficulties faced (one patient recalls that after an eight hour surgery in 1961: “I was just a glob of aching flesh”) are counted as heroic sacrifices made in pursuit of a noble goal.

It’s hard to avoid the impression from this chapter (its placement at the conclusion of the book, and its title – “Beauty”) that, after all, the best and most interesting vaginas are the ones that used to be penises. In contrast, the role of vaginas in giving birth — arguably the organ’s primary function, and one which is responsible for the existence of almost everyone who has ever lived — is given only a relatively passing mention.

None of this is to say that adults shouldn’t have gender reassignment surgery if that is their choice. However, it is a bit galling for a book arguing that female anatomy is complex and active in ways we don’t yet understand to then turn around and say actually, ‘it’s not so complicated that it can’t be replicated by cutting and stitching other parts’. A vagina is not simply an opening somewhere in the pelvic region but its own organ, with a role as part of the reproductive system of females. Vagina Obscura, of all books, should know this.

Ellen Pasternack is a PhD student in evolutionary biology at Oxford University.