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The notion of vaginal tightness holds a special place in our culture. It’s inextricably linked to peak femininity and therefore assumed to be the domain of very young (as in barely legal, or completely illegal) women, those who haven’t had vaginal births, and Asians. And it’s regarded as one of the most appealing characteristic in a cis woman, who is presumably going to have a sexual life predicated upon intercourse with a cis man. When comedian Nikki Glaser recently pretended to interview other girls to date her boyfriend as part of their open relationship, vagina tightness was the key vetting criteria. (Strangely, all the candidates insisted they were extremely tight—too tight, even.)

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What “bigness” is to penises, “tightness” is to vaginas, and the pursuit of each quality is fraught with angst, misinformation, and cringe-inducing surgeries. Where penises are “treated” at home with vitamins and pumps, vaginas are targeted with Kegels, vaginal weights, and even creams. There’s an ever-expanding variety of apps, courses, and tools dedicated to making vaginal muscles tighter by making them stronger, no matter how tight (or strong) they may already be.

At a time when we’re expected to rigorously train every part of our physical form for maximum “health and wellness,” of course vaginas are in the mix. Kegels allegedly “increase muscle mass,” btw, so make sure you’re combining a lot of protein intake with those squeezes! (They’re increasingly recommended for men, too, so I’m sure a rebrand is on the way—maybe the DudeClench?)

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Not only are all these tightening tactics rather ineffective, they point to a chase after the impossible—the “perfect” genitals, as defined by ever-unsatisfied neuroses or worse, unattainable goals, like being “18 Again.” The implication behind the same rhetoric that pushes creams and Kegels is that vaginas are inadequate in their natural states, ruined by the very same functions for which they were designed.

🙅🙅🙅

I grew up thinking “sex”—meaning penetrative, vaginal intercourse between two straight, cis people—was at least a little painful for the one with the vagina, probably because I had the impression that for a teenaged virgin like me, tightness was the norm. I also had a notion that it would stay that way for every woman as long as she didn’t do something awful to her body, like go through natural labor or have constant gang bangs with hugely endowed guys. Decades of regressive, sexist messages are effective in part because they manage to mutate while still maintaining their effects. Prohibiting women from enjoying sex takes root as the idea that “women don’t like sex” which then bleeds into “women can’t like sex”; they’re just not built that way.

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The feminist movement and shifts in pop culture were already challenging some of this when puberty started creeping up on me in the ‘90s, but the old beliefs were far from gone. Between my grandfather’s porn magazine collection, my mom’s sober talk with me about hymens, YA novels about first times with anxious boyfriends or callous cads, and the online erotica I pored over in high school, I got the idea that sex hurt women because of their God-given tightness—but that vaginal sex also felt good.

Sometimes in the stories I read, the penetrative experience was portrayed as a tightrope walk in which a woman’s pleasure was highly specific and nearly elusive; the stroke, the speed, and the positioning had to be just right. More commonly, the pain itself was pleasure. A woman only had to endure it for long enough to become accustomed to it, and then the reward of good feeling would shyly surface from the morass of discomfort. In either scenario, the story went, a woman’s only route to sexual pleasure was through pain.

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I wasn’t the only one who took this to be true. In high school, I was once in a car with three guy friends, one of whom intimated he’d recently fucked a petite girl we all knew. “Did you put the hurtin’ on her?” another boy asked.

“Oh yeah,” the guy replied, and proudly elaborated on her soreness, her wincing.

Their eagerness to inflict pain to prove their own sexual prowess haunted me. The tacit assumption was that if this brutal thrusting was not quite what the girl wanted, it was at least what she should expect.

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My first attempts at vaginal sex were excruciating for me and frustrating for my partners. Was that because I was soooooo tight? Well, sort of; I was almost definitely, without realizing it, clamping myself closed for all I was worth, though I didn’t know that could even be done. I assumed my circumstance was the result of that classic tightness I’d heard about, the plight of every young vagina. (I thought of my coworker who’d told me losing her virginity to her boyfriend had been magical, pain-free, perfect: Liar.) It took several serious, concerted attempts at full body and mind relaxation before intercourse didn’t hurt me anymore, and reaching that point felt like a miracle, almost too good to be believed. I wasn’t sure I liked the way it felt yet, but at least the consuming pain was gone.

Thanks to a wave of progressive sex education, a lot of us probably already know that’s not how first sex should be, and it’s certainly not how it needs to be. As sex ed site Scarleteen puts it, “When people are all very aroused, relaxed and feel ready and comfortable and going about intercourse soundly, people feel good, rather than being in pain. Even the first time.” But early-formed ideas are like cockroaches—they keep coming back no matter how hard we stomp. Consider one vaginoplasty patient who enthused to Cosmo that she “couldn’t be happier with the results” because being with her husband afterward “was like having sex for the first time!” Only now it was “even more painful than I remembered the first time around." Painful intercourse—that’s what we call a vaginal success story?

🙅🙅🙅

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Even if relatively few of us are getting vaginoplasties, many of us desperately want to believe there’s an active, clear path to making (or keeping) our vaginas as appealing as they can be—and “appealing” means “tight.” For years, women have been exhorted, often by other women, to do Kegels every time they sit at a red traffic light, or wait in line while buying groceries. Hell, do them whenever you’re awake and thinking of it. How else are you going to work up to 100 reps a day?

In the classic American mindset of more is more, Kegelmania has reached convulsive heights. And the Kegels obsession has gone unchecked for so long that it may actually be threatening rather than improving pelvic health. After being promoted as the single easiest and best solution to incontinence, a post-birth sense of vaginal laxity, and even pelvic organ prolapse, the truth has begun to come out: Kegels may create as many issues as they purport to solve.

This news first broke among internet-using moms a few years ago, after biomechanist and pelvic floor-specialist Katy Bowman came out against Kegels and poked a hornet’s nest of fanatical Kegelers in the process. “The kegel is just such a huge part of our inherited culture information,” Bowman said, “ [that] no one bothered to fully examine it.” She explained that tightness is not a valuable quality in a muscle; tight muscles either function poorly or barely function at all. What is desirable in terms of muscular health is tone, meaning strength and flexibility. As counterintuitive as it sounds, a tight muscle is often a weak muscle, not an overly strong one. (You can geek out about why that is for days; the internet is full of fitness professionals reinventing this wheel.)

Super Kegel

That fact matters with regards to Kegels for a few reasons, the first being that after contracting as emphatically as possible, a lot of women weren’t releasing fully, meaning they didn’t allow their muscles to fully relax. The result? Increased tightness—the bad, unsexy, injury-causing kind. The second problem is that the pelvic floor muscles never get a break, not even when you’re asleep. As Boston physical therapist Liz Akincilar-Rummer explained, “Pelvic floor muscles are the only group of muscles in the body that never get to rest, ever. They are working all the time to maintain continence, to support our pelvic organs, and to contribute to our posture and stability.” Her unequivocal recommendation is that no one, not even those who’ve recently given vaginal birth, do Kegels unless they’re evaluated by a specialist who recommends them.

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In her extensive writing on the topic, Bowman agreed. “The pelvic floor is not supposed to be a muscle you ‘train.’” She then suggested that Kegels are best at helping people establish a mind-body connection between that part of their body, and need not be utilized beyond that. Basically, it’s like physical therapy—it serves a very specific purpose and isn’t intended be taken on as a lifestyle habit for the general populace. Furthermore, according to Bowman, studies showing that Kegels “work” are doubtful on several counts: They define Kegels differently, and focus on obtaining feedback through a measuring instrument, “which is different than they have kept someone from needing surgery over a lifetime.” You can make the needle jump on the Pelvexiser, but that doesn't mean you’re immune to pelvic problems.

I know my pelvic muscles are relatively strong because I can feel movement from the outside when I squeeze, as well as movement from the inside. I’ve gripped a guy before while he was inside me and laughed at his surprised face. I even tried shooting ping pong balls when I was in my twenties. (And I did it, though I should note that ejecting anything requires pushing down and out while kegeling is about pulling up and in.) I own a damn Pelvexiser, for crying out loud. I know I can make the needle move. Yet I still worry that my vagina isn’t tight enough, however “tight enough” should be defined. Am I average? Less tight than most women? Who could definitively tell me this?

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For my sake and yours, here’s what we know about vagina shape and size. It’s not a lot, but it’s all we’ve got.

  • A vagina changes when something is inserted, because it is designed to be flexible just like your mouth. (Is your mouth tight enough? That’s a question for another time.) It can accommodate a mass but when the mass is removed, it will return to its normal collapsed state, where the inner vaginal walls rest against one another. You can kind of see that happen in real time during this MRI footage of two cis people boning, which—disclaimer—is way hotter than you probably expect. My point, and the MRI’s, is that regular penetrative sex is highly unlikely to “stretch out” a vagina.
  • Occasionally, academics try to make casts of the insides of vaginas so as to better study the shapes and sizes. The process sounds messy and uncomfortable as hell but, not gonna lie, I would do it. Who doesn’t want to hold a mold of their own vagina? I’ve always envied that people with penises get to make dildos so easily. Anyway, one of these studies classified fives shapes: conical, parallel sides, heart, slug, and pumpkin seed. They only had 62 subjects—so imagine how many different, stupidly-named shapes they could find in a field of 6200—and the real focus was to glean some insights on vaginal surface area. Their conclusion: “There were no significant differences in surface area among the shape groups.”
  • A different study, using MRI results, suggested some measurements that might be average, like a mean vaginal length of 62.7 mm from cervix to opening, but ultimately concluded that “no one description characterized the shape of the human vagina.” These studies are only performed on (presumably) unaroused vaginas, which means they’re especially limited in what they can reveal.

Cumulatively, these studies indicate that when it comes to vaginas, “average” is mostly a moot notion. Which left me to do the unthinkable to qualm my neurotic anxieties. I asked my boyfriend if I was looser than the other women he’d been with.

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This is, I admit, “Do these jeans make me look fat?” taken to the 10th degree. But since I mostly trust my boyfriend, I mostly trust his response, which was “no.” He said (bless him) that “tightness” was only ever something he thought as tied to discomfort, and if a woman felt especially “tight,” he worried she wasn’t feeling good and wasn’t ready or interested in penetration. Which is the sanest and most scientifically sound stance any of us could take.

Of course some people suffer from real problems related to genital integrity, but they’re turning to serious medical help, not fad exercises and $12 gels. For the vast majority of us, pelvic “tightness” is a harbinger of pain and potential or incipient injury. Shooting out ping pong balls and opening beer bottles is not “an essential life skill,” no matter what the most aggressive sex gentrifiers would have you believe. And for the most part Kegels are a weird, bad way to go about having “better” or “stronger” orgasms. In fact, one pelvic expert suggested penetrative sex itself is already enough to keep your pelvic muscles healthy and exercised (if you insist on thinking about it that way).

From my maligned vagina to all the other overworked ones out there: if it ain’t broke, don’t break it by trying to fix it. We deserve better than Kegels, and we already have something better: healthy genitals that are capable of giving and receiving pleasure just the way they are.

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Charlotte Shane has written for Matter, Pacific Standard, The Verge, and is the author of Prostitute Laundry.