For the last three years, a group of women (and a few men) have gathered each month to talk about the taboo subject of women’s nether regions, or as so many mothers phrased it to growing girls, “down there.”
The group is Vino and Vulvas. One of its founders, ordained interfaith minister and sex therapist DiAnna Ritola, was raised Roman Catholic. “We didn’t touch ‘down there,’ and we didn’t talk about it,” Ritola says.
But she and physical therapist Heather Edwards, whose work centers on pelvic issues, decided people needed to talk and learn about and be comfortable with sexual and gender issues.
The two met at a TED talk, after they submitted almost identical proposals for a presentation. Edwards’ proposal got picked.
“I was a little jealous that hers was chosen and mine wasn’t, but then we started talking,” Ritola says.
What resulted was Vino and Vulvas, a monthly educational program at the Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar in the Grove Arcade.
Oh, and it’s vulvas, not vaginas, says Ritola. The thing you see in photos, that’s the vulva, the outer part of a woman’s genitals, she explains. The vagina is an internal lady part.
“We purposely hold it in a public place because we want these topics not to be taboo,” says Kelley Johnson, Ph.D., an Asheville sex therapist. “It’s important for people to hear the subject spoken about in public.”
Often, Johnson says, someone will come into the Book Exchange while the presentation is going on, catch a little bit what’s being discussed, then sit down to hear the rest.
Edwards says most of the topics concern “how to get over your own stuff and learn to communicate with other people,” or issues of spirituality and physicality.
“We want to encourage women and their caregivers to go beyond the ‘are you sexually active’ question,” Edwards says.
In this culture, women traditionally have been discouraged from speaking about or enjoying sexual activity, Ritola says.
“Good girls were those who followed all the patriarchal rules so they could marry and become Becky Homecky,” she says. “Girls weren’t encouraged to discuss sex or to say no effectively. Too often, we said yes when we were too uncomfortable or didn’t know we could say no.”
Ritola recalls a wave of interest in physiology and sexuality after publication of the book Our Bodies, Ourselves in 1970, a paperback published by a group of women in Boston and sold for 75 cents. The book talked about women’s sexuality in an open and frank way and included information on abortion, which was illegal at the time. The book is still in print, and its movement is alive and well.
Vino and Vulvas, she says, very much carries on the spirit of that movement.
Each session of Vino and Vulvas has a specific topic. The meetings open with general discussion, and then participants are encouraged to write questions, which are then addressed to the panel members, who change each month with the topic.
Meetings are structured, but there’s always room for freewheeling ideas.
“I tell panelists there’s no need to prepare remarks because they already have the expertise to answer the questions put to them,” Edwards says.
That helps keep the conversation spontaneous and honest. The focus is not on sexual prowess but on women’s ownership of their bodies and sexuality as well as communication of these ideals.
“If you came here for a real how-to, you’re going to be disappointed,” Edwards says.
In fact, Edwards is quick to point out what this group is not. It is not a support group or group therapy, and it is not a “safe space” where no one is in danger of being triggered. It is for education and discussion of topics that women have heretofore been discouraged from exploring, she explains.
Jamie Brazell, who owns and operates Out of the Woods Therapy, is a certified sex therapist and one of the Vino and Vulva leaders.
“I know that there are people who have what I would consider a narrow view of sex — its purpose and its practice,” Brazell says. “I want to expand those views, or at least allow people to know they can be expanded.”
Topics range from masturbation to transgender issues; discussions can be explicit. The women make no apologies for that. Speaking frankly about such issues educates people and helps them become more comfortable with who they are, say the leaders.
“I want you to be comfortable,” Ritola says. “I want you to understand your sexuality.” She’s soon to move to Queens, N.Y., where she will marry her fiancé, a captain in the New York Fire Department, and begin a new chapter of Vino and Vulvas.
“I think what we’ve created here is a real asset to the community,” Brazell says. “I think it’s special.”
Vino and Vulvas meetings are attended by 15 to 35 people each month, mostly women. Topics vary. A few people come regularly, while others are brought in by interest in the monthly topic. Some recent topics include:
· August 2016: I Can’t Feel Sexy When My Body Is…
Too fat? Too skinny? Weird skin thing going on? Differently abled? Don’t feel at home in your own skin? Body image issues can span a wide range and have a big impact on our intimate relationships.
· May 2016: Unpack Your Emotional Baggage (Without Scaring the Crap Out of Your Partner)
It can be pretty darn challenging to figure out how to unload your bombshell of a past onto a new partner without worrying that you’re going to send them running away from all of your frantically waving red flags. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It can be done mindfully and in a way that helps your developing relationship thrive.
· February 2017: Awkward Sex Conversations
You’re on a date, it’s pretty early in the relationship, and you haven’t yet discussed sex. Maybe you’ve already had sex and maybe you haven’t, but you still haven’t actually TALKED about it. How do you break open that conversation of “this works for me” or “that really turns me off.”
• July 2017: How to Be a Woman — The session included a cisgender woman, a “butch” lesbian cisgender woman and a transgender woman, all of whom have expertise on being women.
WHAT: Next session of Vino and Vulvas will focus on “How to be a Man.”
WHEN: 7 p.m., Monday, Aug. 28
WHERE: Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar
COST: Admission is free, but there is a $5 minimum at the Book Exchange.