Laura Haddock in Da Vinci’s Demons
Do you ever feel not so fresh, down there? Or do you worry about your flappy ol’ ham sandwich being a little too slack? After all, as thousands of years of misogynistic bullshit would tell us, Loose Lips Sink Relationships.
Myths about how a vagina should be—tight, pink, hairless, smelling like roses and jasmine blossoms—are both widespread and a little difficult to discuss. Enter the internet, the library of all human knowledge we can explore alone, in the dark of night. According to a 2013 Pew study, 70 percent of people search for health information online, and 35 percent attempt to diagnose themselves.
Self-diagnosis is dangerous enough, often causing unnecessary mental anguish. But it’s even more of a problem when individuals then take their diagnosis and try to treat themselves without consulting a doctor—and there are plenty of hucksters out there who will take your money for those treatments, promising the world and delivering a bag of crushed up bark and wasps.
Dr. Jen Gunter, an OB/GYN who writes about the dangers of putting untested “wellness” products into the vagina, wrote a post last week that went viral, highlighting a particularly horrifying product being sold on Etsy: wasps’ nests intended to be ground up and applied to the vagina. The product listing (now unavailable, if you wanted to buy one) claims “some say it can tighten the vagina” and “restore the elasticity of the uterine wall” after childbirth. According to Gunter, the tree bits, swollen from being infected with wasp larva, are actually astringents, which dry out the vagina, increasing “the risk of abrasions during sex.” No thanks.
But it’s not just wasps’ nests. Though some items come with disclaimers, there’s a whole world of products on Etsy that promise to tighten, freshen, heal, and otherwise improve your vagina: oils, herbal steam treatments, powders, all claiming to have healing or medicinal properties. And those products seem to be in violation of Etsy’s terms of service, which prohibit items making medical claims. So why are they still up?
The vagina charlatans
Let’s start with the vaginal steams. There are dozens of vaginal herbal steam packets to choose from; a search for “yoni steam” yields 148 results at the time of publication. (Yoni is a Sanskrit term for vulva, “especially as a symbol of divine procreative energy conventionally represented by a circular stone.”) Vaginal steams have been popular in wellness bullshit circles for years now—they were featured in Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP newsletter, the pinnacle of rich people wellness bullshit. Our sisters at Jezebel even covered the vaginal steam trend all the way back in 2010. Steaming your clam is supposed to have a range of health benefits: GOOP says it is an “energetic release” that “balances female hormone levels.” Spas that offer it promise a range of health benefits, from menstrual relief to increasing fertility.
Of course, unless you have your own custom-built “Yoni Stool” ($200 plus shipping) for this purpose, you’ll have to improvise on how you create your home cooch sauna. One steam product on Etsy, titled “Floral Fanny,” comes with some harrowing instructions:
After steeping your herbs, pour them in a bowl that will fit into your toilet bowl.
(The toilet has been thoroughly cleaned with non-toxic cleaners like baking soda and/or white vinegar.)
Place a towel on the seat, as a cushion.
Sit 15-20 minutes. Afterwards, keep yourself warm and relax for an hour or better yet, have your steam at night and go straight to bed afterwards…zzzzz.
Baking soda and vinegar will not disinfect your toilet, or even clean it that well. Please do not rely on baking soda and vinegar to kill poop bacteria if you insist on steaming your vagina in a toilet.
Another similar product, “Moonbeam Steam – Organic Yoni Steaming Herbs,” claims the steams “work by applying warmth along with moisture carrying medicinal oils from healing herbs to the vagina through steam. These mucous membranes are extremely porous and absorbent making yoni steams a key to womb wellness.”
No. You do not need to use steam to transfer moisture to your vaginal walls. Just because a steam facial can have benefits, that doesn’t mean a steamed vagina is a good or medically necessary thing to have—and in fact, it’s quite risky. Dr. Mary Jane Minkin, clinical professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences at the Yale University School of Medicine and owner of the women’s health site Madame Ovary, told Gizmodo that the main risk is burns. Again: you do not need to risk burning your vagina if you feel it’s dry down there. A good old squirt or three of lube during sex will solve that; there are also vaginal moisturizers like Replens for everyday use.
Like the steams, there are other products claim a wide range of vague benefits, like the “detox yoni pearls.” That listing claims the pearls can “detox your womb, reset your natural balance,” and “remove toxins.” Minkin told Gizmodo that this procedure “sounds like a whole lot of hocus pocus,” and that “there is no such thing as detox of the vagina, that I know about.”
There are also products with more upsetting purposes, like this Vaginal Tightening Oil, which claims it will “naturally restore you femininity” using ingredients like castor oil and patchouli. The listing says it contains both “a unique blend of Chinese herbs” and “other herbs that are native herb of Thailand with unique tightening substances.” The “Madura Stick,” meanwhile, claims it will “restore ms V, meeting such a virgin,” and eliminate “rancid excessive mucus to become dry and tight, causing pleasure.”
There is “no product, herbal or prescription,” that will tighten the vagina.
But, as Minkin told Gizmodo, there is “no product, herbal or prescription,” that will tighten the vagina. She says kegel exercises can be beneficial if you want to do them, but there’s no tincture or potion you can slap on down there to magically tighten your snatch. And drying out the vagina, which Gunter says many of these tightening products do (and some, like the Madura Stick, openly admit they do), is dangerous—not just for risk of tearing and pain from sexual activity, but actually increasing the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, according to Gunter. Most importantly, the preference for a “tight” vagina is a very damaging notion for women. It’s tied up in cultural preferences for virgins with untouched vaginas, which have existed for thousands of years; even today, some women undergo surgery to restore their hymens.
Some products, like this vaginal oil and vinegar cleanse, contain disclaimers stating their products aren’t intended to treat medical problems. That doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous, though: putting something containing vinegar on your vagina isn’t recommended, and could easily upset the delicate pH balance of the vagina. According to Minkin, “vaginal tissue is the most delicate tissue in the body.” Anything that upsets that “ecosystem” is a risk. Gunter told Gizmodo that vinegar douches have been proven to be harmful, because vinegar kills “good bacteria.”
But many other products do make explicit medical claims, though many also qualify those with words and phrases like “could” or “may help.” The moonbeam steam, for example, claims it can be beneficial for women who experience menstrual cramps, endometriosis, fibroids and cysts, and even infertility.
Others make even more absurd claims. One herbal steam, Womb Flow, promises to “aid in the release of sluggishness within the womb, and restore youthful elasticity to your sacred space.” I have no idea what a sluggish womb would feel like—maybe I have one and I don’t know it? Yet another steam treatment boasts a number of health benefits, saying it “Stimulates growth of white blood cells and antibodies,” “Detoxifies the womb to remove excess waste which contributes to cysts, fibroid’s, cancers, and tumors,” and, of course, “Improves vaginal tightness.”
Several products specifically claim to deal with that most hated scourge of the downstairs: the yeast infection. One product, the Yoni Duster, says, “if you have issues with yeast infections or any other unwanted bacterial parties cropping up on your home turf,” its “powdered antimicrobial herbs” will take care of it. Yes, this seller wants you to dust your vagina to, I don’t know, absorb all the yeast infection, like sprinkling flour on an olive oil spill? Asked about the the Yoni Duster as a means of combating yeast infection, Gunter replied: “No.”
Another product claims to treat both yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis, and consists of a bottle of apple cider vinegar—which, remember, is not good for the vagina, because it kills both good and bad bacteria—and a herbal oil blend.
One herbal steam promises to “aid in the release of sluggishness within the womb, and restore youthful elasticity to your sacred space.”
The problems with these products seem pretty obvious: They’re untested and could make your problems worse. But according to both Minkin and Gunter, another big problem is misdiagnosis. Most women who think they have a yeast infection don’t—Minkin says only a third of women who think they have a yeast infection actually do, and many have other conditions that require different treatments. In fact, she says, a third of people who think they have yeast infections actually have an allergic reaction—which a ground-up wasp’s nest or tightening oil from Etsy could easily cause.
Gizmodo contacted several Etsy sellers who sell products like these, to ask them whether they had contacted gynecologists before selling these products, how they knew what the benefits of their products were, and whether they were concerned that two gynecologists we spoke to said there are no treatments that can tighten the vagina. One yoni steam seller responded:
Think of steam steam provides Moisture, people use steaming methods for skin issues all the time, steam also cleans and lifts things people have been steaming for centuries, it was through steam that once made trains move, some cleaning businesses use steam all the time because it lifts residue…
Also of course some gynecologist are against Steaming for one if women learn how to take care of the gynecological needs without meds, unnecessary surgeries, etc gynecologists would be put out of business…
Finally everything used to Vagina steam is 100% natural and from the earth. Oh on the vagina tightness it absolutely can help make the vagina tighter as with steam thing retract making things tight.
The vaginal tightening oil seller, meanwhile, offered personal experience:
Yes it concerns me if I have ever encounter those issue or challenges, it’s not recommended for everyday use. The ingredients are safe and natural . It’s not for insertion, just the outer entrance / tip of the vagina. I have been using it, I’m health fertile and no side effects. I’ve only received good reviews. Especially from my church group. There are worst products out there trust me better not natural better not natural. Thank you for your concern.
Unregulated, untested, unsafe
So what does Etsy do about these potentially dangerous products? Etsy told Gizmodo that it doesn’t allow products making serious medical claims, but that it doesn’t review items before listing, and anyone can list items at any time. The company also said it has technology in place to find prohibited items automatically. When Gizmodo asked about specific products, like the Yoni Duster, Etsy said it would not comment on specific items. As of publication, all the items we shared with Etsy except one—various flavors of vaginal lube beads—are still up.
Etsy says it doesn’t review items before listing, and anyone can list items at any time.
Then there’s another set of regulations: the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA). An FDA spokesperson told Gizmodo that individual sellers, not Etsy, are responsible for the claims they make. Asked whether the vagina tightening oil, for example, was in violation of the law, the spokesperson said that in general, sellers can’t claim their products are “intended for use in the diagnosis of disease or other conditions, or in the cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease unless the FDA has determined the product is safe and effective for those intended uses.” The FDA monitors the marketplace, including online, “through a variety of tactics such as market surveys, label reviews, reviewing adverse event reports and testing of products.” The spokesperson pointed Gizmodo to warning letters sent by the agency to Etsy sellers who sold hemp oil products.
So there’s a gap between what the FDA requires—no claims of “mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease”—and what Etsy requires, which is merely no claims of remedying or preventing “a terminal or serious medical condition, such as cancer or heart disease,” claims about weight loss, and claims that products will “improve or enhance sexual performance; cure sexual dysfunction; or augment, enlarge, or enhance primary or secondary sexual characteristics.” But even if Etsy only prohibits claims about serious illnesses, it’s clearly still arguable that products promising increased vaginal tightness are claiming to enhance primary or secondary sexual characteristics, or cure sexual dysfunction.
Etsy, like many online marketplaces, takes a percentage cut of every sale: a 3.5 percent transaction fee, a 20 cent listing fee, and a payment processing fee 3 percent plus 25 cents. That means Etsy profits off the sale of these items. Gunter told Gizmodo that means she won’t shop at Etsy, because “profiting off vaginal misinformation that could harm women” is “the lowest of the low.” She also said she believes Etsy should do more to take these products off their site: “I would think if you were Etsy and you cared, then you would say we don’t allow these products, end of discussion.”
Selling bullshit to women that takes advantage of their deepest insecurities isn’t new, nor is it exclusive to Etsy. Nor is it solely a hippie/herbal thing. Gunter told Gizmodo she feels pharmaceutical companies “absolutely” share some of the blame, because “every time a woman walks through a Walgreens in the United States, she sees all these products designed to make her vagina smell better or clean her up.” Those aren’t just aimed at women with bacterial vaginosis, or other medical conditions that make your vagina smell bad. That, after all, wouldn’t be as profitable. And eventually, that message will sink in—as Gunter said, “How could it not?”
How are women supposed to navigate this vaginal self-esteem nightmare? Minkin told Gizmodo that the best practice for women is a “good relationship” with their healthcare provider, where they can “feel free to check in” about what’s normal and what’s not, and whether vaginal products they’ve seen are necessary or beneficial. Of course, that isn’t easy or feasible for many women, thanks to our insurance-based healthcare system. Not everyone has a doctor they can call up with a question about yoni dust; in America, not everyone has a doctor. The threat of even more cuts to Planned Parenthood, and the potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act, would only make it even harder for women to access medically-sound advice from qualified professionals.
In the meantime, though, these bullshit products are still on Etsy. Days after we pointed out these potentially dangerous products, including the tightening oil and the yoni duster, to its press team, they’re still up, even though they quite clearly violate their policies. Presumably, they feel those things are fine. If Etsy decided the Yoni Duster didn’t contain serious medical claims, it should ask itself: does it want to profit off products that not only take advantage of women’s insecurities, but do so by encouraging them to put a bunch of fucking herbs in their vaginas?