Menstruation, sexual health, and pussies : A Q&A with Zoe Mendelson

Zoe Mendelson never set out to write a comprehensive guide about pussies. As a journalist trained in urban planning, she had initially made her foray into writing by writing a column made up mainly of emoji’s. But a frustrating all-night internet search to find basic information about female anatomy made her realize what a dearth of information there was about vaginas, vulvas and everything related, and how deeply this misunderstanding was embedded in how they are treated. So she did what any obsessed journalist would do – she wrote a book. 

PussyPedia: a comprehensive guide is a gender-inclusive, detailed, and beautifully illustrated 434 page guide to everything you ever need to know about vaginas, STD’s, sexual health and more. But it is also more than that. It’s part of a much larger project to uncover fundamental gaps in science around women’s health. It’s also an essential step towards destigmatizing and demystifying sex, health, and everything in-between for anyone with vaginas.

We caught up with Zoe Mendelson in Mexico City to talk about how Pusspedia came to be, where it is going, and why it is important to have these kinds of conversations. 

The following conversation has been edited for clarity.

Author Zoe Mendelson

Yarrow Global: Tell us about how you got into this topic. What motivated you? Were there moments in your life that made you realize this was a topic people needed to be talking about more? What made you decide to write a book about it?

Zoe Mendelson: I had a very un-unique experience of growing up with a lot of shame around my body. I think it’s definitely the rule rather than the exception for people with pussies. I was not interested in the world of sexual health or anything like that. But one time I was arguing with my ex boyfriend about whether or not all women could squirt because I can’t squirt. Well, I don’t know if I can, but I never have. And he thought I would eventually if  I could just, like, relax hard enough. Anyway, I started Googling it as one does when they don’t know something. I was just typing “Can women squirt?” And I just started reading a lot of really dumb shit. Things like girlie mag articles and instructions for men on how to make women squirt. Really dumb stuff. And I’m a journalist, so I started looking in medical journals, searching on PubMed, searching articles on female ejaculation and found some information about it. But  I couldn’t understand what they were talking about because I didn’t know where my bladder was in relation to my vagina. 

So I started looking at 2D images of vaginas, but the way the body’s organs fit together is so tetris-like, so 3D that it’s really hard to understand spatial relationships from a 2D image. So I started looking for a 3D image and I couldn’t find one. I impulse bought the website domain ‘ this is your’ and just started hatching this plan to get some 3D artists just to make a pussy so we could just put it up on the site for free. And then the whole thing just completely snowballed from there. 

YG: What were some of the initial things that you found out that were interesting or surprising to you?

ZM: I read about what the G-spot is and the urethral sponge and the periurethral glands. I didn’t know that the urethra is such an integral part of how the pussy pleasure anatomy works. I was like, “why don’t people know this?”  This is such important basic information. And the feeling of understanding how my body worked made me feel calm and in power and like in control and empowered so I decided this was definitely needed. Like the amount of research I had to do to figure out that the urethra is embedded in the vaginal wall was wild. All images basically show it as a separate and parallel tube and it’s not. And the rectum is also completely just separated by one wall from the vagina like in images it’s also shown as a separate tube.

It didn’t start as a de-stigmatizing journey. It was more….I just felt less gross and weird about my body because I have this new understanding of how it works. And so I just wanted to give that to everyone else. Also I’m just like a potty humor person, that’s just that’s just part of who I am so I enjoyed talking about all of these things. But the more I did the project, people were like, “It’s so great that we’re de-stigmatizing pussies,” “Shame is the antithesis of pleasure” etc.  And the more I did research on pleasure and about how and how shame fits into that and overall health, the more I realized how important that part [de-stigmatization] was. Like if you get an STI and you feel very ashamed of it, you’re less likely to go seek treatment for yourself. You’re less likely to disclose it to others. So shame and health have many direct correlations. If you teach young women that pleasure is a valid reason to have sex, they start advocating for themselves more. 

This isn’t in the literature, but if I had to guess, I think it’s because if you don’t feel ashamed, you take care of yourself. When we feel shame, we’re like, “Oh, I’m not worthy.” I don’t value myself and therefore I won’t do these things for myself because I don’t deserve it. The more I started thinking about how gross I had felt about my body, the more I realized how many times it had played into decisions I had made that were self-destructive. Like, not insisting that men use protection.  I’m still unraveling how it’s connected, but it’s so essential.

YG: After writing the book, were there more things you wanted to know?

ZM: (laughs). I don’t want to know anything else about pussies, but I’m bored of the subject at this point.

YG: How has the book been received?

ZM:  It’s been a slow and steady thing, so that’s cool. Very “word-of-mouth”. People really like it. I get a lot of really sweet emails like, “Oh, it made me feel normal.” And that’s like the best thing I could possibly hear from people. I mean, you feel normal, like that’s all I want. Institutionally it’s been more difficult.  We got interviewed by a bunch of publications that didn’t end up running the stories. And I think it’s because the editors maybe didn’t want to run the word pussy or just don’t think pussies are that important.

YG: How did you decide on the title?

ZM: It was like not long after the ‘grab them by the Pussy’ comment (from former US president Trump). The project was originally called ‘Thinking Inside the Box,”  which was also kind of a mouthful. And then after those grab them by the pussy thing, I started calling it PussyPedia as a nickname. And then we were like, No, it should just be called that. But also we needed a new word. We didn’t want to use the words vulva and vagina incorrectly because neither of them referred to the whole thing.So we wanted a word for it and we just decided to use pussy because it didn’t have a prior scientific definition. It’s also a word that’s understood in English, Spanish and all. It’s used all over the world. Plus we like that it’s offensive or historically offensive. 

YG: How would you describe the book? Is it more of a medical book or scientific overview or more of an empowerment book?

ZM: Well, it’s all of those. The book definitely looks at gaps in science. We still don’t know a lot of things and I put those gaps in there. It’s shameful that we haven’t invested in more research about this. There are so many things we don’t know. Like we don’t know if periurethral gland fluid comes out of the urethra or if it comes out of tiny holes on either side of the urethra. And I’m sorry, but there’s no way it could be very expensive to figure this out. Like you and I might be able to use a f*** magnifying glass and figure it out, you know? We don’t know very much about endometriosis, even though 20% of women have it. We just don’t invest in research about women’s bodies. Period. Something I tried to do was identify gaps and sort of make a record of where all those gaps are right now and transmit those gaps to the public so they could be mad about it. 

YG: We’re a blog focusing on the intersection of health and the environment. Where do you see some of these conversations fitting in?

ZM: Menstrual health is often in the axis of the environment, gender equality and health. Women and people who bleed need more access to water and they’re more exposed to the elements because they’re doing more washing. A lot of people don’t have access to menstrual products in the world so they’re outside washing clothes, they are dependent on that water to be able to exist for that time in society.

For people who do have access to menstrual products,  there are increasingly environmentally friendly alternatives to pads and tampons that have come out that I don’t think are safe. Like first of all, hand crocheted tampons. They’re so cute – they look like little tampon puppets. It’s really not a good idea to put tampon puppets in your vagina. Menstrual cups, as they’ve gotten more popular, there are more random brands. And it’s really important to make sure that you’re getting a menstrual cup that’s made of, like, good quality material. But overall, there’s a lot of articles on the Internet about how much waste menstrual products produce and I think that is actually a dangerous trend. it’s actually not that much like if you look at it but it’s also compared to other sources of waste, it’s pretty tiny. Right. And so it’s just like this insane other example of how we’re like putting the climate crisis on to individual people instead of looking at the, like, major sources and things like policies that could actually have substantial change. It’s a huge misdirection of energy to be like, “ Oh my God, menstrual products produce so much garbage.”

It’s also creating shame around not being a good and ethical mensturator. Do we really need to add more shame to menstruation? Some of these alternative products are expensive and sometimes it’s not going to work for people with disabilities. And so I’m not really in favor of making a huge issue of this. On the other hand, there are some great alternatives and yes, menstrual cups are awesome. It’s kind of fucking cool to see all of your blood in the cup and be like, that’s how much I menstruate. Because with all the other products, you don’t really get an idea of the amount or the volume of it usually. I think using it helps people be less grossed out by their own menstrual blood. I like the idea that it’s like getting people more physically in touch with their own menstrual blood and like putting something in and taking something out of their vagina like that. It can normalize your relationship to your own body and bodily functions.“

 YG: Any last comments?

ZM:  would like to say that the new wave of eco-feminism is a f*** aberration. I can’t stand the gender essentialism involved in this idea that women are somehow more connected to the earth because they menstruate or something like that. First of all, what about trans women? Are trans women also more connected to the earth? Like but also it’s just so silly and gender essentialist. Remembering to fight gender essentialism is like the basis of feminism, right? That’s not what eco-feminism was, it was joining fights so that we can overthrow the capitalist, white supremacist patriarchy that’s ruining the environment. It’s not about siphoning off like a bunch of power for the movement. If we got rid of essentialism and stopped having so much shame around our bodies, we’d have so much mental space back, right? Like we could use all that mental space to help save the planet, we’d have so much combined power if we could get rid of that shame.

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