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January 13, 2000
When confronted with questions about women's reproductive organs, I know now to proceed with caution. Vaginas are like gorgeous, gummy, gooey orchids -- delicate, if damp, flowers -- and a lot of easily angered people out there reading this take their vaginas very seriously. People got pretty upset, for example, when I suggested that a woman unhappy with her long labia should have them lopped off. When your letter arrived, PP, I thought to myself, "What an interesting question!" Normally I like to answer interesting questions myself, but after "Labiagate," I'm just a little gun-shy. I don't want to stick my foot in it again, know what I mean? If I were to venture a guess, though, I'd say vaginal secretions are produced by little gnomes way up in the vaginal canal stomping teensy champagne grapes in tiny tubs. I mean, how else can we account for the gol'-danged deliciousness of women's vaginal secretions?
But while little gnomes stomping teensy champagne grapes in tiny tubs may be a delightful image, it's not really an answer to your question, PP, is it? Not wanting to take any chances -- I'm still getting hate mail about that labia column! -- I decided to line up a competent guest expert rather than tackle your question myself. But when I called the Northeast Women's Health Center in Philadelphia, the woman who answered the phone thought I was a prank caller and refused to help. I despaired for a moment, but then I got Kristina Chamberlain of the Chicago Women's Health Center on the phone.
In contrast to the grumpy, unhelpful staff at the Northeast Women's Health Center, Kristina and the rest of the women at the Chicago Women's Health Center were extremely helpful. So what produces vaginal wetness when a woman's aroused? "The vulvovaginal glands inside the vagina secret the arousal fluids," Kristina told me. "Another source of wetness is the urethral sponge, located under the pubic bone. It's the cause of female ejaculation."
Are there sweat glands in the vagina? "There are no internal sweat glands in the vagina, and the vulvovaginal glands do not produce vaginal discharge." What does produce vaginal discharge? "All kinds of stuff, good and bad. The most common among healthy women is the sloughing off of skin cells. Since the vagina is a mucous membrane and constantly wet, the skin comes out in liquid form, rather than in flakes like skin from your arm. This constant shedding of skin cells is responsible for the healthy vagina being the cleanest part of a woman's body."
Vaginal discharge is -- as everyone who's been paying attention is aware -- one warning sign that a woman may have a sexually transmitted disease. How can a girl tell if her discharge is the normal, healthy, yummy, scrummy vaginal discharge she and her partner should expect and celebrate, or an STD-related, abnormal, unhealthy, icky, sticky vaginal discharge? "A skin cell discharge will normally be clear and have a non-pungent odor," Kristina explained. "The consistency of the liquid may change at different times during a woman's menstrual cycle from liquidy to thicker and sticky (even stringy), but will probably remain mostly clear or have a white tinge, and will not smell pungent." Hmm... how reassuring. "A discharge caused by infection will have an odor that is yeasty, sour, fishy, or strongly pungent, and the discharge could be watery, thick, or chunky. And it's often white or some other icky color."
All this technical info about glands and sponges and sloughing off is helpful, but it's not very... oh, I don't know... mysterious, is it? I mean, where's the magic? So I asked Kristina if it would be all right for me to continue to believe that vaginal secretions are produced by little gnomes way up in the vaginal canal stomping teensy champagne grapes in tiny tubs. "Little gnomes? Uh, sure, you can believe that. Mostly it's the glands, but I'm sure there's a whole village of gnomes up there, too. And since we've just had the millennium, floods of champagne have been flowing out of women all over the place." Are there any gnomes in Kristina's vagina? "Of course." How did Kristina's gnomes spend New Year's Eve? "You know, I was on call for pre-natal that night, sitting by the phone. So the gnomes had a very mellow New Year's Eve at home in my vagina."
How reliable are polyurethane condoms at preventing pregnancy? I am in a monogamous relationship, so I am not concerned at the moment about STDs. My boyfriend and I have tried both, and have found polyurethane to be the better choice where sensation is concerned, but is latex the better choice for protection?
According to Adam Glickman at Condomania HQ in Los Angeles, when polyurethane condoms came on the market in 1994, they had a high breakage rate. "They were introduced by a company called Avante," Adam said, "and they released them prematurely. In fact, they were so bad that the FDA got involved, and Avante went back to the drawing board." High breakage rates do not bode well for preventing pregnancies, so polyurethane condoms would have been a bad bet for you in '94. But the new, improved polyurethane condoms Avante re-introduced in '96 met all the same safety and reliability standards as regular ol' latex condoms. "But there was a lot of bad P.R. from the first few months before they were recalled," Adam told me, "and polyurethane condoms still sell at lower numbers because of it."
As far as STDs are concerned, polyurethane condoms are non-permeable, and when used correctly -- barring any breakages or leaking -- polyurethane condoms provide more protection than latex condoms. (You can also use longer-lasting, better-feeling, oil-based lube with polyurethane condoms.) Condomania has a website, naturally, at www.condomania.com. There you'll find loads of condom info and statistics. Be sure to check out the Condom Wizard feature: Answer a few questions and Condom Wizard will recommend a condom just for you.