Teen angst revisited: Porn, pubes, and personal privacy at Fannying Around

I’m sitting in a circle of twenty women, listening to a porn director discuss the myth of the ‘perfect pussy’. The wine is flowing, cake is being passed around and people are nodding and laughing as she talks about her ingrown pubic hairs.

“I think the whole ‘designer vagina’ idea is rubbish, don’t you?” she asks us.

“There’s such a variety of different women – and different fannies – out there and if you actually watch porn, you’ll realise that.”

As the women around me lean forward to have their say, I suddenly I realise I’ve got my hand up.

Hold on… what the hell am I doing? This was not part of the plan. I came here to listen, to observe, I never intended to say anything.

I’m at Sh! In Hoxton for a ladies-only soirée known as Fannying Around. It’s run by Sarah Berry, erotic writer, journalist, and all-round sex person who I’ve been in touch with about a feature I’m working on and who invited me to experience (and inevitably write about) the class. It bills itself as a forum in which to talk about everything fanny-related, from Brazilian waxing to sex tips and even more serious gynaecological issues. There’s often a guest speaker and an open conversation is encouraged. There’s no pressure, you can volunteer as much or as little as you like and I, as it turns out, want to share.

It’s not easy to get a word in, though. Our guest this evening is teacher-turned-pornographer Liselle Bailey and she’s prompting a lot of discussion. Mel Jones, whose poetry was one of the better offerings at Velvet Tongue last May, is a self-confessed chatterbox and Fannying Around regular. Needless to say, she doesn’t want for opinions and her enthusiasm is contagious. Before long people – myself included – are laughing and butting in, telling their own tales and swapping tips on ingrown hair removal.

It’s fascinating to hear people’s stories and there’s plenty to be learnt just by sitting and listening… and watching the reactions.

“I was six or seven years old when I first made myself come,” reveals Liselle to wide-eyed surprise around the room and even gasps.

“I have a weird method too,” she continues. “I have to hold my breath and point my toes.”

Next to me my companion nods and then looks sheepish. For a moment both of us had forgotten the other one was there. And unlike the rest of the people in this room, I actually know a little bit about her sexual history and she mine. We tend to be fairly open with each other but while I’m happy to tell her about my waxing preferences and the new underwear set I bought last weekend, I’m not sure we’ve ever covered orgasm techniques.

But this is exactly the point. I was ready to share my opinions and even experiences with a room full of strangers but the minute I remembered my friend was there, I felt awkward. Surely that can’t be right?

Right or wrong, it’s not uncommon. Unlike men, who start openly thinking about/playing with/scratching their genitals pretty much from the moment they realise they’ve got them, women, as a rule, try not to. Any curiosity/anxiety is acted on covertly or more often than not ignored completely and discussion is strictly limited to ‘safe’ areas. Periods are okay if you stick you mood swings and cravings but the actual bleeding remains a source of embarrassment for many. Waxing is fine as long as you steer clear of too many details and masturbation is absolutely off limits. Those who do talk openly are at best snickered at and branded ‘earthy’ and at worst shamed and labelled disgusting. And the hang-ups start from an early age.

There is little openness about sex in our culture as it is but least of all among teenage girls. Shows like Channel 4’s The Joy of Teen Sex were the kind of thing I’d watch in my bedroom on the fuzzy black-and-white TV I’d appropriated from the loft. My parents wouldn’t have disapproved but I wouldn’t have told them either. If it had come up in the playground the response would have been a casual “yeah, I saw it – pretty funny, can’t believe they think we don’t know about that stuff.” Any new information gleaned or worries raised would have been kept steadfastly to myself and I’d wager most of my friends would say the same.

Many would tell you that they just don’t feel comfortable talking about ‘that stuff’ with their peers, never mind their family. And that’s where Fannying Around comes in.

Sarah herself spent her teenage years suffering in silence with what was later diagnosed as vaginismus – a condition in which the brain forces the pelvic muscles to contract when anything is inserted. Unable to have sex and with no outlet for discussing it, she came up with the idea of a kind of self-help group for women who, due to upbringing, culture, or just a particularly reserved circle of friends, had no one with whom to share their problems, concerns, or general musings.

From there it’s expanded to cover anything and everything associated with vaginas, twats, pussies, cunts, fannies, muffs, and any other term you care to coin/use/reclaim. Everyone is welcome, the only condition being “a hole in your front bottom”, and though airtime can be tricky to come by, any contributions you do make are enthusiastically met:

“I went to a tantra workshop this weekend,” says one woman. “And… I ejaculated.”

“Oh well done!” shrieks Sarah, giggling at her own exuberance.

The atmosphere is warm, there is free wine with every ticket and, on the night I went down, cupcakes decorated with iced vulvas. (I split mine unceremoniously down the middle and gave half to my friend – not even a fondant labia can staunch my loathing for cupcakes). People come to listen, they come to learn, they come to share and all of the above is welcomed.

But if you are intending to stay quiet, be warned: you might just surprise yourself.

  • Fannying Around next takes place at Sh! Hoxton on November 28. Click here for details.
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