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Vagina Researcher Works To Reduce Cultural Discomfort

Doug Nadvornick

In the 1990s, playwright Eve Ensler broached a sensitive topic. Her one–woman show called "The Vagina Monologues" changed the way we talk about women's reproductive health. In this excerpt from an HBO documentary, she relates what it was like to ask women about their vaginas.

Eve Ensler: "At first, women were a little shy, a little reluctant to talk. But once they got going, you couldn't stop them. Women love to talk about their vaginas. They do. They really do; mainly because no one's ever asked them before."

Now, a male University of Idaho microbiologist is carrying on with Ensler's work to demystify the vagina. At the same time, he's breaking new ground himself in the field of vaginal health. Correspondent Doug Nadvornick reports on that research.


In his office, University of Idaho biology professor Larry Forney has a Plexiglas box with a little plastic model in it. It's a vagina: pink, about two inches long and flat.

Larry Forney: "It was so people would understand that the vagina is not a tube, but in fact it's a flat organ, quite unlike what you might imagine. It's smaller, for one thing, and the flatness of it is quite unexpected."

What is not unexpected is that many of you are probably already squirming as you listen to this. Larry Forney wants to change that. But first, more about his research.

Larry Forney: "Hello. So this is the lab where the sequencing is done."

Forney gives me a tour of his lab, which has a half–million dollar genetic sequencing machine. It analyzes samples from women all over the country. Forney and his colleagues are trying to identify the DNA of the bacteria found in vaginas. He says what they've discovered that the ecosystem of each woman's vagina is a little bit different.

Larry Forney: "There are these communities of organisms in the human vagina. They carry out a central function, which appears to be linked to reducing the pH of that environment so that organisms that don't belong there can't be introduced and survive very well."

Forney collaborated with colleagues at the University of Maryland and at Emory University in Georgia. Their study was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

At the University of Washington, obstetrics and gynecology professor Dr. Caroline Mitchell is doing some of the same kind of work. She says researchers are finding the vagina is much more complicated than they thought.

Caroline Mitchell: "What's interesting about this is that it really does seem that, for each woman, the right vaginal bacteria to keep a person healthy may be different. And what determines vaginal health, what determines the optimal composition of the vaginal microbiota, we don't yet know. That's what all of us are trying to identify."

Researchers like Mitchell and Larry Forney talk about vaginas in the same way most people talk about work.

Larry Forney: "From a microbiologist's perspective, it's just another habitat."

But most of us find it hard to be so clinical about such a sensitive topic. Prostate cancer and erectile dysfunction have become acceptable topics of conversation. But Forney says vaginas haven't — yet.

Larry Forney: "I'm bothered by the fact that women have to rely upon information from their best friends, or magazines, or from, perhaps, not always reliable sources for their health."

Caroline Mitchell says, when she sees patients, they're sometimes reluctant to talk about their vaginal health.

Caroline Mitchell: "I often find that I have to ask quite a number of questions to get people to really describe what's been happening. Often I find out this has been going on for a very long time."

Many women prefer to see a female gynecologist, like Caroline Mitchell, because they feel more comfortable when they need to disclose intimate details. But Larry Forney says being a male in this field doesn't work against him.

Larry Forney: "I think women are glad to hear somebody who is a male talk openly about this. And I think it opens doors that they've not seen open in the past."

Forney hopes his research will help lead to what he hopes is a vagina dialogue.

I'm Doug Nadvornick in Moscow, Idaho.

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