The other day, I received this email:
Dear Dr Herbenick,
I found your (and your colleagues') article "Pubic Hair Removal among Women in the United States: Prevalence, Methods, and Characteristics" after some noisy debate with my beloved on pubic hairstyle. I wanted to find some reliable data to back up my opinion that a trimmed and partially shaven vulva does not make her a (pardon my french, actually a quote from her) slut, but an enlightened, mainstream young woman. (I sent her the link immediately.)
Anyway, if you have any idea about how to convince my darling (a PhD herself in another field) that the 19th century is over, much has changed since Dostoevsky and Austen; and Kegel excercises, a good shave and an improvement in her FGSIS can significantly improve her sexual function, I would be very willing to consider those ideas. I just don't know why she is so stubborn, rigid and dismissive about many creative ideas, placing her excitement index well above the 55+ age category.
Dear Debby, thank you for your time and attention, keep up the good work, remain active and beautiful for the world's enrichment,
This is a good example of the complexities of science. In the above-mentioned study about pubic hair, we found - in a study of 2,453 adult women in the US - that pubic hair removal was associated with more positive scores on the Female Genital Self-Image Scale (FGSIS) and also more positive female sexual function as measured by the Female Sexual Function Index (FSFI). In particular, women who sometimes removed all of their hair (went "bare") tended to have higher scores even after controlling for things like younger age which are known to be linked to positive sexual function.
However, this was a cross-sectional study which means that data were collected at one time point. We cannot know what causes what. There could be a number of reasons why pubic hair removal, FGSIS and FSFI were linked. It may be, for example, that removing one's pubic hair does indeed help a woman learn to like her genitals more. Maybe we have such societal shame and disgust around women's body hair (underarm and leg hair included) that when we remove it, we like the parts better. And maybe in so doing, we end up being more open to sex - for example, more receptive to enjoying or receiving oral sex (cunnilingus, for women).
But it's also possible that other things are at play. It may be that women who start out feeling more positively about their genitals (who score higher on the FGSIS) are more likely to take chances with their pubic hair. Maybe they figure that whatever they do to their pubic hair - keep it, remove it, shave it into a pattern - their genitals will still look good. Or maybe they like their genitals so much that they want to show them off by removing more hair. And maybe women who score higher on the FSFI (the sexual function measure) are more open to suggestions from their partner or simply try more things with their body. Or maybe they are more into prepping their bodies for sex in any number of ways, such as showering before sex or dimming the lights.
Because we don't know what causes what, I am not willing to tell anyone to keep or remove or pattern their pubic hair for better genital self-image or better sex. In fact, I think there are many other ways for women to learn to love their bodies than by shaving their pubic hair (I've written about several of these in Read My Lips: A Complete Guide to the Vagina and Vulva).
For this man in particular, I would absolutely agree that there is nothing about pubic hair removal or trimming/grooming that makes a woman "a slut" (in her words). [I would also encourage him to consider that my looks aren't a good reflection on my professionalism.] But the bigger question he might raise to her is why she thinks trimming her hair would make her a slut, and perhaps whether someone in her past has made her feel "like a slut" or otherwise negatively about her sexuality. By asking why she feels like that, they may have a conversation that helps them to learn new things about each other, about each other's sexual pasts, experiences and attidues, and anything that may be keeping them from connecting for pleasurable sex in the here and now. He might also ask himself how such an issue - what this woman would do with her own body - would ever escalate into "noisy debate". Does he feel like his girlfriend should adjust her genitals for his sake? How come?
I would also encourage this man to ask himself why he wants her to shave her pubic hair so badly. Might he learn to love her vulva in whatever state she has it in? Or, if he loves her vulva as-is but would find it easier to perform oral sex on her if she trimmed her hairs, he might find a gentle way to say that - to frame the idea around easier, pleasurable sex rather than anything negative about her body.
The couple might also want to talk about their sex lives more generally. A little pubic hair trimming is unlikely to radically shift their sexual lives. Connecting/feeling intimate, learning about each other's bodies, likes/dislikes, and preferences, and practicing technique (which can be fun!) are more likely routes to more pleasurable sex. More on a general better-sex/better-intimacy approach can be found in my newest book, Sex Made Easy: Your Awkward Questions Answered for Better, Smarter, Amazing Sex.
Debby Herbenick, PhD, MPH is a research scientist at Indiana University, a sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, and author of Because It Feels Good: A Woman's Guide to Sexual Pleasure and Satisfaction, Read My Lips: A Complete Guide to the Vagina and Vulva, The I Love You More Book, The Good in Bed Guide to Anal Pleasuring, Great in Bed and Sex Made Easy. Follow her on Twitter @mysexprofessor