Women who feel more positively about their genitals find it easier to orgasm and are more likely to engage in sexual health promoting behaviours, finds a new study.
They are more likely to undergo regular gynecological exams or perform vulvar self-examinations.
"These are important findings about body image," said Debby Herbenick, associate director of the Centre for Sexual Health Promotion in the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation.
"Our culture often portrays women's genitals as dirty and in need of cleaning and grooming. Some women may have had greater exposure to such negative messages or may be more susceptible to their impact," she added.
During the study, Herbenick and colleagues created a scale for measuring men's and women's attitudes toward women's genitals.
Such a scale, she wrote in the study, could be useful in sex therapy, in medical settings to help better understand decision-making that goes into gynecological care and treatment, and in health education settings involving women and their sexual health.
The study found that men had more positive attitudes about women's genitals than women.
"Women are often more critical about their own bodies-and other women's bodies-than men are," said Herbenick.
"What we found in this study is that men generally feel positive about a variety of aspects of women's genitals including how they look, smell, taste and feel," she added.
Herbenick said that parents might consider how they can help their daughters to feel more positively about their bodies, such as by teaching them accurate names for their body parts, including their genitals (e.g., "vulva" rather than "down there") and responding in supportive ways to their self-exploration.
"Rather than saying, 'don't touch down there-it's dirty,' parents might let their children know that it's OK for them to touch their genitals, but in private spaces such as their own bedroom or the bathroom," Herbenick added.
The study appears in International Journal of Sexual Health.