Labia Modification in Mozambique and Australia

In the last month, I’ve heard a couple of anecdotes about changing labial length that I found intriguing.

In the workshops I teach on sexual anatomy and physiology, I always like to mention that the length of labia minora varies and that longer labial length has no correlation with sexual experience (a myth I’ve been asked about previously). One of my favorite quotes about natural labia length comes from sex educator Becca Brewer, who said in one of her workshops that “labia minora are like sisters, not twins,” meaning that it’s completely normal for them to not be identical.

After a recent workshop I taught, a colleague of mine shared with me that in Mozambique (her home country), women are taught before they get married to lengthen their labia minora. She described how women will gently stretch their labia minora in the hopes of making it longer and better able to “wrap around the penis” and increase both partners’ sensation. As a side note, it’s important to point out that labia stretching in this case is classified as a “genital modification” practice rather than “genital mutilation.”

I was surprised to find relatively little written about Mozambique-specific labia stretching practices, but I found quite a bit about the practice more generally. According to some, labia minora stretching is associated with more orgasmic pleasure for both partners since it can create more friction and can create more tugging on the clitoral hood. Needless to say, I found this fascinating since what I usually hear about labia alteration is making them smaller, usually to fit within a certain aesthetic ideal.

On the Australian front, this news article from the Canberra Times describes the new regulations for labiaplasty – the surgical removal of part of the labia minora – in Australia. What I found most interesting about this article (although not that surprising) is that the popularity of such surgeries has increased in Australia – so much so that it is drawing government attention.

The Australian government is looking to cut spending for Medicare, the government-funded universal healthcare system, and are targeting cosmetic genital surgery in particular. To be clear, Medicare only covers labiaplasties that are deemed medically necessary like in cases where a woman’s labial length causes her physical pain. I do wonder though how often pain is reported as the primary reason for alteration, when in reality the surgery is cosmetically motivated.

In teaching women about their genitals, I try to hold space for both body acceptance and a lack of judgement for people who choose to alter their genital appearance in some way, whether it’s a Brazilian wax or a surgical alteration. I think it’s useful to consider the cultural variability of what constitutes sexually-appealing labia and to be aware of how (as with any proscribed beauty ideal) we are sold an artificial construct of what “normal” bodies look like.

That said, I think it’s important to acknowledge that judging someone’s individual choice in this matter, even if it’s closely-aligned to said constructs, doesn’t go very far in changing minds or furthering the dialogue. I just try to espouse the idea that genitals are primarily for pleasure, and that the best way to expand womens’ freedom of choice in the matter is to encourage individuals to experience their bodies in the way that is most enjoyable to them.

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About Kate McCombs

Kate McCombs

Kate McCombs, MPH is a NYC-based sex educator + blogger. She's the founder of Sex Geekdom, a global community for sex educators, researchers, and other folks who love having geeky conversations about sex.