A Science-y Take On: Pubic Hair

"Like any evolving species, the vulva has morphed into something sleeker, starker and altogether more modern.” But we need to collect more data before making generalized (and political) statements about pubic hair.

Jan 18, 2012 at 2:00pm | Leave a comment

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A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away -- meaning my teenage years -- my boyfriend committed the ultimate act of love and snuck his parents’ illustrated copy of “The Joy of Sex:  A Gourmet Guide to Lovemaking” out of their bedroom for us to page through.  

I imagine he wanted to impress me with just how sophisticated and worldly he was in the ways of physical love -- and perhaps inspire me to try something a little daring.  (Not that this particular love-making handbook was all that subversive, all things considered).  But as we flipped through the 1970’s edition of this book, we found ourselves concentrating on things other than the soft-core images. Mainly, the pubic hair.

“Wow,” I joked, looking at what appeared to be Grizzly Adams in sideways 69 position.  “That’s some beard.”

Are you talking about him or her?” my boyfriend quipped back. Or maybe he wasn’t joking.  

Because, admittedly, there was a lot fur between this couple. What these two pencil-sketched models had in even more abundance than sexual positions were pubes. Curly, thick and dramatic pubes. And, for whatever reason, they were mesmerizing. Until the shock wore off, we found ourselves looking and talking more about the hair than the sex.  

There’s been a lot of talk about pubic hair lately -- even more than Emily’s recent attempts at living with 70’s bush. It’s been political talk: the kind of conversation that tries to tie the idea that women who monkey with their pubic hair are anti-feminist and over-sexualized. That we’re pandering to the porn industry and immature male desires. And that somehow, someway, we are lemmings where it concerns the upkeep of our own hoo-ha -- especially, dramatically, if we are going Brazilian and removing all of our hair down there.

But there is an important element missing from the conversation. And that would be the men. Why, pray tell, aren’t we talking about the fellas who do their own regular “manscaping” and what that means for society and sexuality?  Why do they automatically get an out?

A few weeks ago, everyone in my circle was discussing a long and amusing article in the Atlantic entitled, “The New Full-Frontal:  Has Pubic Hair in America Gone Extinct?” In it, author Ashley Fetters asked the apparently important question of whether female pubic hair was going extinct: In a word, no.

But it’s on the fast track to the endangered species list, and its chief predators include the porn industry, smaller bathing suits and lingerie bottoms, and the Kardashian sisters (case in point: Kim once famously proclaimed that women “shouldn’t have hair anywhere but their heads”).

Pubic hair is, however, evolving. Once upon a time, all vulvas were coated in a protective layer of coarse, woolly tresses. Hard to believe, right? It’s kind of like the revelation that horses once had toes, or that the Ford Mustang once had tailfins.

But like any evolving species, the vulva has morphed into something sleeker, starker and altogether more modern. Today, it is smooth, baby-soft and hairless. OK  I get it. Pubic hair is evolving, too. But why do we assume this is a uniquely female phenomenon?

As soon as I read the Atlantic story -- and started hearing a variety of different opinions about the piece -- I tweeted to my male friends and asked what they were doing with their private coifs.  While a few happily tweeted to the masses, “I trim but I don’t shave it all off,” or “Waxing my stuff is just good manners,” I found that the majority of my favorite guys felt more comfortable messaging me privately.  

For the most part, each and every one of them does something to trim, shape or “manscape” their nether regions.  They might not be shaving all their pubes off -- but they were certainly making concerted efforts to seem clean, hygienic and oral sex ready.  

It would seem that the 70’s-era “Joy of Sex” model has left the building. So why aren’t we talking about that, too?

In fairness, Fetters’ piece focused on women being bare-down-there, citing quite a bit of research by Debby Herbenick, a sex researcher at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute. But Herbenick is also interested in understanding men’s pubic hair styles.  

She’s currently in the midst of a new study that is looking at the boys’ grooming habits. The final data isn’t in yet but Herbenick says there are some trends that are emerging: more gay men than straight are going totally bare, there is far less total hair removal than what’s seen in the female camp and there are fewer salons that offer men-specific waxing services.  

But when I asked her whether she thinks there is a similar “evolution” of pubic hair happening in the male camp, she said it was a tough question to answer.

“Honestly, no one has ever looked at this before,” she says. “I think most of us are in agreement that more men are doing it because it wasn’t something that was ever discussed before. Now, in terms of mainstream media, there’s this idea of metrosexual grooming. But we don’t know how widespread it really is or what, in terms of habits, that really means.”

And when I asked about some of the backlash concerning Fetters’ article -- and how both women and men view pubic hair -- she said that too often the sensationalism involved in these stories misses the point -- that point being that there’s a lot of diversity in our sexual lives.  

When Herbenick and colleague, Vanessa Schick, penned their book, “Read My Lips: A Complete Guide to the Vagina and the Vulva,” they found that women had all kinds of reasons for keeping their vulvas the way they did. Most of it did not have to do with their boyfriend’s preferences or a desire to look like porn stars.

“The women we spoke with talked about having style preferences for their pubic hair kind of like they do for the hair on their head,” she says. “There were a couple women that talked about porn and really liking to be bare like porn stars. But more often, they would talk about texture and feel and the way it looked. A lot of them didn’t like it bare. They liked to see hair. It was just so nuanced. And I haven’t seen that nuance explored in mainstream news stories out there.”

Whether or not there the same kind of nuance will be seen in Herbenick’s research concerning men’s grooming habits remains to be seen. But she agrees that we need to stop going with the easy stereotypes and collect more data before making generalized (and political) statements about the evolution of pubic hair and I wholeheartedly agree.  

Taking a look back at that older edition of “The Joy of Sex” now, I see that pubic grooming isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. Even back in my teenage years, my then-boyfriend and I recognized that something had changed in the 20 years between its publication and our curious page through.  It’s not such a surprise to imagine that a few things have changed between then and now-- and for both sexes.

So before we get our hoochies up in a huff about what’s being said about our pubic regions, we need to take a fair and balanced look at both sides of the equation -- and that means giving proper homage to the grooming habits of both girls and guys.