Vulva: 101 - A Coffee Table Book Like No Other

Hylton Coxwell knows his vulvas.

He is the mind, and the camera, behind a new book called Vulva: 101 featuring pictures and writing on that particular piece of female anatomy. His inspiration for the project is described in Chapter One:

The problem, as I saw it, was the number of women who have for one reason or another, felt that their vulva was somehow ugly or abnormal, and there was nowhere for them to go to see what other real vulva look like. There wasn’t any frame of reference, so they were stuck thinking their lips were too big or too small, too dark or too light, and so on, having only stereotypical images in men’s magazines or blurry porn for comparison... Over time I noticed that many of my female friends would happily say ‘penis’ in casual conversation, but when it came to saying ‘vulva’ or ‘clitoris’ there was always a degree of embarrassment and would usually only be spoken in hushed tones.... When I started asking them why they felt ashamed to even mention a part of their own bodies by the correct terms, the answer was almost always a long thoughtful pause and then a “I don’t really know why”... I felt that women, and men too, needed some way of being able to see what vulva really look like in a nonjudgmental context.

So Hylton, an experienced photographer, began a quest to take pictures of 101 vulvas, and to take quotes from his models on their sentiments and opinions on that part of their anatomy and the social problem Hylton was addressing. I had the opportunity to ask Hylton a few questions.

D: How do you view the intersection between educational and erotic in this project?
HC:
 Essentially I view this as art, and all art must be arousing somehow whether that's intellectually, emotionally or sexually. If you don't feel anything when observing it, well, then it's not art. And if you can learn something at the same time, especially about a topic that's normally hidden, that's even better.

D: Have you been involved with explicit photography or projects of a sexual nature before?
HC: Prior to starting Vulva 101, no, other than privately. During the process though many of the models asked if I would do other shoots for them as well. These ranged from boudoir and pinup to explicit couples shoots. I think the one that stands out the most for me was a session where I captured a woman's first experience with another woman. What a rare thing it is for someone to have such an experience immortalized like that!

D: Was there anything that surprised you or that you learned during this process?
HC: Initially I was very surprised the women involved were so willing to talk to me openly about all manner of personal topics. Part of this might have come from the phenomenon I call the "Nude Beach Effect"—once you have your clothes off and realize you're not being judged it doesn't seem to make much sense to hide anything else. Often women would comment that they were telling me things about themselves they'd never told anyone before.
   I learned an incredible amount, so much so that the text in the book barely scratches the surface, not only about women in general but also a lot about human behaviour. The process of organizing over a hundred people in what can only be termed as a very unusual situation was extremely illuminating on a psychological level.
   I also learned a lot about myself. I might even go so far as to call the experience life-altering (but maybe all experiences are life-altering?)

D: You wanted a wide diversity of vulvas represented, but of course such a project can only be as diverse as the people you find to volunteer. What steps did you take to diversify, how did you do outreach for the kinds of women you weren’t seeing and how diverse is the end result?

HC: Mainly I just tried to make it very clear that body type and age did not matter (18+ of course). Many times women would contact me and say that they were interested but felt their vulva wasn't "good enough" to be in a book or were worried they would pose only to end up not "making the cut". Both of those ideas I did my best to dispel. No one was turned away, and anyone who could make it to a shoot appears in the book. To do otherwise would have been me making judgements.
   In the end, I think the random nature of the internet took care of the diversity part. I describe the women involved as being the first hundred women you'd pass walking through a shopping mall on a Saturday afternoon. However, there weren't as many of African and Middle-Eastern decent as I would have liked. Partly there are cultural factors at play. One woman even mused that there must be another internet somewhere for women of colour, but she has yet to find it.

D: Your notification specifically said “models are not required to be shaved/waxed/lasered. I really want to show what people like for themselves, so this is completely up to each individual.” What was the variation in pubic hair and its removal?
HC: Definitely the majority prefer to be shaved/waxed/lasered, and most of those said they do it because they simply like the way it feels and find it more hygienic. Self-expression is a big part of this too. Many change their pubic hair style based on their mood.

D: How were the various women’s reactions to being photographed? I’d assume some were shyer than others?
HC: A combination of nerves and excitement, in varying ratios, was normal for sure. Typically people were nervous up to the point of removing their clothes. This is part of the "Nude Beach Effect" I mentioned earlier, and something that I've experienced myself. You can be out-of-your-mind nervous, take off your clothes and then 15 seconds later be thinking to yourself "Hmm, what the hell was I so nervous about?"
   To be honest, I think for the first half-dozen shoots or so I was more nervous than they were. But pretty quickly you get used to that. After a while, it became such a normal experience for me that when meeting someone new (outside the book) I would literally wonder why she still had her clothes on. That sounds strange, I know.

D: Who do you see as the target demographic for this book?
HC: Women in particular, but hopefully men as well. It's interesting watching people’s reactions to the book. Women, typically, just immediately get it. On the other hand, men are often confused and sometimes even visibly afraid of it!
   I'd like to see it in the hands of students in the medical fields, and things like sexology, etc.

D: Where will it be available for purchase?
HC: It'll be available for order everywhere books are sold (online and brick-and-mortar retailers), and probably sex shops as well. I keep a mailing list for those who want to be notified when it's available, just send a note to vulva101@gmail.com.

D:
 Do you have any other projects you are working on?
HC: I have several other unrelated books on the go, but Vulva 101-Volume 2 is a distinct possibility.