*Important note: Kegels are not the only pelvic floor exercise, and in fact can be damaging for certain conditions. We recommend seeking out a pelvic floor physical therapist for an accurate assessment.
Is WAP (“wet ass pussy”) a feminist anthem? Yes.
Does it place female sexual desire in a positive and empowering light? Yes.
Does it reflect everyone’s sexual experience? Nope!
Do Cardi and Meg talk about kegels in a sexual context? Why, yes. Yes, they do. And that’s why we’re here today.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Our story begins in 1948 with a guy named Arnold Kegel.
Kegels: A History
Ahhhh the late 1940s and 50s. Color televisions, the beginnings of space travel, the atomic bomb! And we’d be remiss to forget the patenting of Mr. Potatohead.
We were also juuuuuuust figuring out the basics of the human pelvic floor. You know, the incredibly important meat hammock that’s the reason why your bladder, bowels, and reproductive organs don’t fall out of your body.
You see, Arnold Kegel was an American gynecologist back in the mid-1900s who believed that voluntary contractions of the pelvic floor (important meat hammock) could help with urine leakage and muscle weakness (mostly in women). Think of these voluntary contractions like pulling a marble up and inside your vagina (or pelvis). You’ve probably done part of this motion if you’ve ever halted your long-awaited travel poop when you were alone in an airport bathroom at 2am and a stranger very loudly entered the stall next to your’s.
"Kegels are often over-prescribed and most people aren't able to do them correctly with verbal instruction alone."
These voluntary contractions serve to shorten the pelvic floor muscles—and recognizing this was an important step towards describing and understanding these muscles and how to nonsurgically treat pelvic floor conditions. The exercises were named after good ol’ Arnie (debatable whether he was the one who named it or not), and thus the kegel was born.
While the kegel certainly isn’t (and shouldn’t be) the only pelvic floor exercise—it’s the most notorious and publicly recognized one. Understandably, the kegel has since taken on a life of its own.
But what does this have to do with WAP?
On one hand, the medical community views the kegel as an important health tool, and on the other, popular culture has positioned the kegel as a 1-2 punch to a tighter vagina and more intense orgasms.
WAP does a great job of demonstrating this; placing kegels in the context of sexual empowerment, Cardi goes:
“Hop on top, I wanna ride/
I do a kegel while it’s inside”
We’re huge proponents of having active and enthusiastic sexual partnerships—but also want to recognize that our collective knowledge of ‘how to have a healthy pelvic floor’ is often reduced to ‘how to have a sexually appealing vagina.’ But it’s responsible for so much more!
What does the pelvic floor do?
Oh, nothing too big. Just some essential life functions like:
- Having sex
- Carrying a pregnancy
- Maintaining stable pelvic joints and a stable lower back
- Doing everyday dynamic movements
If the pelvic floor is responsible for so much, it begs the question: Why do we only know about the pelvic floor in a sexual context?
That’s a harder question to answer.
Are kegels sexist?
Kegels are just a concerted contraction of the pelvic floor muscles—often more catered towards people with uteruses and vaginas. Sexist? Not inherently, no. Women are more likely to experience pelvic floor challenges and dysfunction (which kegels may help with), so that classification makes sense. But when we think about the public perception around kegels as a women’s bedroom tool almost exclusively… kegels are no longer just an exercise, they’re evidence for a centuries-old narrative.
Since the advent of formal western medicine (and even before that—thanks, Hippocrates), women’s bodies have been both sexualized and medically neglected. Case in point: hysteria and uterine massage. Hysteria has its roots in the ancient Egyptian/Grecian idea that the uterus is responsible for a whole host of “female ailments” like anxiety, fainting, irritability, and kleptomania. Enter: the Victorian era when most healthcare professionals in the western world were white dudes who didn’t wash their hands and still believed that fluid levels and bad smells were the reasons why disease happened. Hysteria was a medically-recognized lady problem. A lady problem whose only solution was to marry somebody with a penis or have a doctor insert their fingers (or, later, a vibrator) into the vagina until… boom! Paroxysmal convulsion. (An orgasm.)
Oh, and, fun fact: hysteria wasn't removed from the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) until... 1980.
Our collective knowledge of ‘how to have a healthy pelvic floor’ is often reduced to ‘how to have a sexually appealing vagina.’
Women’s bodies were poorly understood and very real concerns like depression and anxiety under the guise of “hysteria” weren't actually treated. Instead, they were essentially prescribed… penetration. Given this history, it makes sense that the kegel, a very basic tool for helping address common “female problems” has been culturally relegated to tight vagina/orgasm/penetration land—sound familiar?
We talk about kegels as a sex-centric excercise both because of a sexist medical history and because talking about kegeling for incontinence doesn’t benefit straight, cisgender men. Kegeling for a tighter vagina and a stronger orgasm on the other hand—cultural indicators of sexual viability and desirability—does.
And, what’s worse, kegels have the ability to do more harm than good (and might not be a recipe to a spicier sex life after all).
To kegel or not to kegel, that is the question
And the answer isn’t totally clear.
To help us do some kegel mythbusting, we’ve brought in Rachel Gelman, DPT of Pelvic Wellness and Physical Therapy in San Francisco.
So… fact, fiction, or somewhere in between? Can kegels make your vagina tighter?
“Can kegels strengthen the pelvic floor muscles around the vagina? Yes. Do kegels ‘tighten’ the vagina itself? No. It’s the pelvic floor muscles that can become ‘tighter’ and that tightness can impact the vaginal canal since the vagina passes through those muscles. But the vagina itself is not becoming tighter.”
Can kegels make your orgasms more intense?
“The research here is mixed. Some studies say yes, others say not really.
Having good awareness and coordination of these muscles is important for sexual function and orgasm. During orgasms these muscles repeatedly contract and relax, so if they have good coordination and range of motion it could contribute to a better orgasm. But an orgasm requires so much more than just a muscle contraction. A person needs good blood flow to the genitals. Hormones play a role. A person needs to be in the right headspace. So a lot of things need to happen for a person to orgasm, therefore a person shouldn’t put all their pleasure eggs in the kegel basket.”
Okay, so, conventional wisdom: when is it okay/not okay to do kegels?
“Kegels are often over-prescribed and most people aren't able to do them correctly with verbal instruction alone. If someone is experiencing symptoms like urinary or fecal incontinence (leaking pee or poop) they should consult a healthcare provider and ideally work with a pelvic floor physical therapist to determine the best treatment plan. Many people, including those with incontinence, actually present with overactive pelvic floor muscles (when the muscles are too tight) and need to work on relaxing the muscles vs. strengthening them. If the muscles are in a guarded or hypertonic state (tense, not-relaxed—think of a bicep forever showing you the gun show) they are already at their end range of motion and won't be able to contract further when they need to (such as when a person needs to stop urine from coming out).”
Note: these muscles also need to be in a state of relaxation to allow for penetration.
“Most patients with pelvic floor dysfunction typically need skilled manual therapy (external/internal massage) to help address any myofascial restrictions (tight areas of connective tissue) and neuromuscular re-education (technique to restore function) to help the patient learn to relax the muscles and be able to know how to contract them appropriately.
“Furthermore, some people may need to work on strength while others may need to work on endurance and others may need to work on coordination of the muscles, which would require different types of kegels / pelvic floor contraction and release. So bottom-line, see a specialist to determine if kegels are appropriate and to see what types one should be doing.”
Can you explain what can happen if someone who shouldn't be doing kegels starts doing them?
“If the pelvic floor muscles are already in a contracted position, then doing a pelvic floor contraction (AKA a kegel), may only add fuel to the fire. It could cause someone to develop new symptoms or worsen symptoms they are already experiencing. People may notice their incontinence is worsening or now they are having pain or dyspareunia (pain with sex). Obviously, some people may feel better, but again this is why people should see someone before starting kegels.”
What have we learned?
TLDR; Kegels are an important tool invented by a dude in 1948. Today they’re overprescribed, hyper-sexualized, and can sometimes cause more harm than good. But they’re a fantastic gateway to start talking about your pelvic floor. So, thanks Cardi B + Megan Thee :)
Learn more about your own personal meat hammock by visiting Pelvic Gym.