Between myths and movies, there are a lot of questions surrounding what exactly vagina dentata are. Translated from Latin, the term means “toothed vagina.” As in, one’s vagina has sharp teeth and could therefore effectively sever a penis whilst participating in penetrative sex.
The myth of vagina dentata has a long history that spans many countries. The idea of a vagina having sharp teeth that could castrate someone seems to be borne of a fear of or feeling of being threatened by the innate power that vagina owners have and many dentata tales end with men successfully removing the teeth and rendering the vagina “safe” for sex.
“I personally love the dentata mythos,” says sex educator Kenna Cook. “I see it as a way for women to reclaim that their vaginas are a powerful, mystical force to be reckoned with — unlike the delicate flower analogy we are socialized to buy in to.”
“As throngs of men have been rightfully shamed in public for sexually harassing women, men are now in fear of any and all transgressions in their pasts,” she says. “After thousands of years of women being dominated and abused by men — mentally, emotionally and physically — women are finally calling the whistle on any and all male predators. As we cheer out loud of the righting of the wrong, there is a dark side in men’s minds that women now are personifying the mythic vagina dentata.”
The concept of vagina dentata shows up across most major Eastern and Western religions according to Bailey Gaylin Moore, a writer who’s working on a collection of essays about vaginas, including vagina dentata.
“Pop culture makes vagina dentata a case for female empowerment, but historically, it’s been used as a method to instill fear of women and therefore reinforcing a patriarchal power paradigm,” she says.
In her essay on vagina dentata, Moore references the Rape-aXe condom, invented by Dr. Sonnet Ehlers/Bryant, a South African activist, in response to the high occurrence of rape across the continent. The condom mimics the myth of vagina dentata — it’s an elastic sheath that actually contains razor-sharp barbs. You insert it into your vagina, and if you’re penetrated, the attacker will end up with the condom on their penis. It will render them incapacitated, and it can only be removed by a clinician. (The Rape-aXe, of course, doesn’t actually prevent vaginal rape, since the penis must penetrate in order for it to be effective.)
Sometimes, though, vagina dentata isn’t totally a myth. It’s rare, says Trattner, but dermoid cysts, which are made up of embryonic cells containing teeth, hair, sweat glands and even eyes do exist. While you usually can’t see the teeth, and they aren’t anywhere near as sharp as those of the legendary dentata, Trattner has seen several patients in her practice with ovarian dermoid cysts, which actually make up 20 percent of all ovarian tumors and are generally found during routine pelvic exams and assessed via a transvaginal ultrasound. Like other ovarian cysts, you often don’t know you have one unless you’re very uncomfortable or it bursts, which can be a dangerous situation. (A vaginal dermoid cyst is a super-rare find.)
Dermoid tumors grow slowly and don’t usually get very big, but leaving them alone can interfere with your reproductive health, causing fertility challenges. If you do choose to have them out, it’s usually done through laparoscopy or a cystectomy — that’s when you remove a cyst by going through the belly button.
“The myth of vagina dentata warns men not to take what isn’t theirs,” says Trattner. “Vaginas are a sacred space and need to be mature enough to enter them. Almost every culture has a myth of vagina dentata, a warning to be careful where you put your penises. Currently, we are seeing the vagina roar with brave women coming forward and outing men who have done them wrong. Is this vagina dentata really the heroine who lies inside of all of us warning all men ‘don’t mess with me or I will bite back and destroy you.’”
By the way, if you haven’t seen Teeth, a really dark comedy released in 2007, the heroine, Dawn, has vagina dentata that (literally) take down more than one man, biting off penises and leading to actual death. She learns, though, that when she’s feeling relaxed and when sex is consensual, her teeth don’t bite. When she’s in a dangerous situation, however, they wreak havoc. Her dentata serve as protection for her and as punishment for men who want to hurt her. Dawn’s in charge of discerning how to use them, and (spoiler) by the end of the film, she is done being nice.
Ideally, we’d all live in a world where we wouldn’t need vagina teeth (real or figurative) to fully take ownership of our bodies, but until then, this may not be the worst medical myth out there.