The disposable vaginal speculum is an example of how important object names are. Most objects make suggestions about who they are intended for, either overtly or covertly. The scale, usability, placement of specific parts, or cultural coding that might suggest particular occupations, age groups, genders, or abilities may all imply the intended users. This medical device is typically used in a clinical setting to dilate and hold open the vagina. The word “speculum” derives from the Latin verb specere, which means “to look (at),” indicating that this is a seeing-related object. As with other medical devices, the implied use of the speculum is typically the doctor or scientist who will operate it with their hand and look through it.
The person whose body the medical device will be applied to is another user of every medical device. We can better understand how both of those users are incorporated into the functionality of such instruments when we look at the disposable vaginal speculum’s design history. Because it is designed to be a DIY tool that can be produced by anyone with access to a 3D printer rather than a specialized item that will only be used by a professional doctor, the 3D-printed vaginal speculum aims to reduce the distance between the two users.
3D Printed GynePunk Disposable Vaginal Speculum
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The goal of GynePunk, a group of feminist bio-hackers, who created this printed version of the Disposable Vaginal Speculum, is to “decolonize gynecology.” They primarily do this by disseminating open-source instructions on how to make and use tools like the speculum and histological equipment like a centrifuge, a microscope, and an incubator that allow people to analyze their bodily fluids at a molecular level and empower those who feel disempowered by typical patient-doctor interactions. GynePunk seeks to place these instruments in the hands of those whose bodies they are used on, disrupting the way that equipment designed for use by medical professionals typically resides in a clinical setting.
GynePunk medical technology:
GynePunk is interested in understanding how particular methods of studying bodies, including the disposable vaginal speculum, have developed as a result of the frequently violent history of sexual health. J. Marion Sims (1813–1833), often referred to as the “father of modern gynecology,” is one historical figure they refer to in their violent use of the instrument. Through years of often painful experimentation on enslaved women in pre-emancipation Alabama, the United States, he developed a specific type of speculum as well as surgical techniques. He commissioned the instrument that still bears his name from a silversmith, basing its shape on a bent spoon that he had used in gynecological exams. The u-shaped Sims speculum was created for gynecologists to use, but for best results, the patient must adopt a specific “Sims” position” to allow for examination.
Charles H. Bushong’s Sims Position:
While Sims and his followers hailed their invention as a breakthrough, other specula, like this one from the Science Museum in London that was discovered in Lebanon, have been in use for more than 2,000 years. These “Roman” style speculums typically had protruding blades that could be opened from the inside, and more modern versions are very similar but typically have a “site” that the user can look through. As a result, the shape of the disposable vaginal speculum is determined by how vision works. Despite earlier precedents, these tools did not become widely used until the early modern period. Medical historians have described these instruments as the gradual replacement of midwifery by male professional doctors as well as a change in the expertise involved in giving birth from knowing through touch to knowing through seeing, designating the user as the one who looks.
Roman Disposable Vaginal Speculum:
The Contagious Diseases Acts, which were first passed in 1864 and allowed for the mandatory vaginal examination of women suspected of “common prostitution,” are also linked to the infamous history of the disposable vaginal speculum. These laws were implemented to reduce the high rate of syphilis among soldiers and sailors across the British Empire. This emphasis on using the speculum as a diagnostic tool was scientifically dubious because the symptoms of syphilis could not be easily observed by looking through the speculum, and those who were under the law testified to feeling brutalized and frequently injured by its use, suggesting that the privilege of seeing made the instrument’s ostensible “usefulness” questionable.
Commercial manufacturers still concentrate on what the disposable vaginal speculum offers the person looking through it, despite recent attempts to redesign it to consider the body it is being used on. The register of kink, where medical-grade speculums are advertised for sex play, is one of the few fields where the sensation of the speculum on the body is fully considered an important aspect of its use.
When we examine the 3D-printed speculum, what we see is a representation of a conventional instrument that is still set up for a user to hold while looking through it, not an actual tool that might be used for a medical examination. As a result, it does not materialize as an ideal design for self-knowledge but rather as an aspiration that the instrument’s violent history be addressed and perhaps redesigned to take into account users at both ends of the speculum.