Let’s Talk About Vaginas
A couple of months back, I had an article published on Autostraddle, and then I got a bit ego-inflated and thought that maybe I could be a regular writer for them, yay! Well, that didn’t happen. But in the course of trying, I wrote this article that I’m actually pretty happy with, and I thought that rather than letting it rot away on my hard drive, I’d share it here. And hey, I can’t be a card-carrying queer female blogger until I’ve written something about vaginas. Right? Right. So here it is.
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Can we talk about vaginas? I thought so.
You may be aware that a lot of people are squeamish about vaginas. Maybe you have even felt squeamish about them yourself. It can happen to anyone – whether or not you have one of your own, want one of your own, or feel attracted to bodies that have one. It isn’t really your fault. In our sociocultural discourse, vaginas get a pretty bad rap.Mentioning them in perfectly appropriate contexts can get you swamped with angry phone calls or even banned from your workplace. Jokes about them usually revolve around their perceived smelliness, dirtiness and/or crustiness – whereas penis jokes are all about size and potency. Sensible adults with otherwise perfectly erudite vocabularies refer to them, if at all, with childish rhyming euphemisms. Vaginas, you might say, are suffering from a serious case of lousy PR.
It hasn’t always been so. In other cultures and at other times, vaginas were major celebrities, with starring roles in mythology where they controlled the weather, drove back armies and scared off the devil. They were also renowned comedians and had throngs of devoted fans.
How did we get from vulva worship to scary hairy vadge-monster? How did our superstar vaginas become relegated to seedy tabloid stories, overwaxed, bleached, vajazzled and subjected to plastic surgery? Unshockingly, there is not a lot of research into these questions, although feminist writers have addressed the issue from different angles. Carol Groneman, in Nymphomania, discusses how nineteenth-century doctors blamed women’s inner parts for just about everything from physical ailments to mental disorders, and sometimes figured that cutting them out was a good idea. Nancy Friday introduced the Cloaca Concept, wherein we are taught by our well-meaning mothers not to touch our dirty “sewer” regions for any purpose other than to give them a good clean scrubbing.
Probably there are lots of factors that contributed to our goddess-gardens’ fall from grace. Probably lots of these factors had to do with fear: fear of blood, fear of power, fear of dark and mysterious holes, fear that there might be teeth in there. Though I loathe to give him a centimetre more Internet column space, Rush Limbaugh’s recent claim that feminists have magical powers to influence the evolution of relative penis length carries echoes of the belief in tempest-controlling witches of yore; clearly, even in these times of scientific enlightenment, some men are still superstitiously nervous about our bits.
Certainly there is not enough space in one article to fully explore the numerous and varied ways that patriarchal fear has historically led to the denigration of vagina-equipped persons. But I am particularly compelled by the idea that the widespread promotion and use of “vaginal hygiene” products and hair-removal services coincided with the rise of industrialization, commercialization and advances in gender equality (and continues unabated today).
Of course, this proliferation of vadge-sanitation propaganda was partly due to general advancements in technology and communication that have allowed people to produce increasingly more tacky and invasive advertisements since the dawn of the 20th century. And advertising has always worked by making people feel inadequate. But it’s no accident that there is a special correlation between the rise of women’s vocal insistence on gender equality, and the push to make us feel embarrassed about our snatches. Many writers and thinkers have explored this link; Germaine Greer, in her superfamous book The Female Eunuch, provides a snapshot of women in nuclear families at the height of this movement, silenced and disconnected from their sexuality by body shaming. When men begin to lose social, economic and legal control over female bodies, what better way to curtail our sexual autonomy than to make us feel ashamed of our own reproductive parts? Or as Nancy Friday puts it, “Today, a mental clitoridectomy will suffice. Projected early enough onto a young female mind, the “ugly” slit between our legs is as untouchable as one of the vaginas butchered by the high-minded doctors of earlier times” (p. 27).
I’d like to make it clear that there’s nothing inherently wrong with shaving your beaver, or cleaning it (within reason! Please don’t ever douche with Lysol, or anything else, for that matter), or even decorating it with sparkly sequins if that’s your thing.But when the prevailing social narrative describes natural pussy as nasty germ-infested meat curtains, we have a problem. And while we’re on the topic, why do penises get a pass on funky-smell jokes? The fact is, crotches of any type belonging to people of any gender can be either murky regions of sweat and unsavoury discharge or lush oases of pleasurable freshness, depending on the personal habits and general health of their respective owners.
How do we start to change this narrative? Those of us who identify as queer women may not really see it as our problem, since many of us don’t care much what dudes think of our genitalia. But there are of course repercussions that affect us too – we are not immune from internalized vadge-shaming, and it can have consequences for our self-image, intimate relationships, and willingness to seek healthcare.
So maybe what we need to do is talk more about vaginas. The movement to normalize the word has gained momentum since The Vagina Monologues debuted sixteen years ago, and we now have vagina rallies and vagina books and vaginas in the media (although some of these portrayals still play into the scary vadge-monster trope – even one of the almighty Monologues features a character who describes her vagina as a damp, mildewy cellar). There are also art installations, documentaries and photographic collections that aim to demystify the organ itself. But these positive discussions and depictions of our special labiofoliage are still on the margins of the larger discourse. We have a long way to go before our superstar vaginas reclaim their place in the spotlight.