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Let’s Talk About Vaginas

September 21, 2012

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.

* * *

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.

Funny-girl Baubo playing to the crowd

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.

Vajazzling – because nothing says “sexy” like sharp objects glued to razor burn

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.

And by “jewel”, they don’t mean crystals on her mons pubis

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.

This is what it’s like between some people’s legs

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.

My friend Rhian and her “Hairball”, floutin’ the patriarchy. Photo by Alisa Speed

  1. December 3, 2012 10:10 am

    I just found your blog today, and I love it. I think the shame is one of the most harmful things that we as humans do to ourselves, and we can only really work on enjoying life to the fullest once we stop being ashamed of who we are.

    • December 3, 2012 10:39 am

      “I think the shame is one of the most harmful things that we as humans do to ourselves” – I completely agree. Thanks for your comments!

  2. Terra permalink
    December 3, 2012 10:27 pm

    You probably already know this and I probably sound pedantic as all hell (apologies if I do; I get monofocused and geeky when talking about something that interests me).

    Your Lysol ad is interesting; when I was completing my history degree I did a study of gender and marriage and that ad is actually an ad for Lysol as an abortifacient, not as a cleanser. I guess people figured that if it killed germs in the mouth it would also kill fetuses in the womb. The idea was that a man might run if you had a baby before it was time. A lot of Lysol ads talk about “staying young for your husband” which means not having a baby, getting fat, and changing the focus of your life. Anyway, Lysol was advertised as a panacea for all manner of things, including unwanted pregnancies, until certain laws in the US changed and they were forced to limit their claims to oral hygiene. I know some websites say “alleged” or something like that for the abortifacient claim, but it really is certain that Lysol intended its products to be used for abortions and wrote its ad copy with that in mind – it used euphemisms common to the time.

    Anyway, off to bed with me and again, I hope I didn’t sound too pedantic.

    • December 4, 2012 7:27 am

      I had heard that it was used as an abortifacient as well, but some of the ads I’ve come across really do sound like they’re talking about hygiene (odours, etc.). This one, for example: Though the one I’ve used here may well have been intended to promote the former.

  3. December 15, 2012 5:25 pm

    Apropos of very little I remember the first time my mother found a jazz mag in my bedroom (40 years ago so fairly innocent by today’s standards: probably Penthouse or Mayfair) she said that the only reason I was excited by the pictures was because the women had hair “down there” unlike the old master nudes that were totally acceptable for a 13 year old to look at. Plus ca change…

  4. Alyssa permalink
    February 4, 2013 10:11 pm

    I feel like if you’re going to write an article about de-mystifying and de-stigmatizing vaginas, then maybe you should use the actual name of the sex organ, vulva, instead of just the part that is penetrated.

    • February 5, 2013 3:58 pm

      I did use the word ‘vulva’. I also used the words ‘goddess-garden’, ‘snatch’, ‘beaver’, ‘pussy’, and ‘special labiofoliage’ – since, fortunately, our wonderful English language provides countless and varied ways to express an idea. I’m assuming, however, that it isn’t one of those words you are objecting to, but rather my (perfectly commonplace and widely-accepted) use of the word ‘vagina’ to refer to the entire female sexual organ. Language evolves, words change meaning, and everybody knows what I mean when I say ‘vagina’. I am not a gynecologist and I will therefore freely use the word in an appropriate register according to context, which in this case is casual and not medical. Also this.

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