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Opinion

The History Of The Vagina: Misunderstanding, Shame, and Porn

Opinion
By Z.S. Roe

I saw my first vagina when I was nine years old and in the fifth grade.  A classmate of mine snuck out a health book from the school library, and then showed it to a bunch of us during recess.  We all gathered around him as he opened the book to a grainy, black and white picture of a woman about to give birth.  Her legs were spread, and there staring each and every one of us in the face were her womanly bits.

“Holy shit, man!” one of my friends said, and we all nodded in agreement.

What I remember most about that moment is being flabbergasted.  Why was she so hairy down there? my nine-year-old self wondered.  My sisters’ Barbies sure didn’t have any hair down there.  My fellow classmates, however, were far less confused.  And why not — many of them grew up with older brothers whose stash of Playboy magazines were easy to find; I, on the other hand, grew up in a Protestant household where you could find a picture of a naked woman only in the family encyclopedia under Classical Greek Art and Sculpture.

With so many different places for young boys to learn about the female body, you’d think my friends and I would have been a little better informed.  Unfortunately, most of what we knew then in grade five about female sexuality and would continue to learn throughout our adolescence would be incomplete at the best of times and flat out wrong at the worst.

Of course, we wouldn’t be alone in our misunderstanding.  Throughout all of history, in fact, female sexuality and, specifically, the vagina have been grossly misunderstood.  In turn, these misunderstandings have informed how women are treated throughout history.

These days, when we talk about a woman’s vulva we often talk about it in one of two ways:  either as the clinical/medical “vagina” or as the pornographic “pussy.”  But this dualism is rather reductive and not in the least bit empowering for women.  So how did we get here?

Naomi Wolf’s latest makes for an interesting and informative read.

If you read my previous post about the almighty penis, then you know that I’m researching for my first novel, which is about religion and sex.  As I’ve previously stated, I’ve decided to share with you what I learn from my readings, book by book.  Last time, I recounted what I discovered in Tom Hickman’s book God’s Doodle:  The Life and Times of the Penis.  Today, we’re delving into Naomi Wolf’s Vagina:  A New Biography.

What follows is a rough sketch of some of the material that Wolf explores in her book.  In no way should this blog post be seen as a full account of the vagina’s troubling history.  Instead, this post should be understood as a sampling of what resonated most with me while reading Vagina:  A New Biography.

Like Wolf, I’ll frequently use the word “vagina” to stand for “the entire female sex organ: from labia to clitoris to introitus to mouth of cervix.”  No, it’s not technically accurate, but it will make this post a lot easier to follow.  Occasionally, I’ll use the word as it is intended (in reference to the actual vagina), but such instances should be obvious given the context of the discussion.

IN THE BEGINNING:  Centuries before it became a “pussy” or “snatch,” before it was seen as a site of sin and shame and uncleanliness, the vagina began as sacred.  It was not simply something to be penetrated; instead, it was something to be praised.  As archeologists have found, many of the earliest prehistory artifacts feature sacred vaginas.  For instance, we now know that in ancient Europe from 25,000 to 15,000 BCE Venus figurines (fertility images with pronounced vulvas) were incredibly common.  But the phenomenon extended well beyond Europe to most of the inhabited world, which has led many historians to speculate that much of ancient religious practice was, in fact, female-centred.  And so it would seem that, back in the day, the vagina and not the penis reigned supreme.  But then everything changed …

BLAME PAUL:  I’m being grossly simplistic when I say that the apostle Paul (Christianity’s earliest and most influential missionary) is to blame for the vagina’s fall from grace in the West.  To a certain extent, Paul was simply continuing and expanding upon an already existing trend within Jewish society.  Centuries earlier, as the ancient Hebrews left their polytheistic roots and began to focus their followers on a masculine version of the One God, goddess worship became something of a faux pas (to put it mildly).  But when Paul took his show on the road in the first century CE he put forward the notion that the mind was forever at war with the body, and that sexuality (particularly female sexuality) was both shameful and wrong.  Such teachings would be of little consequence had Paul been just some other guy blabbering on the side of the street.  But, as Wolf explains, “Paul’s teachings [became] synonymous with Christianity, and Christianity, with Western culture itself.”  In that light, I suppose you might say that Paul’s great influence is to blame.

THE DARK AGES:  To suggest that the women of the Middle Ages had a hard go of it (sexually speaking) would be a profound understatement.  Here are two examples to give you a taste of what I mean.  During this period, which is often associated with the ideals of courtly love and knights in shining armour and so forth, a new invention hit the market:  the chastity belt.  Consisting of metal body locks that went around the wearer’s hips and between her legs, the chastity belt offered a means for a husband to literally lock up his wife’s vagina should he be away from home for any great length of time.  Yes, it prevented sexual intercourse, but let’s not forget that it also caused severe abrasions, not to mention making proper hygiene near impossible.  But in comparison to the witch craze of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the chastity belt seems somewhat tame.  After all, the women declared as witches and burnt at the stake were often the women who were seen as too sexual or free.  Still, not all so called “witches” were executed; some were tortured, which often included vaginal mutilation.

GYNECOLOGY AND THE VICTORIANS:  The Victorian period (nineteenth century) brought with it a significant change to the lives of many women.  Until that point, a middle-class woman’s sexual and reproductive health was left in the care of female midwives; with the birth of gynecology, however, that care was now placed in the hands of male doctors.  Trouble was, the opinion of the day held that a woman’s clitoris was a cause of considerable immorality.  In fact, the medical profession went so far as to claim that a “good” woman had absolutely no sexual feelings whatsoever, especially not clitoral.  So disturbed by any sign of open female sexuality were the Victorians that in 1857 they passed the first Contagious Diseases Act, which allowed the state to apprehend any woman who was suspected of being a prostitute and to incarcerate her in an institution without due process for up to eight months.

 THE BETTER ORGASM:  Since the Victorian period we’ve made considerable strides in our understanding of female sexuality.  But that doesn’t mean we always got it right.  Take the orgasm, for example.  For most guys, achieving an orgasm is a relatively straightforward venture, and (generally speaking) one orgasm is more or less the same as any other.  The same cannot be said for women.  As Wolf explains, many women form judgements about themselves based on their ability (or lack thereof) to reach orgasm during sex.  But here’s the rub: every women is wired differently, and while one woman may be able to achieve both vaginal and clitoral orgasms with little difficulty, another might be able to achieve only clitoral orgasms (or vice versa).  Of course, there are many other factors that contribute to a woman’s ability to climax during sex, but rarely is her biology taken into full account, as we’ve seen time and time again.  Throughout history, many women have been misled into believing that one type of orgasm is better than another.  For instance, during the early 1900s renowned psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud popularized the notion that a mature woman had vaginal orgasms, while an immature woman had clitoral orgasms.  But during the sexual revolution, particularly in the 1970s, many feminist commentators challenged Freud’s position and championed the clitoris in opposition to the vagina.  Unfortunately, neither position accounted for the vast differences between women’s neural wiring.  The truth of it is this:  every woman is different and the best type of orgasm for her is dependent on her individual needs and biological makeup.

 PORN:  How could we conclude without touching on porn?  After all, it’s something of a sticky issue.  The problem with online pornography, however, isn’t its sexual nature. A considerable amount of art (from film to novels to poems, etc.) has explored human sexuality, and often quite explicitly.  And I truly believe that erotica is a valid and worthy genre of storytelling.  But when it comes to online porn, the simple truth is that most men watch it solely as a means to stimulate themselves while masturbating.  But masturbating to porn can cause men to develop sexual habituation problems.  Because the same sexual image cannot continually achieve a constant level of arousal, a more extreme image is needed, and then an image even more extreme than that, and so on.  As studies have shown, this can lead to difficulty achieving and maintaining an erection and even to problems with ejaculation (click here to watch a great TED talk about the issue).  Interestingly, female sexual response is adapting to the rapid pacing of male-porn.  What does this mean?  Simply that female libido and arousal is becoming less responsive to normal sexual triggers; in other words, many women are finding that they need the intensity often displayed in porn in order to become aroused.  Consequentially, intimacy goes right out the door.

Looking back, it might seem that the vagina has been continually abused, shamed, and misunderstood.  And, on the whole, that observation would be accurate.  But not all cultures always treated the vagina so poorly.  Consider the India of the Tantrists (from about fifteen hundred years ago) and the Han dynasty of China (from about a thousand years ago).  For a time, both cultures depicted the vagina as sacred, and both cultures believed that a man’s wellbeing depended on how well he treated the vagina (and women) sexually.  Islam, with a religious culture that is forever stereotyped as being repressive to women, has a rich history of erotic literature that portrays the vagina quite positively (see The Perfumed Garden).  And the examples don’t stop here.

Still, there’s no escaping the terrible disservice our civilization has done to women’s sexual health, understanding, and fulfilment.  It’s is important to remember that the way in which any given culture treats the vagina is not only a metaphor for how women in general in that place and time are treated, but also a metaphor for how women of that place and time view themselves.  And what this looks like is how I wish to close.  As Wolf suggests:

“In Han Dynasty China (206 BCE-220CE) or India fifteen hundred years ago or in thirteenth-century Japan, when the vagina was portrayed as the most sacred spot in the most sacred temple in a sacred universe, that was how women’s brains experienced their vaginas.  When, as in medieval Europe during the witch hunts, the culture cast the vagina as the devil’s playground and the gateway to hell, a woman in that culture felt herself to be built up around a core of existential shame.  If, as in Elizabethan England, a culture portrays the vagina as a hole, a woman in that culture will feel that she is centered around emptiness or worthlessness: when, as in Germany and England and America after Freud, a woman’s culture portrays the vagina’s response as a test of womanliness, she is likely to feel herself insufficiently womanly.  When a woman’s culture – as in today’s woman’s magazine-type sexual athleticism in the West – casts the ideal vagina as a producer of multiple orgasm on call, she will feel herself put to a continual, impossible test.  When mass culture represents any given vagina as just one in ten million available orifices, as in today’s porn industry, a woman will feel her sexual self to be replaceable, not important and not sacred.”

Thanks for reading.  In my next post I’ll share what I’ve learned about sexuality in the Bible from Jennifer Wright Knust’s Unprotected Texts:  The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire.

Liked this?  Check out:

The Penis — What You Didn’t Learn From Health Class, Sunday School, or Porn

The Bible, Sex, and Marriage: A Confused Story of Contradictory Positions

Opinion is a weekly(ish) column of just that, my opinion. While opinions are like noses and everyone has one, mine are especially snotty. Please leave a comment or question—all opinions are welcome, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. If you like what you read here, please subscribe.

Discussion

3 thoughts on “The History Of The Vagina: Misunderstanding, Shame, and Porn

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Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: The Bible, Sex, and Marriage: A Confused Story of Contradictory Positions | zs roe - April 14, 2015

  2. Pingback: The Penis – What You Didn’t Learn from Health Class, Sunday School, or Porn | zs roe - April 14, 2015

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