Why are there 13 shrines for Jesus’ holy foreskin, but none for the hymen of the Virgin Mary?
In an experiment conducted at Heinrich Heine University, Düsseldorf, I invited groups of female academics to sketch male and female genitalia. The result was surprising because – with one exception – none of these highly educated women managed a recognizable vulva while they had no problem drawing a penis. I wanted to find out how this could be. My research uncovered a massive elephant in the room, actually more like a herd of elephants. The result became a compact cultural history of the world seen through the way we represent the female genitals in everyday life, in folklore, medicine, mythology, religion, literature and art
Mysterious Holes?Isn’t it enough that we have books about the cultural history of kissing or teapots? What knowledge and insights can be gained from the vulva?
Well, although everyone may have his or her own concept of kissing and teapots, very few people would deny that these phenomena exist. Nevertheless, in our culture, children grow up in the belief that boys have an “outstanding symbol “ (Freud), that’s a penis, while the genitals of girls are “only an absence“ (Lacan). The message appears to be that if you haven’t got a penis you haven’t got a proper genital.
The vulva is described as a hole, an empty place, a lack – which, when one looks at this highly complicated organ, is mystifyingly ludicrous!
From Demonization to Denial In the course of my research I realised that the vulva wasn’t only taboo but the very fact that there was a taboo was taboo. Almost all the pictures we know of vulvas are products of the porn or hygiene industry and only a very few of those are appreciative, let alone glorifying.
This was not always the case. In nearly all mythologies of the world there are stories in which humanity is saved by the showing of the vulva. Women could, by lifting their skirts, raise the dead and even defeat the devil.
It took many centuries of strenuous demonization to make people forget. In the popular imagination vaginas grew teeth and roamed the countryside to bite off their male counterparts, a phenomenon known as vagina dentata. Folklore also knew stories of men being blinded by a mere glance at the forbidden female parts. Vulvas were described as “the gateway to hell, the source of all trouble and strife in the world and the potential downfall of man” at the same time we were led to believe that this dangerous genital is so small and insignificant that it’s not worth talking about and we can safely overlook it.
This is what I call a cultural glitch: When a concept is a contradiction in itself it produces a constant irritation that indicates there is something hidden there waiting to be revealed.
From Shaming to NamingThe old English word cunt was once an expression of the highest appreciation - sacred place - and shares an etymological root with queen, kin and country. Significantly today, cunt is the worst term of abuse in the English language. Meanwhile, the Latin word vagina – which means scabbard – has become the most often used non-vulgar concept even though, medically, this is the wrong term.
The vagina is exclusively the body opening which connects the visible part of the female genitals, the vulva, with the internal sexual organs such as the cervix and the uterus. This becomes increasingly annoying when one reads in sex education books such illuminating descriptions as: “One of the first changes in puberty is that hair grows around the girl’s vagina.“ Every pubescent girl who wanted to check this with a mirror would probably think she was some kind of anatomical freak.
When a word like vagina is used the visible part of the female genitalia becomes invisible and loses it’s independent significance. It becomes just a hole in which the man can insert his genitalia or, to stay on message: a scabbard for his sword. This is not a tendentious association on my part but the very reason why anatomists agreed on this term in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century.
Psychic Genital MutilationThe analyst Harriet Lerner summarizes: “The widespread denial of female external genitalia (and thus of female sexuality, if not female reality) is a subject worthy of serious discourse. It is true that Americans do not excise the clitoris and ablate the labia, as is practiced in other cultures on countless girls and women. Instead, we do the job linguistically – psychic genital mutilation, if you will. Language can be as powerful and swift as the surgeon’s knife. What is not named does not exist“.
Viva la Vulva!Digging under the surface I started to find references to the female genitals everywhere in art and literature - the form in which culture presents and explains itself - showing that nothing is as present as that which is repressed. Beginning with mythological figures like Baubo and Salomé and the vulva-displaying sheela-na-gigs on medieval churches, there were always powerful representations of female genitalia as a gateway to other plains of existence. The naked dancers of the Weimar Republic like Anita Berber and the Burlesque goddesses of the golden era like Gypsy Rose Lee confused and delighted audiences with their mixture of intelligence and eroticism and pre-empted the sexual revolution. The book’s scope encompasses Indian goddesses, female preachers of early Christianity and the hidden aspects of Grimm’s fairy tales, right up to modern authors such as Kathy Acker, body artists like Carolee Schneemann and Annie Sprinkle the inventor of PostPornModernism; to mention but a few.
The purpose of my book wasn’t primarily to show the female genitals but to reclaim them and to redefine them.