A Darke and Vicious Place: Conceptualizing the Vagina
How Women’s Sex Organs Have Been Understood in Art and in History
hamlet Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
ophelia No, my lord.
hamlet I mean, my head upon your lap?
ophelia Ay, my lord.
hamlet Do you think I meant country matters?
ophelia I think nothing, my lord.
hamlet That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.
ophelia What is, my lord?
hamlet No thing.
(Hamlet, III. ii. 107–115)
Hamlet’s exchange with Ophelia is a ribald one. Elizabethan audiences would have understood the sexual puns in Hamlet’s words—lie (to have sex with), head (penis or oral sex), country matters (allusion to “cunt”) and “no thing” (a slang term for a vagina which reveals its definition by absence, i.e. no penis). Much has been written about Shakespeare’s frequent references to sex and sex organs, and there are perhaps 700 puns about sex in the plays alone. There is also a considerable body of analysis on the troubling nature of female sexuality and desire in Shakespeare’s work. Women arguably feature most often in Shakespeare principally in terms of their sex, and not as a focus for social criticism or observation but as a source of mythical power that arouses both love and loathing in their male counterparts.
Historians of the so-called “one-sex model” of gender difference argue that early modern men and women viewed sexed difference on a continuum; that the female body was essentially an imperfect version of the male. Thus some anatomists wrote about the vagina as an internal penis, the labia as the foreskin, the uterus as scrotum and the ovaries as testicles, an inversion made possible by the physical imperfection of women; unlike men they lacked the sufficient heat for the sex organs to be drawn outside of the body and to become male. This is an interesting historical hypothesis, as is the suggestion that the Enlightenment saw a complete separation of male and female into our modern “two-sex model” of binary biological difference. But it also depends on a rather simplistic interpretation of a few select anatomical texts. Not all early modern writers were wedded to the idea of the one-sex model, and there were many anatomists who viewed male and female organs as entirely different. Additionally, there was a degree of animosity towards the vagina in the early modern period, as indicated by Shakespeare’s prose. The vagina was a troubling space, an organ of creative power and maternity, but also of sexual manipulation and control.
One of the most striking aspects of Shakespeare’s references to female genitalia is the range of words used to describe them: the vagina is not merely a no thing (Hamlet), but a “vallie-fountain” (Sonnet 153), a “deep Pit” into which one might stumble and be lost (Titus Andronicus), a bracelet (Cymberline) and a “darke and vicious place” (King Lear). The vagina has many names but no name; it is an object of euphemistic discourse in the past as in the present, as testified by Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues and its contributors, many of whom identify with what Ensler calls the “‘down there’ generation.”
Even today, a study of dictionary definitions of “vagina” reveals that the organ is seldom described in relation to sex (unlike the penis), but overwhelmingly in terms of its physical location. Similarly, while “penis” is almost always described as an organ, the vagina is not; it is pictured as a “canal” or a “passage” that by implication leads somewhere else. Moreover the clitoris is often missing from those dictionaries; where it has been included that is principally in relation to the penis. The possession of a vagina, or the absence of a penis, is what has historically defined female against male bodies. This binary difference is not only problematic for women (whose bodies are defined by that absence), but also for representatives of the LGBT+ movement, especially in relation to transgender identity. There is ample literature to show that women have been delimited by, and reduced to their vaginas for centuries, which raises the question whether the equation of womanhood to the vagina in Ensler’s monologues is just another way of reducing women to their sexed existence.
Leaving behind the one-sex model, this chapter explores the ways women’s sex organs have been understood in history: most notably the vagina, the vulva, the clitoris, and the hymen. Since Shakespeare’s time female genitalia have been written about in a number of different ways, anatomical explorers laying claim to specific body parts much as their seafaring counterparts colonized new geographical lands. In the process the mapping of the female body became a powerful social and political metaphor for gendered discussions about the dominance of reason over passion, of civilization over nature. Female genitalia are often the subject of multiple anxieties over the control of women’s bodies and their reproductive function. The reasons have been theological and ideological as well as purely economic, such as primogeniture, the passing down of property through the male heir, and religious ideals of female chastity.
In the twenty-first century, governments, pressure groups, feminists, educationalists, and religious organizations express concerns about female sexuality, linked both to reactions to the so-called “sexual revolution” and the ever-present double standards of sexual morality. Control over female sexuality is embedded in broader political debates and specific human rights abuses like female genital mutilation and sexual slavery.
The words used to describe women’s sex organs also remain controversial, whether that is the profoundly provocative “cunt” or deliberately demure “lady garden.” Political and linguistic anxieties reflect not only cultural concerns about women’s bodies as sexually active or sexually reproductive, but also political values about women’s sexual and socioeconomic function. There is more, then, to “the woman’s part” than meets the eye.
Passivity and the “Woman’s Part(s)”
Female sexual organs are more physically complex than indicated in the generalized diagrams of reproduction found in school teaching; the two-dimensional sketches that highlight the fallopian tubes, the ovaries, the womb, and the vaginal passage that can stretch to accommodate a penis as well as a baby’s head. The “facts of life” are ordinarily explained in the most rudimentary biological terms. The language in which reproductive sex is described is also important, because it sets up and confirms the social relationships in which it takes place. The vagina is figured as a passive recipient that is “penetrated” by the penis, which deposits sperm that must race to the patiently waiting egg. This version of the physical process denies any active agency on the part of the uterus, most notably through orgasm, in dipping to pick up the sperm and help conception to take place. In 1999 the feminist Germaine Greer explored the idea of a “different version of female receptivity by speaking of the vagina as if it were active, as if it sucked on the penis and emptied it out, rather than simply receiving the ejaculate.”
To date there has been no scientific evidence confirming that the vagina, or the uterus (through hormones released at orgasm that cause muscle spasms), has an active role in propelling sperm up the vagina. It is highly relevant that evidence-based work is undertaken in women who are not sexually aroused. There is not, moreover, much financial incentive for research in this area. Yet the evolutionary function of the female orgasm is a subject that has aroused much public and academic interest, especially since the 2005 publication of Elisabeth Lloyd’s The Case of the Female Orgasm. The briefest consideration of the history of the female orgasm makes clear that Greer’s observations are not new. The association of female orgasm with pregnancy has a long history. Since the ancient Greeks a prerequisite to pregnancy has been orgasm in both parties. Unfortunately, agency is a double-edged sword: this belief has been used to deny rape: from the advice of a seventeenth-century midwife, Jane Sharp, that “extream hatred is the reason why women seldom or never conceive when ravished” to the Republican Senate nominee Todd Aitken’s farcical distinction between rape and “legitimate rape” in 2012.
The language of female genitalia has changed. In early modern writing, the term “womb” was sometimes used to describe both the womb and the vagina, treating them as one distinct unit. Sometimes the term “bottom” is used for womb, and “womb” for vagina. Today there is a similar slippage of terms from one part of the female anatomy to another. When most people use the term “vagina” they are usually not speaking precisely about the internal, muscular tube that connects the uterus to the fallopian tube and the ovaries, but its visible outer layer and opening (sometimes called the vestibule in medical textbooks), as well as the labia majora (outer lips), labia minora (inner lips) and the clitoris. There is seldom any mention of the vulva in diagrams of the female reproductive system. Yet the vulva has a sexual function; it is not a merely a gateway to the vagina. The external organs are filled with nerves that provide pleasure when properly stimulated. How strange then, that the vulva is ignored in discussions of reproduction, along with the clitoris and the hymen, despite the fact the former is crucial in enabling women to reach climax, as discussed below, and the latter in “proving” virginity.
The Vulva Monologues
Looking at the vulva became particularly fashionable at the end of the twentieth century, with its clinical reconstruction for aesthetic reasons. It has been suggested that women who request vulvar reconstruction overwhelmingly base their aesthetic ideals on their childlike rather than their adult appearance. And this trend has its roots, somewhat alarmingly, in both the sexualization of young bodies and the fashion for the so-called “Barbie doll” aesthetic found in pornography, in which women’s external genitalia are dainty, pink, soft, even-textured, and hairless. Labiaplasty, the reduction and cutting away of the inner labia, is one of the fastest growing forms of cosmetic surgery in the West. In 2008, in reference to this troublesome cultural trend, the Brighton-based artist Jamie McCartney created The Great Wall of Vagina; a sculpture comprising plaster casts of 400 women’s genitals to show how varied vulvas might be. The artist describes the work as “art with a social conscience.”
It seems churlish to point out that McCartney has actually created a Great Wall of Vulva, since the geographical allusion would be lost. On the one hand, the declared intent of McCartney, to celebrate the diversity of womanhood, to make women “feel better” about their differences is laudable. And yet on the other, there is something oddly jarring about a male sculptor exhibiting female body parts so explicitly; for art or for profit, such a mass display is somehow objectifying (the very opposite of McCartney’s claim, in fact, that the multitude somehow makes the depiction less so). There is, moreover, a subtle allusion in McCartney’s work to the writings of the Renaissance scholar and humanist François Rabelais, though this may be accidental. In Gargantua and Pantagruel, Rabelais imagines a wall of vulvas protecting Paris, being “cheaper than stone,” given how much women’s private parts sell for on the city streets.
There are disturbing parallels between the rise of cosmetic surgery as an aesthetic choice and the incidence of female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as “cutting” or “female circumcision.” It could even be defined as such, if we use the definition given by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” Of course, not all forms of cultural compliance involve surgical alteration. Another example where female genital appearance has developed a strong visual aesthetic is in the case of pubic hair.
To Bare or Not to Bare
Female body hair removal has become ubiquitous in the modern West, especially in the UK and North America. One psychologist has called hairlessness, especially of the underarms and legs “a major component of ‘femininity’; a norm that has developed in the United Stated since the early twentieth century.” The fashion for shaved or waxed pudenda is more recent. In 2002 commentators began to discuss the ubiquity of the “Brazilian,” the removal of all hair from women’s genital area that was the subject of considerable media attention from HBO’s Sex and the City to popular magazines and websites. How did we get to a place where the almost complete removal of public hair, a process that is painful, inconvenient, expensive, and repetitive, is not only fashionable but also the idealized ‘norm’, female body hair being seen, at least in most of Europe and the United States as unattractive, unfeminine, and even dirty?
In the same way that small breasts became abnormal in the nineteenth century, excessive body hair was pathologized and associated with excessive masculinity, and with animalism and primitivism in the context of evolutionary theory. A series of high-profile case studies from the 1850s, from bearded ladies to human zoos to the ‘hairy family of Burma’, meant that excessive hairiness was medically and socially linked to a new condition—hypertrichosis—and women with superfluous hair on their bodies or faces were regarded as non-women. The following century, moreover, saw first the rise of feminism and the rejection of beauty ideals around the removal of body hair, before a backlash against that movement and the imposition of even stricter ideals of femininity and hairlessness.
Reprinted from This Mortal Coil by Fay Bound Alberti with permission from Oxford University Press USA. Copyright © 2016 Fay Bound Alberti and published by Oxford University Press USA. All rights reserved.