Vulgar. Violence. Vibration. Voyeur. Vulva.
We are not yet sure how to refer to the “private part” “down there”. But as Foucault says, it is important that we refer to it. It’s important to deconstruct the discourse around vagina in order to extrapolate manners in which power relations exist between genders. As singularly responsible for essentializing the female species, a discourse surrounding the vagina helps uncover the history of separations, existence of tensions and potentials for liberation. It also helps identify how feminism has made the pursuit of sexual pleasure— the expression of women’s sexual autonomy— a political goal.
Vagina and Seperation
Until about 18th century, the idea of one-sex body dominated recorded understanding of sex and gender. Under the Galenic system (and Aristotle’s), men and women had essentially similar anatomical structures, only with different levels of heat and moistness. This perception that held sway for over two millennia rapidly changed with masculinity and femininity observed in the very structure of the body, whereby the nervous system was feminized and musculature was masculinized, thus laying the foundation for sex, and not gender as grounds for social and cultural differences in the body.
Vagina played the part of the grand separator with gynecological researches during the 1920s when Robert Latou Dickinson investigated the physiology of intercourse, observing the vaginas of women who masturbated. Researches into the physiology of sex heralded masturbation as an orgasm enhancer during intercourse. This brought to centre the issue of female sexual response and asked critical questions – to what extent is penetration essential; are women sexually unresponsive, or men merely insensitive towards female arousal; and the role of culture, as opposed to biology, in eliciting response.
Subsequently, Freud’s assertion that women ‘give up’ the clitoris and advance to the stage where they can use the vagina and the reproductive function as pleasure components, led to scathing criticisms and necessitated an overhaul of the sex research, whose dominant discourses around frigidity and vaginal orgasm only highlighted its conservative and heterosexist nature. Kinsey busted the myths of vaginal orgasm through direct attack on psychoanalysis and demonstrated how female sexuality was responsive and physical, different from the psychological and active sexuality of men. Although this theory was radical, it too played the binaries rather well and stressed on marital heterosexist relationships.
” There’s so much darkness and secrecy surrounding them— like the Bermunda Triangle” (The Vagina Monologues).”
Compulsory heterosexuality, in Monique Wittig’s overview recognised the social institution regulating what sorts of bodies we recognize – this was done by treating anatomical distinctions between people as fundamental, thereby making distinctions among human bodies based on who has a penis and who has a vagina.
Vagina and Silence
Lillian Rubin writes, “In the brief span of one generation—from the 1940s to the 1960s—we went from mothers who believed their virginity was their most prized possession to daughters for whom it was a burden.” Virginity was no longer “a treasure to be safeguarded”; now, it was “a problem to be solved.”
With the binaries intact in a heterosexist normative, researches gradually shifted from the “vagina dentata” (that the vagina – an embodiment of the sin of lust – was equipped with teeth that could castrate the male) to the female ejaculation – the Skene’s glands located immediately above or in front of the vagina. Especially of growing interest became the relationship between the gland, female ejaculation, orgasm and the Gra ̈fenburg Spot or G-Spot, which is the place on the anterior vagina wall just behind the Skene’s glands that, when stimulated, produces intense sexual pleasure. Of course the interest of the scientific community in this area has been only fleeting, considering there is no proven relationship between female ejaculation and reproductive functions. Besides, from a male-centric perspective, the female is merely a repository for male ejaculation, not a partner who contributes her own ejaculate.
Even while fantasizing themselves as objects of desire, women use a more passive linguistic style than men. Michael Kimmel in The Gender of Desire writes, ‘In heterosexual encounters, men and women often interpret the same behaviours from different sides of the power equation. For example, men experience both fellatio and cunnilingus as expressions of their power – along the lines of, “I can get her to suck me,” and “When I go down on her I can make her come” – regardless of whether the man is ‘actually’ active or passive. Symmetrically, women experience both fellatio and cunnilingus as expressions of their lack of power – “He forces my mouth onto his penis,” and, “He goes down on me and I’m helpless” – regardless of whether the woman is ‘actually’ passive or active.’
This silencing of vagina— this obfuscation of women’s sexuality within the heteronormative world order— has rendered women as not just passive recipients of male sexual monologues, it also continues to sustain juridical and cultural definitions that while attaching paramount importance on sexual intercourse and foreplay, invariably involving penile penetration and its preparations, completely exclude gay and lesbian experience. As a result, irrespective of gains accrued by feminist movements, vagina continues to be singularly oppressed without a voice – almost representing the oppressed state of women today. As Eva Ensler wrote, “I was worried about my own vagina. It needed a context of other vaginas— a community, a culture of vaginas. There’s so much darkness and secrecy surrounding them— like the Bermunda Triangle” (The Vagina Monologues).
This secrecy is not lost on the lesbian scholars either, who view mainstream ‘sex’ to mean a specific event: penile ejaculation inside a vagina. Thus lesbians do not, cannot, have sex. Marilyn Frye notes that this “phallocentricity” operates to erase all female sexuality: “I’d say that lesbian couples ‘have sex’ a great deal less frequently than heterosexual couples; by the criteria that I’m betting most of the heterosexual people used to count ‘times’, lesbians don’t have sex at all. No male orgasms, no ‘times’. I’m willing to draw the conclusion that heterosexual women don’t have sex either, that what they report is the frequency with which their partners have sex.”
Vagina and Violence
This deliberately promoted secrecy within our patriarchal setup, and a refusal to widen the discourse to include women of all sexual orientations and races has led to proliferation of pornography as a medium that jubilantly essentializes and exploits vaginas without guilt or remorse. Indeed, as Robert Jensen writes about men’s choice and pornography, there are three consistent themes in heteronormative pornography: 1) all women want sex from all men at all times, 2) women naturally desire the kind of sex that men want, including sex that many women find degrading, 3) any woman who does not at first realise this, can be turned on with a little force.
“Where rape is limited by an archaic definition, the methods used in sexual mutilation are limited only by the imagination.”
In the realm of literature, similarities abound. In The Story of O, a woman, known only by the first initial of her name, is trained in the art of perfect submission, who then is sexually penetrated by a variety of men, whipped, beaten and humiliated. Whereas it has its place within BDSM subculture and sex-positive feminism, Andrea Dworkin views this work as a pornography that reveals the mechanisms of patriarchal oppression, interpreting the name O as representing the vagina, thus reducing the protagonist to a hole to be penetrated.
Of course, the most blatant form of objectification that vagina is subjected to is through the realm of sexual violence, chiefly: rape. The Rape of Nanking (1938) and Rape of Bengali women (1971) by Pakistani Army remain largely obscured within existing discourses just as countless other tales of military occupations, due to the sheer magnitude of sexual violence: rapists have sliced open the vaginas of young girls to assault them more efficiently, impaled women’s vaginas, and ripped fetuses out of pregnant women for amusement. In the much-publicized gang rape in Delhi, the target too was the woman’s vagina, a reminder of True Confessions (dir. Ulu Grosbard, 1981), based on the real-life Black Dahlia case, where the rapist stuffs a church candle into a girl’s vagina after raping and killing her. In Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), a woman doing yoga is raped with a huge phallic sculpture. Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird depicts a woman attacked by a group of women who shove a bottle filled with cow manure into her vagina. When it goes no further, they kick it, shattering the glass inside her. In the Glen Ridge rape, on March 1, 1989, seven baseball players raped a 17-year-old mentally disabled girl by penetrating her vagina with a broom and a baseball bat. Such random sampling is deliberate, to suggest how blurred is the demarcation between truths and fictions, when it comes to sexual violence targeting vaginas – further complicated by the fact that a ‘rape’ in most societies today legally takes into account only the nonconsensual penile penetration of the vagina.
Where rape is limited by an archaic definition, the methods used in sexual mutilation are limited only by the imagination. Hammers, pliers, electric cattle prods, wires, pins and needles or insertion of any other foreign objects into vagina continue to form the core of violence against women. The offenders are often motivated by racist power – so frequently observable that areas of studies have emerged to study violence perpetrated by dominant white, heterosexual males upon disenfranchised minorities in the West. Custodial torture of Soni Suri where stones were lodged in her vagina and countless Dalit women subjected to such treatments by upper caste landlords in India call for wider recognition of a discourse that prominently includes the intersection of race/caste and gender violence. Also alarming is the growing indifference towards female circumcision that involves sewing of the opening to the vagina, leaving only a very small hole for urine and menses to exit the body. Around 100 to 140 million women undergo this procedure annually with an additional two million females circumcised each year. Amnesty International and the World Health Organization have condemned this as female genital mutilation (FGM) that involves excision of the clitoris and the labia minora.
Vagina and Dialogue
Targeted sexual violence against women continues with such alacrity because of the widely prevailing notion of gender binaries. Simone de Beauvoir has described the cultural construction of woman as other to man and how this myth privileges men. Such a binary opposition then becomes a self-serving cultural construct that is used to justify the oppression. Foucaultian analysis has intervened to suggest how the body and sexuality are historical constructs that change over time, depending on power and resistance: gender and sexuality are constructed by social, economic, and political forces. This is an empowering stance because of the way it situates power – not only in a repressive or controlling manner; but also as productive, inciting and one that encourages preferred forms of behaviour: “Where individuals’ sexual behaviour had previously been a matter of (dis)allowed acts, modern sexuality wraps one’s very identity up with the specification of a stable, essential sexual self. In Foucault’s influential formulation: ‘The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.’”
Foucault points out that this modern science of sexuality, or scientia sexualis, is adequately different from the ars erotica, or erotic arts, of ancient times. Ancient erotic arts amplified pleasure as its own truth and reward, whereas the science of sexuality produces knowledge about sexual behaviour in order to control people. Thus, the history of sexuality is a history of the science of sexuality as an instrument of control – and this instrument can happily be subverted because the same sexual categories that science uses to label and control people can also give them a sexual identity. In turn, this identity can help people organize as a group, and this group sexual identity can facilitate resistance against control. Thus, those men who are labeled homosexuals can indeed organize and fight for homosexual political rights. Foucault thus suggests that with more categories of abnormal sexual expression that are invented by sexual science, the more types of perversity will flourish as a positive result of those categories.
This emancipatory contribution of Foucault has helped Judith Butler in her “Gender Trouble” formulations that show gender (like Foucault’s sexuality) to be not a cause but an effect. Butler and Teresa de Lauretis, closely associated with queer theory, have questioned the stability of identity categories. Queer theory, which offers a dialogue of sorts by drawing connections with Marxism, psychoanalysis, feminism, deconstruction, and postcolonial theory acknowledges that sex and sexuality have a history, without any stability or innate givens, thereby offering changes in the future; that an individual’s sexuality is a fluid construction, determined by discourse and power/knowledge. In a way, queer theory has uncoupled sexuality from gender, using all preceding understandings to celebrate queer identities as transformative social projects. And one might add, just in time, because queer approaches have recognized that women of colour, working class women and lesbians may have unique concerns that the white, middle-class woman grounded in second-wave feminism might have missed. In critiquing The Vagina Monologues, therefore, Kim Hall has expressed concerns over the unitary nature of the category “woman/women” and questioned the celebrations of a ‘global sisterhood’ normalized within the lens of white privilege.
Queer theory for the future offers to us unsettling queries and posits the vagina as not just a monologue, but also a dialogue. And in our facilitations at resolving them, once the discourse incorporates diverse voices, and a “community of vaginas” emerges, the hopes for the power relations to change for the better are bound to materialize.