At a party, I am trying to focus on the story somebody’s telling when the word “vagina” leaps out of a conversation in the other room, as though it had been yelled and not simply…uttered.
Once, the word was never uttered. Lacking even useful euphemisms, we were reduced to waving a vague hand “down there.” When the party reassembles for dinner, I ask my husband just what they were talking about, and a guy who was in the other room with me starts laughing: “I heard it, too.”
You hear “vagina” quite often, these days. Naomi Wolf’s book by that name was followed by Eve Ensler’s tour de force, The Vagina Monologues. But only in the past year has the word been spoken so often and so casually that even I have become comfortable pronouncing its pretty syllables in public. “Vulva” is no fun to say, but “vagina” is quite lovely, like Regina, and I do not know why it once felt so awkward and ugly to me.
What does it mean to be ashamed to refer to an important part of your own body?
Researchers recently stopped men on the street, showed them a diagram of a woman’s reproductive system, and asked them to name the parts. Not one could do it. One wife looked especially mortified at her husband’s stumbling; she was, she said, an ob/gyn. That night I quizzed my smart husband, thinking he would ace the question. He did not. (And I had to do a little brushing up on the vas deferens myself.)
Humans were not always so ignorant. And that is because they were not always so ashamed of their reproductive and pleasurable parts. As recently as 1866, Gustave Courbet painted a nude woman with her legs spread and called it The Origin of the World. Today, Facebook calls that painting pornographic.
In ancient Sumerian texts, vaginal fluid is described as tasting sweet (a pleasant switch from the endless references to fish). In Hindu culture, the yoni symbolizes the goddess Shakti, who represents generative female power. The Venus of Hohle Fels is a sculpture at least 35,000 years old, beginning a succession of Venus figurines that exaggerated the vulva, the abdomen, the hips, the breasts.
Granted, the head was usually small and faceless.
Worshipping a woman because she gives birth too often gives short shrift to her other capabilities. And a reduction of an entire person to their genitalia is the fastest insult—suddenly a man is “a dick” and a woman is “a cunt,” nothing more.
The Latin (and now medical) word pudendum literally means “shameful thing.” Sheela na gigs are medieval carvings of naked women that exaggerate the vulva, which sounds like a compliment until you realize they are grotesques, carved on churches in Ireland and Great Britain to ward off the corrupting sin of female lust.
I was also charmed when I first learned of the folklore about the vagina loquens, a talking vagina. Oh, the stories she could tell…. Then I found out that this was a vagina forced, by dint of a magic charm, to reveal not its pleasures but its infidelities.
Meanwhile, the vagina dentata was believed to contain sharp, castrating teeth. Bad enough that a vagina is a dark, mysterious hole that happens to be—the word now deemed cringe-worthy, though I am not sure why—moist.
Basic sex-ed should have straightened us out, but instead it took writers and artists to scrub off the shame. Half a century ago, Judy Chicago threw her now-legendary dinner party in honor of thirty-nine strong, famous women, designing porcelain plates with vulva and butterfly forms for the installation. Jamie McCartney created a Great Wall of Vagina, using casts of the vulvas of hundreds of women. In Body As Commodity, Lena Marquise charged cellphones with her vagina. In a multisite project in Johannesburg, The Two Talking Yonis, Reshma Chhiba created a walk-through vagina in a decommissioned women’s prison. “Not many people—men or women—are unfazed about walking through this vaginal canal,” she observed.
Nonetheless, protest groups such as Courageous Cunts, street art like Clitorosity, and media projects like Cliteracy still live on the margins. The book Femalia contains art photos of vulvas; it was published by Down There Press and reprinted by Last Gasp. When Madonna allowed her digital avatar to give birth to a tree, the artwork, created by Beeple, was pronounced tasteless and pornographic. When the Vagina Museum opened in London, its landlord would not renew its lease, choosing instead to convert the space to a clothing boutique. Perhaps the museum could repair to the fourth floor, be a little less visible?
The museum moved to Bethnal Green instead. It hopes to begin work on a permanent home in the next few years.
All vaginas need a permanent home, a public address. Why has it taken the western world so long to claim a rather wonderful part of a woman’s body? Because it is invisible, as women once were? Because it must be kept under wraps, tightly controlled, lest it misbehave or swallow a man’s identity or make him feel inadequate? It is expected to be passive, receptive, and silent, save for confession. Dicks swing; vaginas hide. Anything phallic aligns itself with power. Anything—see, we lack even a word for it. Gynocentric? That region of the body is meant to be draped, legs not swaggered apart but imprisoned by stirrups or tightly crossed.
Screw that. We have knitted ourselves pink pussy hats. We have declared our bodies our own and refused to be ashamed of them. Rape survivors are braving the courtroom, as are #MeToo survivors. We are naming this part of our body freely and easily, in casual conversation. Though it can open a passageway to new life, it also connects us to the world that is ours. And the naming has even more power than the ancients dreamed.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.