Who's (still) afraid of the word 'vagina'?

Recent events in Britain, America and Australia have revealed a fear of the word ‘vagina’ in public discourse, in tune with the shaming and controlling of women’s bodies by the US right.  What does this reveal about the alignment of capitalist commodification of sexuality and conservative misogyny, and how are the feminist responses to this climate changing the tone of feminism?

Heather McRobie
31 August 2012

Image courtesy of Granta. All rights reserved.

I’m a little embarrassed to be making this argument, not because the word vagina embarrasses me but because it’s sort of collectively cringeworthy that this case needs to be re-stated: there is nothing shameful or inappropriate about the word ‘vagina’.  Yet embarrassment seems to abound: last month, after an Australian advert used the word vagina for the first time on television to sell its products for menstruation, there were a series of complaints and calls for the advert to be banned.  Meanwhile, in June, Michigan Democrat Lisa Brown was barred from addressing the House of Representatives after using the word “vagina” in a debate on an anti-abortion bill. 

How do these displays of squeamishness about a word align with the broader trends of the backlash against women’s rights, not least the regressive positions of the US Republican party, some of whose party members made the news last week for medieval views on ‘legitimate rape’? And with feminists and women’s rights campaigners increasingly fighting their battles on the terrain of the terminology of sexuality – from the word ‘vagina’ to last year’s SlutWalks to the name ‘Pussy Riot’ – how is this reshaping the current lines along which feminist arguments operate?

2012 has seen a potent concoction of capitalism, medieval conservativism and the inevitably related deterioration of language claw away at women’s health and women’s rights. Just as the Jubilee celebrations of 2012 prettily decorated the continued assault on British social justice, so the assault on women comes partially adorned in cutesiness.  Earlier this year, the company Femfresh launched an advert on British television for its ‘feminine hygiene products’ that avoided the word ‘vagina’ by using faintly ridiculous euphemisms like “mini” “hoo haa” and “froo froo”, begging the question of how they expect women to be open enough to buy products for their vagina when they don’t consider women capable of, well, saying the word ‘vagina’.  But perhaps that’s the point: in the continued competition to convince women that their vagina needs to be waxed, vajazzled and perfumed (remember scented tampons?) so as to not be repulsive, the Femfresh advert’s language reflects the broader marketing attempt to cutesily infantilise women’s bodies within an inch of Hello Kitty. Still, despite the ‘froo-froo’-ing of pharmaceutical companies’ PR, the US Republicans still win this round of Irrational Fear of Medical Words: earlier this month, conservative commentators bemoaned the fact that a Senator mentioned ‘menstruation’ while outlining why some women may need birth control for medical conditions during a discussion on the Affordable Care Act Women’s Health package.

These undercurrents that female bodies are shameful and their medical terms verboten seem at first to be coming from different, albeit both screechingly unpleasant, sources: on the one hand, old fashioned conservative policing of female sexuality and traditional shaming of women, and the other a capitalistic commodification of female sexuality that Ariel Levy and others have outlined as the marrying of particular porn-industry aesthetics to older, patriarchal virgin/ whore dichotomies and means of controlling female sexuality.

All too often though, these two undercurrents align, as in the case of procedures such as hymenoplasty, or the marrying of sexist and racist tropes in controversial recent adverts for ‘vagina whitening’.  In other words, raunch culture may present porn aesthetics as the narrow, highly-regulated role of acceptable femininity (a hypersexual, passive version of the un-sexual, passive archetype of ‘the 1950s housewife’) while more classically conservative cultural trends still emphasise the ‘virgin’ side of the virgin/ whore dichotomy (hence the increase of hymenoplasty), but the two converge inasmuch as both express a desire to mould, wax, cut, vajazzle, whiten and tighten female bodies into the narrow forms of their ideals.

Much of this is not new, of course.  But what’s curious is how these trends have both expanded and come to the fore from seemingly opposing ends of the spectrum, the supposedly ‘pro-sex’ porn aesthetics of raunch culture that operates on shaming women who do not conform to its logic on the one hand, and the squeamishness of traditional conservatives on the other.  The point at which they meet is the equation of female sexuality and bodies with shame – hence the word ‘vagina’ being considered inappropriate for adults to use when discussing periods in Australian adverts or health care in American politics.

This in turn reveals a further curious contradiction, aside from the awkward-bedfellows of vagina-whitening universe: the issue of explicitness alongside an insistence on euphemism that reoccurs in the Femfresh advert, the Australian advert censured for using the word ‘vagina’, and the politicians chastised for using, in turn, the words ‘vagina’ and ‘menstruation’ while discussing healthcare provisions.  For it would be wrong to interpret all this, er, pussy-footing, around the word ‘vagina’ and this cultural inclination towards making female sexuality sanitised and commodified as a sign that conservative forces would like to leave the vagina well alone.  They might not like people saying it – or women having power over it – but conservatives are very, very interested in vaginas. 

So interested, in fact, and with such a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, that they have designed new and ingenious methods of getting into women’s bodies: take, for instance, the legislation proposed in Virginia earlier this year which sought to force women seeking an abortion to have a transvaginal procedure – that is, to be penetrated for no reason other than the fact anti-abortionists would like to make them uncomfortable.

To return to the context in which Lisa Brown used the word ‘vagina’ in the Michigan legislature, her full sentence was the sarcastic “ I'm flattered that you're all so interested my vagina, but 'no' means 'no’” – a reference both to this state preoccupation with policing female bodies and an ironic use of the campus-advice sexual-assault line ‘no means no’ as a reminder that the message that women have autonomy over their own bodies is still not getting through.  Censuring Brown for the affront of merely saying the word ‘vagina’ whilst simultaneously introducing such invasive, explicit – and frankly cruel – measures as transvaginal procedures go hand in hand in conservative logic: if the vagina and female sexuality is shameful, it must be both taboo (unspoken of) and patrolled (transvaginal procedures).  Last week, Republican Missouri senate nominee Todd Akin rolled up his sleeves to demonstrate how this alignment of control, misogyny and medical misinformation plays out, through his bewildering and widely criticised comment that women cannot get pregnant from a “legitimate rape”, managing – in his efforts to limit abortion provisions – to both disseminate information with no scientific basis and imply that women who get pregnant from rape weren’t ‘really’ raped.  Meanwhile, in both the US and the UK, the privileging of moral panic over the reproductive health has manifested in calls to deny girls the HPV vaccination that would help prevent cervical cancer on the grounds that it might make them ‘promiscuous’.  Once again, it seems the right of women’s health is marginal to the issue of how best to police female behaviour.  But, hey, at least nobody said the word ‘vagina’.

These incidents outlined above reveal much of the modern conservative assault on women’s bodies – their health, their autonomy and their happiness.  A further question is how the response to these incidents and statements is shaping the tone of feminist discourses.  Eve Ensler’s classic play The Vagina Monologues is so time-honoured it is often now considered passé or at least saturated (in the hope it can be filed under ‘fights we have already won’), yet it’s worth noting that established feminist writer Naomi Wolf has a new book out this year entitled Vagina: A Biography, and one of the key protests earlier this summer to the conservative treatment of Lisa Brown was a staging of The Vagina Monologues in Michigan.  Alongside feminist performance art such as The Muffia, Femen, and the totemic 2012 image of a group of young women – Pussy Riot – protesting the grotesque fusion of conservativism, authoritarianism and commodification in Putin’s Russia, resonate (albeit speaking to different dilemmas and demographics) with the 2011 global protests of the SlutWalk marches.  In the face of the many assaults on women’s rights, feminism seems to have returned to the language of the body and the culture’s language of sex: vagina, pussy, slut.

What does this mean for how feminist movements position themselves, and who they speak to?  Is it a disadvantage, even, for feminist goals – this emphasis on insisting that the word ‘vagina’ should be used, this insistence, still, that words like ‘slut’ are worn-out ancient hate-words that only operate in the medieval lens of sexual double standards? This is not to blame the feminists who, in recent years, have focused their energies on campaigning on such issues, but instead to raise the question of whether, in combatting the assault on women’s bodies, feminism has – in the emergency-mode of defending women against these attacks – also refocused on the physical, linking feminism with femaleness and femaleness with the body?

If this is the case, is feminism in danger of occupying a defensive position that works on the terrain – the body – on which these assaults are being made, such as the emphasis, in Ensler’s play and Wolf’s latest work, on the vagina?  These are questions women’s rights activists and feminists must address, not only because a focus on sexuality enables reactionaries of various kinds to position feminism as ‘western’, decadent, frivolous and irrelevant – little more than Sex and the City or  a Madonna video – while leaving it in danger of co-option as in the case of ‘raunch culture’.  It could also be seen as a narrowing of feminism to sex and the body at a time when the corrosion of women’s economic stability and gains is similarly of pressing concern.

None of which is to deny the interrelated concerns of the corrosion of women’s sexual and reproductive rights and women’s economic equality, or to position this focus on ‘vagina’ and ‘slut’ as ‘bad’ feminism because it is not addressing gender issues in the same structural manner as those concerned with, say, equal pay.  My point is more that it is frustrating to find ourselves back here – for me to find myself back here – slowly explaining for the thousandth time that a ”vagina” is not something to be ashamed of because women’s bodies are not shameful, that women shouldn’t be told that not being raped is dependent on someone not going out “dressed like a slut”.  That yes women can get pregnant from rape.

We have so many important, difficult fights still to win: for equal pay, for an equal say in democracy, for full autonomy over our own bodies, for rape to be fully recognised everywhere as a violent crime, against the use of sexual violence in war, against the continued misogyny of our ‘allies’ in supposedly ‘progressive’ movements, against the misguided, toxic trick that so cleverly pits women against one another and women’s rights against other social goods, against the marginalisation within women’s rights movements of the women who are most harmed by current prevailing structures.  So many fights ahead, that the fact we’re still fighting over the right to use the word ‘vagina’ without shame – because women have for so long been told that their bodies are shameful –  is, in itself, a little shameful, a little defeating.  So let’s please put this fight, at least, to rest: grow up and say the word vagina.

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