Wouldn't we have thought that-- after forty years of feminist theory, after living through the publications not only of The Second Sex and The Feminine Mystique, but of Sexual Politics, Fear of Flying, The Mad Woman Attic, and The Norton Anthology of Women's Literature-some things would be different?
Those of us who grew up when the song "I will Follow Him" was already an oldie ("I will follow him wherever he may go, there is no mountain too high no ocean too deep," etc.- the poor guy needed to be in a witness protection program to get away from some woman he dated once) and having danced the night away to Gloria Gaynor singing "I Will Survive" and to Annie Lennox "Sisters Are Doing it for Themselves" that the cultural landscape would be radically changed.
When we understood that virginity was simply the cornerstone of capitalism rather than revering the hymen as a manifest symbol of spiritual worth, we felt really good about ourselves. We wore T-shirts that said "I lost my virginity, but I still have the box it came in."
We could not have anticipated that there would be whole medical practices in major metropolitan centers around the world specializing in "hymenoplasty," the reconstruction of that small membrane. For a fairly hefty fee, a woman can, for example, choose to "repair and tighten the hymen to a more virgin-like state" for "cultural or other personal reasons (for example, an upcoming marriage)." When consulting websites about this procedure, I was struck with the repeated asking of a sample question: "How far in advance should I schedule my hymen repair?" to which of course the only reasonable answer is "Before somebody pops your cherry, otherwise it counts as elective surgery and you're going to need to pay with your Discover card."
Even when the medical information provided explains that virginity itself cannot be restored - since virginity for both men and women is defined as the state existing only before actual sexual intercourse - they, nevertheless, emphasize that their surgery is not only virtually undetectable but that indeed their mission is to "empower women with knowledge, choice, and alternatives."
If getting your hymen altered, sort of like taking your vagina in for a tune-up because you're trying to fix the numbers on the odometer, and you see this as "empowerment," then you are most accurately described by an article that appeared in "The Onion" titled "Women Now Empowered by Everything a Woman Does."
Quoting a fictitious professor of women's studies at Oberlin, "The Onion" satirizes the trend to regard everything the typical woman does as an act of "empowerment": "As recently as 15 years ago, a woman could only feel empowered by advancing in a male-dominated work world, asserting her own sexual wants and needs, or pushing for a stronger voice in politics. Today, a woman can empower herself through actions as seemingly inconsequential as driving her children to soccer practice or watching the Oxygen network."
"The Onion" goes on to claim that "Whereas early feminists campaigned tirelessly for improved health care and safe, legal access to abortion, often against a backdrop of public indifference or hostility, today's feminist asserts control over her biological destiny by wearing a baby-doll T-shirt with the word 'Hoochie' spelled in glitter."
When Madonna first wore torn up lace fishnet tights and sang "Like a Virgin," we didn't think that, in a little more than twenty years, megastores would be selling a line of clothes to actual little girls to make them look like actual little hookers.
What passed for invention and freedom often gets co-opted and exploited by the established economic and power structure, sure, but somehow we didn't think it was going to happen to us. We didn't think that telling girls they shouldn't feel any shame about their bodies or sexual urges would mean that our daughters or our granddaughters would be eagerly participating in blow-job parties at age twelve.
Not that I'm bitter. But--here's my question, friends--how do work on making sure the "f" word--"feminism"--regains its positive, powerful, persuasive connotations without losing our sense of humor, sense of freedom, and sense of joy?
Websites accessed for information on hymenoplasty include: www.libertywomenshealth.com, http://www.wellnesskliniek.com, http://www.centerforvaginalsurgery.com, and http://www.drberenholz.com/overview.asp