The Red-Light District

Exploring the carnal and taboo

Female Misrepresentations

Tackling female misrepresentations ...

I'm a huge advocate for vaginas. Without vaginas, you and I wouldn't be here. Personally, I believe that vaginas are amazing, and I know many people who feel the same. Consequently, I was surprised to read a 2001 UK study written by Braun and Wilkinson titled "Socio-cultural representations of the vagina," which makes some excellent points about how the vagina is misrepresented in a variety of historical, social, cultural, artistic and medical realms. It's disheartening to realize that throughout time, the vagina has been much maligned.

Here are 7 points the authors make:

"The vagina as inferior to the penis." The perceived inferiority of the vagina, and its representation as such, began in ancient times and persists today. Some of the first healers, including Galen, a revered second-century Greek physician, considered women's reproductive parts as imperfect and the penis as perfect. Galen and other ancient Greeks preferred external genitals and considered only the external anatomy of the penis as "true" genitalia. Bouchet, a physician from the Renaissance period, minimized the female reproductive organs by equating the scrotum to a uterus turned inside-out and the vagina as a similarly inverted and internalized version of the penis. In more recent times, Freud suggested that young girls recognize the penis as "the superior counterpart of their own small and inconspicuous organ." Today, although penises and vaginas are considered to be morphologically different, some scholars still perceive genital hierarchy--with the penis being on top.

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"The vagina as absence." Aristotle and Galen both described the vagina as being devoid of penis. In a more encompassing sense, psychoanalysts, like Freud, defined femininity as a lack of penis. The perception of the vagina as absence persists currently. Studies show that many young girls misunderstand the anatomy and physiology of their reproductive organs because society doesn't value the vagina as having its own identity. Even the word "vagina" is rarely used in literature or social settings, and when it is used, it carries a negative connotation. Furthermore, pick up any Barbie doll and undress her. Although Barbie's breasts are well-pronounced, she lacks a recognizable vagina.

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"The vagina as a (passive) receptacle for the penis." In many modern medical and sexology texts the vagina is represented as adjusting to the penis. The penis fits into the vagina, and the vagina passively accommodates the shape of the penis. In fact, any movement by the vagina is described as dependent upon the penis, and all such movement is performed in order to better receive the penis. Even surgeons who perform genital reconstruction build and create with the understanding that the transformed genitals will need to accommodate an "average-sized penis."

"The vagina as sexually inadequate." In many medical and cultural contexts, the vagina is perceived as sexually inadequate: too tight, too loose or too dry. In fact, such inadequacies are legitimized by diagnostic terminology including dyspareunia--recurrent genital pain, vaginismus--vaginal spasm, and so forth. In fact, whole industries have been built around catering to perceived female sexual inadequacy including the sale of lubricants and performance of vagina "rejuvenation" surgeries such as vaginoplasty.

"The vagina as disgusting." From a young age, girls are taught that their vaginas are dirty, shameful and disgusting. These beliefs persist into adulthood and leave adult women with insecurities that affect their sex life. For example, many women either refuse to receive oral sex or must bathe before oral sex. Many men perpetuate stereotypes that vaginas are dirty and unclean by refusing to perform oral sex on a sexual partner for many reasons including fear that the vagina is smelly, unclean and disease-ridden. Advertisers have preyed on fears that vaginas are odoriferous by encouraging consumers to buy feminine hygiene products in order to smell "fresh"--implying that the natural smell of the vagina is unpleasant. Even colloquial expressions are ridden with references to smelly vaginas including smadge and stench trench.

"The vagina as vulnerable and abused." Probably in part because the vagina has no external musculature, it's often perceived as an orifice that can be abused. The most graphic and violent representation of such abuse is rape; rape has often been used as a weapon during wartime. Other examples of cited acts that can damage a vagina include childbirth and sexual intercourse; both of which can result in lacerations or tears. Furthermore, because of the nature of heterosexual intercourse, with the male ejaculating semen into the vagina, the female sexual organs are further perceived as vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections. Finally, vaginas are perceived as vulnerable to genital mutilation. Most recently, African countries have received attention for genital mutilation, but as late as the twentieth century, removal of the clitoris and vulva was recommended by practitioners of Western medicine as a cure for "problems" as varied as hysteria and "chronic masturbation."

"The vagina as dangerous." Probably among the most disconcerting misconceptions involving the vagina is the idea that the vagina is dangerous. For eons, people have held fast to and feared the image of the vagina dentate or vagina with teeth. An example of an allegorical representation of the vagina dentate is Sleeping Beauty where the nubile princess is surrounded by an impenetrable tangle of thorny bushes and thicket. As recently as the Vietnam War, rumors swirled that servicemen could fall prey to enemy vagina filled with spikes, glass or grenades. (Interestingly, in the United States, people have tried to patent such apparatuses.) Movies have also either alluded to or featured vagina dentate--a most recent example is the movie Teeth where the attractive protagonist "Dawn" uses her vagina to bite off several unwelcome penises.

So how do we make amends for countless misrepresentations of the vagina? The authors of the study do a good job of explaining that feminists and artists alike have made some inroads in repairing tattered representations of the vagina. For example, the beautiful flowers painted by Georgia O'Keefe herald the vagina in a figurative sense. But even if most of us are unable to construct and disseminate positive images of the vagina, it's important that we all realize that negative representations of the vagina bombard us. We should remain uninfluenced by such representations, even in the most subtle ways. We need to engage actively in discussions that celebrate the vagina: How it's a remarkable organ that "lubricates itself, changes in color, lengthens, expands; in orgasm, it contracts." Furthermore, the vagina is our entrance to the world. We need to educate our children about how the vagina is a miraculous creation that in no way is unsanitary, disturbing, inferior, dangerous or whatever else.

What do you think?

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Naveed Saleh, M.D., M.S., attained a medical degree from Wayne State University School of Medicine and a master's degree in science journalism from Texas A&M.

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