January 7, 2006
In Praise of the C Word
In the January 1, 2006 Sunday NY Times Magazine, there is a piece by Daphne Merkin as part of "The Way We Live Now" column that begins, "These are cruel times for vaginas." The piece goes on to describe various procedures that can be done to "improve" the appearance of external female genitalia, ranging from the "so-called Brazilian waxes" to labiaplasty, which "fixes" labia that are too big or too small or otherwise "defective."
I rather like the tone of the article: Merkin makes it clear that she finds the whole business hogwash, though I think the best section is devoted to the silliness of "hymen-reattachment surgery,"
once a desperate stratagem undertaken by young women from Muslim, Asian and Latin American cultures that demonized the loss of virginity before marriage, [which] is now being hawked as a way to enjoy a second honeymoon. If it's unclear whom this procedure is meant for--aging women hoping to catch a flagging penis with the semblance of undeflowered innocence?--it's even more ontologically ungraspable how stitching a hymen back together vitiates the psychological experience of having already lost your virginity.
Nonetheless, I was bothered by the fact that in her opening sentence, Merkin uses the term "vagina" when she should have used the term "vulva" or "pudendum."
Don't believe me? Consider these definitions:
vulva: The external genital organs of the female, including the labia majora, labia minora, and vestibule of the vagina. [Latin, womb, covering.]
pudendum: the human external genital organs, especially of a woman. Often used in the plural. [Latin, neuter gerundive of pudere, to make or be ashamed.] (The fact that the term is literally rooted in shame is the main reason I will avoid using it.)
vagina: The passage leading from the opening of the vulva to the cervix of the uterus in female mammals. [Latin, vagina, sheath.]
I know, I know: some of you are pointing out that we've covered this territory before: there's a section on it in Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues: Ensler includes a letter from Jane Hirschman, honorary chair of the Vulva Club, membership in which cannot be extended to Ensler (much to the dismay of those already in the club), because membership is "predicated on the understanding and correct usage of the word vulva and being able to communicate that to as many people as possible, especially women." Ensler includes the letter without responding directly to it, and although she names the next monologue "The Vulva Club," once that piece is done, she goes right back to using the word vagina to mean both vagina and vulva.
I think it's good that we can talk openly about the vagina, but I wish we could talk openly about the vulva too. I think how awkward it would be if, when we wanted to talk about an arm, we never used that word--even though it was available to us--opting instead to use the word hand, which was supposed to mean both that thing at the end of your arm with fingers on it, and the arm itself, in contexts that didn't always make it clear which body part you were actually referring to.
Sadly, in pop culture, the generally accepted and acceptable term meant to invoke all of female genitalia is vagina. Vulva, apparently, is too fastidious and precise; cunt and pussy are too crude. (More about those terms later.) But that raises the question: WHY is vagina the more familiar, accepted term?
In 2001, at Sunstone, I participated in a Mormon version of The Vagina Monologues, though it had to be retitled: it went by the name "Sacred Spaces: Mormon Women's Faith and Sexuality," though I thought it should have been called "The Vagina Testimony Meeting." I began my piece by stating that
I am happy to participate in the project of claiming the sexuality of Mormon women as sacred spaces. But I'd like to ask: what does space mean? Are we talking geometry, as in "the infinite extension of the three-dimensional field of every day life"? Are we referring to "sufficient freedom from external pressure to develop or explore one's needs, interests, and individuality," as in, "I need my space"? Or are we talking about "a blank or empty area"? I'd like to cast my vote for the freedom to explore our needs, interests and individuality, but I have a feeling that first we'll have to carve out a blank or empty area in which to claim "sufficient freedom from external pressure"--in particular, pressure from the dogma that sex outside of heterosexual marriage is evil--in order to make that exploration.
I go on to ask
Should I think of my vagina as a space? I know that in the male world, a vagina, mine included, is defined primarily as a space, an empty area. But unless you're giving birth, spaciousness is not a vaginal virtue--tightness is what makes for a good vagina, and exercises are prescribed to tighten a loose vagina up.
The vagina, spacious, tight or otherwise, is not the only organ of female sexuality. Why, aside from the fact that it is a receptacle for a penis, is the vagina so often the focus of discussions of female sexuality? The vagina is a deep subject but I would like to broaden this discussion, add a few contours. I would like to say the word pussy. I would like to say the word cunt. These words, unmentionable in many circumstances, refer not to the vagina but to the vulva, which includes the major and minor labia, the clitoris, and the "vestibule" of the vagina. I need these words to help me answer another question: What is the female equivalent of phallic? It can't be vaginal, which sounds as clinically medical as penile or testicular. It better not be hysteric, which, derived from the Greek word for womb, has too many negative connotations. Phallic refers not just to genitalia but the symbolic power of masculinity. What is the female equivalent, what word refers not only to genitalia but the symbolic power of femaleness? And what is that power? If such a word already exists, I don't think I've heard it, and so I propose a word: vulvic. I want to invoke the power to unsettle present in the word cunt. I want a word involving not just a sacred space but a sacred presence.
So that's right: I'm one of the few people--if not the only person--to say cunt at Sunstone, in front of an audience that included 75-year-old Mormon men. An audible gasp of astonishment rose when I said the word, and a few people strode from the room in outrage, but I kept right on going. I'm used to pissing off Mormons.
I admit that like Kate at Cruella-Blog, I am and have long been a fan of the C word. (Scroll down for Kate's defense of the word. As for why I include a euphemizing asterisk in the spelling of it, it's just so my blog doesn't come up when people are googling the term for porn sites. Note: I finally decided that writing "c*nt" was silly, and I came back and just wrote the word properly, as it deserves to be written: CUNT.) I like how strong it is: one clipped syllable, with plenty of firm consonants. I much prefer it to the term pussy, even though I quite like cats. I don't like that pussy is diminutive or animalistic, and I HATE that it's used by men as a term of derision for a weak, cowardly man: it really bothers me when straight men, who claim to take pleasure in women's bodies, invoke women's bodies as a way to insult other men. Admittedly, calling someone a cunt is about the worst insult you can hurl at him/her (compare it to calling someone a dick) in part because of the term's generalized ability to unsettle people, but to me, that's one indication of the word's inherent strength, one more reason it deserves my usage and respect.
I praise not only the word itself, but what it represents, and I also praise women who love their cunts as they are.
A follow-up to this is posted here.
Posted by holly at January 7, 2006 5:24 PM