A Woman’s Place

I, like many others, do not like Gwyneth Paltrow. She was definitely the weakest lead in the movie “Shakespeare in Love”, and yet she won the Academy Aware for Best Actress – yet another example of how bogus those awards truly are. She’s someone who, as one of my brother’s friends used to say about bad actors, is constantly “acting her head off” – she is simply never convincing. What I dislike about Paltrow even more than her terrible acting, however, is that she peddles pseudoscience via her so-called wellness and lifestyle company Goop. Goop promotes ideas such as  “eliminate white foods”, “police your thoughts”, and “nourish the inner aspect” (whatever that means). It also touts the efficacy of detoxes, cleanses, and “natural” beauty products – all of which they conveniently sell at inflated prices.

We live in a free market society and companies are rightfully allowed to sell anything they want, provided it’s legal. The problem with Goop is that it promotes products, ideas, and practices which can actually be detrimental to one’s health. For example, they sell jade eggs which they suggest women should regularly put in their vaginas overnight to fight infertility and to increase natural lubrication. They also sell herb packets which women are encouraged to use in vaginal steam bathes to improve fertility, ease menstrual cramps, and make sex more enjoyable. Wow, those are some magic herbs! These claims seem unlikely but mostly harmless, and Paltrow herself appears to be just another in a long line of snake oil salesmen – annoying and disingenuous, but largely benign. These two aforementioned products, however, could actually prove damaging to women who use them according to several Ob/Gyn’s. Jade is a porous material and therefore could easily lead to infections if left in the vagina for extended periods. Vaginal steam baths could also cause infections with the added menace of potentially burning the vulva. Goop sells numerous other possibly harmful products at hugely inflated prices to a credulous audience, making it, and its founder, sort of despicable.

While I mostly have nothing but scorn for Goop, they did recently produce a documentary which I found very informative and helpful. Netflix co-sponsored and aired a six part documentary series called “The Goop Lab”, and while five of these programs dealt with highly suspect health practices promoted by the company, the one on female sexuality and pleasure was interesting and empowering. This is a topic which gets scant notice in school sex-ed curricula, most of which tend to focus on reproduction and safe sex to the exclusion of sexual reciprocity and female pleasure. Lots of talk about ejaculations, but virtually no discussion of how females reach orgasm. The subject of female sexuality is often either overlooked or misrepresented in the larger culture as well. Women in the real world tend to be cast in one of two ways in regards to their sexuality – they are either wanton hussies, or good and virtuous ladies. 

The Madonna-whore complex was first articulated by Sigmund Freud. It is a psychological condition present in men who cannot have sex with women they care about and respect for fear the act will sully the female partner. Simultaneously these men cannot help but despise and devalue women they find sexually attractive, and therefore are unable to love them. Freud said, “Where such men love they have no desire and where they desire they cannot love.” The theory suggests that such feelings may stem from cold or unresponsive mothers. A man brought up in such an environment will spend his adult life looking for a maternal partner to make up for the warmth his childhood lacked, but any woman who meets this psychological need will immediately be sexually unattractive as she is essentially a proxy for his own mother. Conversely, if she is desirable, the man may feel confusion and shame which can manifest in domestic abuse. Yet another Freudian theory blaming screwed-up male sexual attitudes and behaviours on women themselves. How very convenient.

Most societies in modernity and antiquity, and in all corners of the world, generally perceive women as being either good because they’re celibate or bad because they aren’t. I don’t imagine I need to go into much more detail then to point out that the portrayal of Mary Mother of God as the feminine ideal sets pretty well every woman up for failure. She is both a virgin and a mother, which of course cannot exist in nature. People do not believe eagles and lions could mate to form gryphons, yet they do disparage women, especially sexually active women, because they fall short of the Madonna, an equally mythological creature. If you are not as modest, chaste and compassionate as she then you have a lot of work to do. This perception is a useful tool for male society to both police women’s behaviour and to limit their sexual freedom.

This patriarchal construct is sometimes called the virgin-whore dichotomy, and it manifests all the time in women’s lives. If you are in a club and you politely refuse a man’s offer to buy you a drink, you are often then cast as frigid or at least as a bitch. If you spend the evening dancing with your friends rather than the men in the room then it’s likely to be suggested that you are either a lesbian or celibate. Alternately, if you accept an offer for sex then you are a ho or a slut. Women are not slotted into these boxes solely based on their sexuality. Virgin and whore designations are also applied in relation to what they wear, how they speak or act or eat, or virtually anything else they do. There is no escaping this reductionist misogyny.

The prevalence of this dichotomy leads to many women feeling ashamed of and confused by their sexual needs and desires. This is where I found the Goop documentary, called “The Pleasure is Ours”, so helpful. The program opens with four women, Paltrow included, having a conversation. Betty Dodson, a sex therapist based in New York City who helps women accept their bodies and learn how to successfully masturbate, is included in this quartet. Dodson begins by talking about female sexual anatomy, and several times Paltrow mistakenly calls the vulva “the vagina”. The vulva is what you can see on the outside and includes the labia and the clitoris, while the vagina is the birth canal. I have to admit that at 58 years of age, I consistently make the same mistake Paltrow did. That got me wondering why I’ve spent my whole life up until now not knowing the difference between the two, and I think there are a couple of pretty obvious answers to that question. 

Firstly, no one ever explicitly taught me about my genitals. A British gynaecological cancer charity called Eve Appeal asked 1,000 women to label an illustration of female genitals in 2016. 44% of them couldn’t label the vagina, while an alarming 60% were unable to identify the vulva. Clearly most women are not made familiar with their own sexual anatomy, although I’m pretty confident that 100% of men could successfully tag the penis and scrotum. Secondly, the vulva is called the vagina in common parlance. It’s as if women’s sexuality is so unimportant that there is no imperative to know, let alone correctly name, our genitals. Repeatedly misidentifying vulvas as vaginas seems like society’s way of saying, “Close enough. It’s just female anatomy”. 

I learned a lot about the vulva from this show, including that there is an internal structure of the clitoris buried beneath the clitoral hood. In the 1940’s a German doctor named Ernest Gräfenberg suggested that women might have an erogenous zone in their vaginas, and this area was dubbed the G spot in his honour. There were hints and murmurs about the G spot’s existence for more than half a century, as though it were as elusive as Bigfoot and could not be scientifically proven. At long last, an Australian urologist named Dr. Helen O’Connell did an MRI of female genitals in 2005. She found a large base to the clitoris buried in the anterior vaginal wall. This structure sort of looks like a wishbone with two bulbs hanging in the middle and is made up of female erectile tissue. It becomes hard and enlarged when stimulated, just like a penis, but houses some 8,000 nerve endings (far more than a penis). MRI’s have been around since 1978, but female orgasms were so unimportant to male doctors that they were willing to let the existence of the G Spot go unverified. It took a female doctor who actually cared about female anatomy and sexual satisfaction to finally look for and find definitive proof that there was a heretofore unexplored vaginal pleasure centre.

Females are by and large very uncomfortable looking at their own genitals. This internalized shame is largely explained by the virgin-whore dichotomy. Only sluts are familiar with what their vulvas look like and insist on sexual pleasure. Good women give the man what he wants and don’t ask for anything in return. In fact, it has long been understood that most normal women don’t even enjoy sex. Lady Hillingdon, the wife of a British Peer, famously wrote in 1912 about her husband, “When I hear his footsteps outside my door I lie down on my bed, open my legs and think of England.” This quote was shortened to “Lie back and think of England”, and gained traction as the preferred advice 20th century British mothers gave to daughters on their wedding day. This sentiment promotes the idea that sex for women is simply a nasty duty which can be better endured by imagining more pleasant things. How confusing and shame-inducing for any woman who actually enjoys intercourse. 

Betty Dodson, the main player in the Goop documentary, has spent the last 50 years helping women overcome this frigid stereotype by leading them to an acceptance of their bodies and an acknowledgement of their sexual needs. About ten women at a time come to her sessions, and she starts each one by having the participants take off their clothes and sit in a circle. At some point she asks the women to look at their own genitalia with a mirror, something most of these women (and I would guess many women my age) have never done. The vulva and vagina are not just the locus of sexual pleasure but also of the monthly pain and mess of menses and the momentous experience of childbirth. Imagine having such an important anatomical part and never seeing it! Many of these women have a great deal of difficulty looking at their vulvas, and even more of them express concern that there is something amiss when they do look. They feel their vulvas are the wrong colour or too dangly, or that their labia are too large and strangely uneven. 

Men see their own penises several times a day, and most men regularly watch pornography. Women have to make an effort to see their genitals because even when they are naked, their vulvas are hidden. The only time a woman might see another’s genitalia is in pornography, and many women in porn these days have had genital plastic surgery to decrease the size of their labia and to make the interior of their vulva more symmetrical. This procedure is called a labiaplasty. The Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery reports that labiaplasty procedures increased by 45% between 2015 and 2016, and that they regularly receive requests to have the procedure done from girls as young as 9. Many women in porn also remove all their pubic hair and bleach their vulvas so they are consistently pale pink. The result is that their genitals look like those of prepubescent girls or baby dolls. Is it any wonder that average women view their own vulvas as being abnormal or ugly when the only examples of female genitalia they see are so thoroughly altered?

All this brings me to the always unpleasant and cringeworthy topic of female genital mutilation, or FGM. The WHO defines this practice as,

“Partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”.

This practice used to be called female circumcision, implying an equivalence in severity with male circumcision. In 1928 Scottish missionary Marion Scott Stevenson suggested that this was an inapt comparison. Women who endure this procedure face lifelong health problems as a result, including recurrent infections, difficulty urinating and passing menstrual flow, chronic pain, infertility, complications during childbirth, and in extreme cases, fatal bleeding. Their genitals are also left mutilated and scarred. These outcomes are not inherent to male circumcision. In the 1970’s several prominent female anthropologists and doctors wrote papers rebranding the procedure as FGM, and in 1991 the WHO finally recognized and codified this designation. 

FGM is practiced on girls of various ages depending on the traditions of a particular country or ethnic group – from days after birth to puberty and beyond. The severity of the mutilation varies as well. Sometimes they remove the clitoral hood and glands, or the inner labia, or the outer labia, or they nearly close the vulva, or all of the above. When they close the vulva, a procedure known as infibulation, a small hole is left for the passage of urine and menstrual flow. A larger opening is eventually made to allow for intercourse after a woman is married. FGM often takes place at home, with or without anaesthesia. Older women usually do the procedure, knowing that girls will be ostracized if they are not cut. Unsterile implements are likely to be used, and a Ugandan nurse is quoted in a 2007 issue of The Lancet as having seen cutters use one knife on up to 30 girls at a time. FGM has been outlawed or restricted in most of the countries in which it occurs, although these laws are poorly enforced. It is still widely practiced in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, and in 2016 UNICEF estimated that some 200 million women living in 30 countries had undergone the procedure.

FGM is a clear manifestation of deep gender inequality, and an extreme example of a patriarchal strategy to control women’s sexuality and make them ashamed of their genitals. I would suggest that the radical alteration of female genitalia in Western pornography is a similar, if less drastic, ploy. The only difference is that women who work in the porn industry are making a choice. Many young women feel that that this choice makes all the difference. Their perspective is that women exploiting their own sexuality is actually empowering and does not play into patriarchal hands.

Cardi B is a former stripper who is now a very famous rapper. She recently released an extremely graphic video for her extremely graphic song “Wet Ass Pussy”, or simply “WAP”. I asked several friends and their Gen Z daughters to please watch this video and then give me feedback. Most of the women my age were uncomfortable with the highly sexualized images in the “WAP” video as well as with the song’s pornographic lyrics in which Cardi B repeatedly declares that men are only good for providing money and satisfying sexual urges. This sentiment appeared to me and several of my friends to be a clear lowering of the bar. Many sexually explicit songs by male rappers describe women as mere sexual objects to be used and then discarded – an offensive portrayal to say the least. I’m not sure dehumanizing men in a similar fashion is a good strategy going forward for individual women or for feminism at large. All of the young women who watched the video, however, felt that the images and sentiments portrayed were empowering. Here was a woman owning and unabashedly flaunting her sexual prowess. She wears the kind of highly provocative and scant clothing which traditionally have been signs of objectification by men, but that perception no longer holds true because she is completely in charge of the image she projects. If women choose to make money with their bodies, to make men pay for their ridiculous obsession with the female anatomy, then more power to them. 

I’m not sure exactly where I come down on this issue. It does seem very fortuitous for the patriarchy that women now perceive monetizing their bodies as empowering, but I suppose young people would argue that women like Cardi B and sex workers in general are making a choice rather than being exploited. Maybe they have a point. The objectification of female bodies is never going away, so framing it as a positive for women is probably not a bad idea. I just hope that this new perspective on public female sexuality has emerged in tandem with a private one allowing young women to feel more confident and comfortable in their personal sex lives, and in relation to their own genitals.

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