Thursday, July 18, 2024

Liability or Asset – The Politics of the Vagina

The adage goes, he who loves the vase, love also what is inside.A certain married lady was recently gunned down by her jealous young lover, a taxi driver in Molepolole.  As a result of this shooting social media went into an over drive with a mix bag of reactions. It is these reactions; the name calling and the shaming of the Vagina by pretentious commentators, fake saints and denialists that led to this piece.No one wanted to be outdone even renowned married cheats, disgraced divorcees and singles alike joined in the bashing chorus firing from all cylinders.  Some legal eagles joined in the chorus and offered their share as well.

After this incident I argued elsewhere that sometimes it is not just the application of the law or ethical moral fabric that can serve as a panacea to unpack the Molepolole incident, but rather it goes deeper than that. It calls for a reflection on the structural and other societal norms and a thorough understanding of the black feminist movement view on this. The shaming of the Vagina and labeling the lady as a Jezebel by denialists need a thorough assessment and introspection. What is of critical importance to note is that in real life happy endings are a rarity. For the most part endings are ordinary and other times they are so sudden and un-expected, they can hardly be considered endings at all. The deceased’s husband and the three children may be lost for words and cannot describe how much of an impact the wife and their Mum had on their family. She will certainly be missed but may never be forgotten. They want to remember her for the woman she was and can only hope that they get justice for their mum, but whatever the sentence, it will never replace the life that has been taken. 

In his controversial book, Vaginal Politics, Ellen Frankfort is quoted as having said that the woman’s body is controlled by doctors, druggists, and the advertising media. Ellen Frankfort’s book combines health issues with feminist politics. Frankfort stated that her works focused on the vagina because it is an area that is only a woman’s and it is the one area of health care which women have been able to do something to change things. Sara Jane Finlay and Natalie Fenton argued in their works that “If you have got a vagina and attitude, that is a deadly combination” while Jeffreys S (2010)  in his works talked about the Industrial Vagina: The Political Economy of Sex Trade. The mitigating factors to the Jeffreys’s Industrial Vagina has been asserted by 1991 Draft UN Convention Against Sexual Exploitation. Sexual exploitation is a practice by which persons (s) achieve sexual gratification, or financial gain or advancement through the abuse of the person’s sexuality by abrogating that person’s human rights dignity, equality, autonomy, physical and mental wellbeing. Sexual exploitation includes non-pecuniary practices such as rape. Decolonizing the colonized vagina, occupied by a range of forces except the women in whom it resides, is critical to loosening the universalist and essentialist bonds on sexism enough to reclaim the vagina as home for women to advance their belonging as fully embodied heterogeneous subjects in various communities it has been argued by scholars.

Contemporary feminists should claim their “right to return,” in this case to the vagina as home and place of belonging on the fluid borderlands between the hymen and uterus, as a step toward ending sexism. Doing so will probably assist in the sexist and demeaning remarks recently made after the Molepolole shooting incident, the bashing and degrading the Vagina and the female gender. The background to this is often associated with male chauvinism and attitudes and boarders on masculinity. The question “What is a real Man? provokes much humor in our society. The fact that there is a whole repertoire of real men jokes betrays the great anxiety, in our culture, about what a real man is. There is no comparable set of a real woman jokes. The very word “REAL” captures the problem. What is not a REAL man? A Woman? What qualities are condensed into the realness of the man?.

What is a real man? Is it defined by how big your salary is, how big your intellect is, how big your muscles are, how big your other things are?, Is it defined by your bravery?, is it defined by rejection of dependency?, is it defined by whom you have sex with and with what enjoyment?, is it defined by what you do sexually with your partner, which act, how often you do, how hard your penis is, how long your erections last? I think that the answers to the questions would depend on whom you asked and what their cultural background is.To address these questions, I would like to look at the Vagina and the politics surrounding it. The women’s march on Washington on January 21, 2017 and its more than 600 sister marches across the world was characterized by its distinctly feline theme. Most notable were the pink pussy hats and a multitude of signs that played on the historical association between women and cats to resist the crude remarks made by US presidential nominee Donald Trump who bragged of grabbing women “by the pussy.”It has been reported that Donald Trump declared on a hot microphone in 2005 and said, “Grab them by the pussy,”.

This statement went viral late in the 2016 United States (US) presidential campaign, indicating how the colonized vagina still shapes the anatomy of contemporary sexism. It has been noted by various feminists’ scholars that the Vagina was given a public and central place in the women’s liberation and women’s health movements, both in terms of its symbolic meanings, and in terms of experience and practice. Several western feminists drew from their own experiences to write, paint, and sculpt about having a vagina, (Chicago, 1975; Greer, 1971) pointed to two things. First, culturally, there had been a predominance of negative meanings associated with the vagina, which they challenged. Second, they highlighted the extent to which it had been, for women, ‘the blank space on the map of their bodies’ (Meulenbelt & Johanna’s Daughter, 1981, p.49). Negative representations continue (see Braun & Wilkinson, 2001), and the vagina has remained a largely culturally taboo topic, something not easily talked about. However, a notable contemporary contrast to this ‘blank space’, socio-culturally, is the play, “The Vagina Monologues (Ensler, 1998).

This series of monologues based on interviews with a diverse range of approximately 200 women, and presented interspersed with ‘vagina facts’, puts the word vagina, and women’s various experiences of it, into public discourse and debate. The monologues range from brutal accounts of rape and abuse at the hands of soldiers in the former Yugoslavia, and child sexual abuse through stories of vaginal, clitoral, and sexual discovery and pleasure.

The media attention/controversy that, “The Vagina Monologues continues to evoke particularly in places where it is just starting to be shown demonstrates the apparently still controversial nature of the topic. That talking about it, publicly, invokes debate, suggests that for some, it is still something that should not be talked about. In academia, social science research on the vagina remains rare particularly research focused exclusively on the vagina, in contrast to research discussing the vagina as part of a broader research topic, such as gynecology or sexuality. Most social science research and writing on the vagina addresses ‘cultural’ or symbolic meanings. Shirley Ardener (1987), for instance, discussed powerful symbolic uses to which vaginal iconography has been put, cross-culturally and historically. Other researchers have identified a range of negative meanings available in diverse socio-cultural representations of women’s genitals, such as the vagina as absence, the vagina as passive receptacle for the penis, the vagina as sexually inadequate, the vagina as disgusting, the vagina as vulnerable and abused, and the vagina as dangerous  often manifest as the vagina dentata toothed vagina.

Although the vagina is a rare topic in the social science literature, numerous socio-cultural representations of the vagina can be found throughout Western societies. Such representations offer a range of cultural resources for making sense of the vagina and its functions and have implications for women’s health and well-being. A negative depiction of the vagina, i.e. as a liability has been found more to do with ‘personal’ experiences, beliefs, etc., and about how society represents the vagina, or what men are purported to think and do. There are many ways that have been identified in which this construction of liability manifest in talk about (a) Nastiness and dirtiness, (b) Anxieties, and (c) Vulnerability. The vagina as asset Positive depictions of the vagina and the focus on accounts of Satisfaction,) Power, and Pleasure.

*Thabo Lucas Seleke is a Researcher and Scholar in Global Health Policy Analysis

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