I often wonder how much of the radical-lesbian, feminist gains from our Second Wave revolution have survived the backlash of so-called family values and the onslaught of the religious right? Which one of us would have imagined, even in our wildest nightmares, that only a year ago, Democratic State Representative Lisa Brown could be censored for saying “vagina” in the Michigan House of Representatives? Or even more medieval, that Republican Missouri Representative Todd Akin could publicly announce his belief that the female anatomy could bust a rapist’s sperm?
When women gathered at performances of Eve Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues and ecstatically yelled the V-Word in chorus, did they and the play’s author realize that they tapped right into the stereotypical notion that ‘Boys have a penis, girls a vagina“? And what about Naomi Wolf’s new book, Vagina. A Biography? Did she realize?
Girls have a vulva, thank you. In case there is some confusion, let me explain. The vulva is our whole genital area composed of many delightful details. The clit — the only sexual organ exclusively dedicated to pleasure and endowed with more nerve endings than any other human sex organ — is surrounded by a hood and continues with inner and outer lips, enclosing the small opening of the urethra (the urine passageway) and the larger opening of the vagina. The vagina is a passageway to the uterus, also called the birth canal. Let’s say it again: the vagina doesn’t contain the all-important clitoris or the lips.
Lesbians have always known these basic facts. But as Jewelle pointed out, it’s nice that science has finally caught on, too. We can now look at the astonishing reaches of the clitoris. In MRI images, the clitoris looks like the ancient moon goddess of matriarchal cultures, stretching out crescent-shaped arms like an all-embracing offering, to share its orgasmic pleasures with both the vagina (the so-called G-Spot) and the anus.
I remember my own brave investigations, a mere few decades ago, as women launched into liberation. I was living in Paris, a notorious center of erotic laissez-faire. Women in Paris (and soon everywhere else in Europe) grouped together, each armed with a hand-held mirror and a speculum, to examine their own and each other’s genitals and sexual treasure troves. Freedom from shame and inhibition was the mission, a mission shared with big Aha’s and a lot of laughter by all sorts of women — homo, bi, hetero and questioning. This wasn’t easy for everyone at first, as you can imagine, but the general enthusiasm and celebratory mood carried us forward like a storm.
Danish women opened their “women’s island” Femoe to women from all over the world. This first International Women’s Summer Camp, in 1974, was something to behold. The Nordic Amazons were playing soccer naked between the tents, hotly admired by French and Italian femmes in bikinis and dresses. Some women had even made it all the way from America. The arrival on the island of Jill Johnston, the author of Lesbian Nation, was announced by the excited rumour that a woman in Jeans was making love to another woman on a nearby country road.
There were protests at first about the door-less toilet stalls, but shame and inhibition dropped away like the extra clothes brought along. I can’t imagine a bigger cultural gap between these wide open women-island toilet stalls and the classic American version with spy gaps all around the doors that you are not supposed to look through although you can, in order to make sure nothing sexual is going on in there…
Only two generations after the era of the liberated female body we seem to be living on another, alien and hostile planet, where sexual knowledge and education for women are again restricted. Young women are encouraged by pop culture (think Miley Cyrus) and “Raunch Culture” to act out the slut, flash their breasts (and more) for an IPhone click, and feel proud of having a vagina. Does any one of them even notice that the clock has been turned back on them?
Renate Stendhal, Ph.D. is a German-born, Paris-educated writer, writing coach and spiritual counselor with a private practice in the San Francisco/ Bay Area. Among her publications are True Secrets of Lesbian Desire: Keeping Sex Alive in Long-Term Relationships and the Lambda Award-winning photobiography Gertrude Stein: In Words and Pictures. Read her Gertrude Stein blog “Why Do Something If It Can Be Done”; and her cultural reviews on Scene4 as well as on her website www.renatestendhal.com. She is preparing a Kindle book on lesbian marriage and a Parisian memoir.