It’s so beautiful

Jenny Diski

  • The Story of V: Opening Pandora’s Box by Catherine Blackledge
    Weidenfeld, 322 pp, £18.99, August 2003, ISBN 0 297 60706 5

For many women in the 1970s, the response to the exhortation ‘Know thyself’ took the form of specula, hand mirrors, torches and a group of comrades who would angle the looking glass and beam just right so that, reclining on your elbows, you could look down through your bent legs and see what really lay between them. It was considered to be an essential encounter with the centre of your being. Consciousness-raising began, as it always must, by peering into the heart of darkness. At the time it was clear that there was no chance of getting in touch with your self unless you had witnessed what nature had so perversely, so patriarchally, hidden from your view. Though it seems odd, on those grounds, that we didn’t also require a personal view of our anuses, the goal was a sighting of the cervix, a seeing into the very core: a conflation of geography, biology and mythology. The achieved vision was generally accompanied by gasps of appreciation as if a great work of art had been unveiled for the first time before your very eyes. We swooned: ‘Ah, it’s so beautiful.’ Actually, it wasn’t. It was just sort of pink and fleshy. But it had been hidden and now was seen. So: beautiful. As the deserted landscape of the moon was beautiful when Neil Armstrong’s camera panned across its uninviting surface.

At the same time as these visual feasts were going on in the Women’s Group hut on a disused Freightliner site, I was working in the hut next door, involved in running a Free School for a bunch of criminally inclined, school-refusing kids who had been threatened with being taken into care. The Free School was a thorn in the side of the Women’s Group. Though they locked up every night, each morning the hut had been broken into, and although nothing was ever taken, they were sure that the boys from the Free School were the culprits. The woman who ran the women’s hut repeatedly shouted at us that we were a bunch of bourgeois hippy adventurers, that it was typical male aggression again, an appropriation of women’s space again, and told us to deal with it. I talked to the 12 and 13-year-old boys about the historical struggle of women and the universal need to respect others. They grunted ‘Yeah’. Then one night I was in the Free School late. I saw a light on in the women’s hut and went to have a look. A window had been forced open. One of the younger boys from the school was standing in the middle of the room, masturbating furiously, his eyes fixed intently on a large, full-colour wall poster of a wide-open vulva with a sassy feminist slogan underneath about men not being required. It seemed not so much vicious as funny and sad. Maybe, I suggested the next day to the Women’s Group woman, we should see it as a local disagreement only about the manner of celebrating the vagina, and we could have a meeting between the boys and the women to discuss it (excuse me, this was the 1970s). I don’t remember the exact outcome, but the Free School and the Women’s Group never did get onto a very amicable footing.

All these decades on from raising consciousness, it seems that the vagina still needs a light shone on it. According to Catherine Blackledge, it remains a hidden, under-researched and hopelessly misunderstood organ, the poor relation of genitals, subsumed by the male-dominated scientific world’s interest in the penis. Blackledge is on a breathless mission to tell us everything there is to know about the vagina, and to reclaim its reputation from the slur of passive receptacle to that of supremely active agent in the matter of reproduction. Although her heart is in the physical properties of the suite of organs she calls the vagina (comprising all or some of the vulva, vagina, cervix, uterus, Fallopian tubes and ovaries), Blackledge begins with a skim through the mythology and anthropology of the pudenda. She enthuses about the power of female flashing in history and folklore; tells us how just by lifting their skirts Egyptian and Japanese goddesses dispelled social stasis. The ‘catalytic cunt’ restored the world to ‘balance, harmony and fertility’; the ‘Greek triangle man’, Pythagoras, she suggests, venerated three-sided figures for their vaginal symbolism; Upper Palaeolithic dips in rock are chipped away by cavemen into vulval icons. To Blackledge, more or less anything convex, concave or triangular is evidence of vaginal veneration. Add to that holes and circles. Parallelograms don’t feature, but crosses do. The Knights of the Order of the Garter, she tells us, have a famous motto:

‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ – ‘Shame on you if you see evil in this.’ And the ‘this’ in question? It appears that it is none other than the vagina. Indeed, a text by the Italian medieval scholar Mondonus Belvaleti states explicitly in an essay on the chivalrous Order of the Garter that it ‘took its beginning from the female sex’.

We must hope that the likes of Baroness Thatcher, Elizabeth Windsor, the Emperor Akihito and James Callaghan were informed of this when they were inducted into the order. Unfortunately for those of you keen to check the reference, the book has no notes, only a further reading list which has no mention of Signore Belvaleti. Nor are we told which specific academics are referred to when Blackledge goes on to explain that ‘some academics also point to the traditional cruciform design of most Christian places of worship as being based on the architecture of female genitalia.’ Though she admits that ‘other researchers choose to dismiss this seemingly heretical idea out of hand,’ she insists in a rush of alarming grammar that ‘there are certainly some similarities and some credence to the theory.’ For example:

On passing through a church’s curved doors, one enters a vestibule, just as the vaginal vestibule lies behind a woman’s labia. The main body of the church, which leads directly to the altar, the site of transformation, echoes the central vaginal aisle leading straight to the uterus, which magically transforms egg and sperm into new life. To either side of the altar (uterus) are two passageways (Fallopian tubes) which lead to the vestries (ovaries).

‘Just as’ and ‘magically’ are especially pleasing, but I would have thought that the words ‘cruciform’ and ‘Christian’ give us a bit of a clue to the reason for the shape of these places of worship.

There is some discussion of terminology. In spite of auditoriums full of women yelling it everywhere The Vagina Monologues is performed, Blackledge is rather sensitive about the word ‘cunt’. ‘Pussy and other slang expressions, well, they suffer from being too laden with sexual stereotype, and cunt is just too hard to be heard.’ This ‘remarkably direct expression’ is taboo, she tells us, although in 1230 there was a Gropecuntelane in London and in Paris a rue Grattecon (‘Scratchcunt’). All we’ve got now, apparently, are the truncated versions – Grove Street in Oxford, Grape Lane in York. Naturally, Francis Grose’s entry in his Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue gets furious disapproval: ‘The second edition (1788), incredibly and offensively, defined cunt, or c**t, as “a nasty name for a nasty thing”.’

Decent writing, of course, is every bit as important as subject matter, and however hard I tried to concentrate on the riveting facts of what one feminist academic I know calls ‘the front bottom’ – I don’t suppose that, since the Boston Women’s Collective manual, Our Bodies, Ourselves, there has been a non-pornographic volume so committed to female genitalia – I found myself distracted time and again by Blackledge’s way with language. I became quite obsessed with the variety of ways in which it is possible to begin a sentence with an adverb. Adverbially fixated, you might say. The following is my incomplete list (mid-sentence adverbs aren’t included): horrifically, sadly, appallingly, amazingly, shockingly, fascinatingly, intriguingly, infuriatingly, startlingly, mesmerisingly, gruesomely, astonishingly, weirdly, quirkily, mind-blowingly, eye-wateringly, fantastically – and so many deliciouslys that I lost count. It comes, I imagine, from a fear that her data will not speak for themselves, so she must cue her readers in case they miss the meaning of the loving detail she has provided. ‘Mesmerisingly, weaver bird copulation is characterised by lengthy mutual clitoral rubbing.’ If she doesn’t make it plain at the start of the thought, the lay reader might not realise just how mesmerising a fact that is.

Blackledge’s main source of argument is sociobiology, that dismal discipline which seeks to find simple and secure explanations of human social relations by reference to the evolutionary function of the right front paw of the naked mole rat. In her enthusiasm to reinstate the vagina as more than a merely defective or negative penis, she offers us the ‘G-G’ (genito-genital) rubbing of female bonobos, the intricately convoluted insemination duct of the theridiid spider, the long-term sperm storage facilities of female turkeys, the presence of hymens in dugongs, the urinary signals of Asian elephants, the 17-centimetre clitoris of female hyenas and, not to leave out our own species, the ‘Shanghai squeeze’ of Wallis Simpson (said to have had ‘the ability to make a matchstick feel like a Havana cigar’, though I always thought that killer fellatio was the talent which deprived the nation of its rightful King). The book is clogged with facts and suppositions taken from here, there and everywhere, and applied to humans. Anything any vagina from any species is able to do or was once capable of doing is adduced as evidence of what Blackledge calls ‘the intelligent vagina’. Actually, vaginas are intelligent in much the same way that cards are smart or genes are selfish. That is to say, they aren’t. I know the language of intentionality is hard to escape when writing about things that are incapable of thought and purposefulness; it’s the only language (apart from maths) that we’ve got, but some effort ought to be made to differentiate the vagina from the mind. She is not alone in this difficulty. David Friedman’s book on the penis (a cultural history with something of a sense of humour and much the better for it) is called A Mind of Its Own.[*] The idea that men do their thinking with their penises is intended as an insult. Was all that consciousness-raising we did in the 1970s to be lost in a new mood of post-feminist consciousness plummeting below our waists? But even the thinking vagina is not enough for Blackledge: not only does it have a mind of its own, it also has an unconscious. Some spontaneous abortions, apparently, ‘can be seen as a woman’s reproductive organs unconsciously deciding not to go ahead with this pregnancy’. As if having to contend with the unconscious mind scuppering our overt wishes wasn’t hard enough, we now have the vagina’s unconscious, id and superego getting in on the act. And what form, I wonder, would a conscious decision by the vagina take?

The overall message is that the incredible cleverness of the vagina far outstrips the thicko male genitals that just hang around outside waiting for something interesting to come along, like dumb adolescents on street corners. The female reproductive organs are in charge of everything. They entice males with their scent, accommodate the shortest, skinniest, most inadequate male members, reject the sperm of inappropriate mates, sift out unhealthy or incompatible sperm, store the good stuff from various partners for future use, force the penis and its owner to give up its reproductive load, cue spontaneous ovulation when the best sperm comes along, and secrete germ-killing disinfectants. Some of this will come as a surprise to women who have conceived when they didn’t want to, not conceived when they did want to, given birth to the children of stupid, unhealthy, unreliable or unpleasant men, or caught a venereal disease.

There is an interesting and useful book lurking in here somewhere, but it is overwhelmed and rendered almost invisible by the idiotic, partisan tone and the nonsensical conjectures. Occasionally, Blackledge’s claims are downright alarming. On the subject of vaginal mucus, she explains that not only does it provide lubrication during sexual activity: it acts as a selective barrier against pathogens. In some sub-Saharan African countries, ‘a dry vagina is promoted as the genitalic gold standard – as rated by men.’ According to one unspecified study, Blackledge claims, more than 85 per cent of Zimbabwean women have used drying salts at least once, a practice which leads eventually to chafing and cracking of the vaginal walls, leaving women at risk of infection. Since it is only when the vaginal walls are abraded that ‘viruses, such as HIV’ can infect a woman, this must, she writes, ‘in part explain’ why ‘Zimbabwe, frighteningly, has one of the world’s highest rates of HIV infection, a fact which is without doubt in part explained by the craze for moistureless sex.’ Well, maybe, but as far as I know vaginal mucus is not recommended as a reliable alternative to a condom in preventing the spread of HIV infection.

The penis does eventually get a mention. Blackledge’s restoration of the genital balance results in a simple role reversal. The penis serves the vagina; its primary role is ‘none other than to act as an internal courtship device – shaped to provide the vagina with the best possible and reproductively successful stimulation’. There, that should deal with millennia of phallocentrism. You might be forgiven for wondering, what with the astonishing IQ of the vagina, why nature even bothered with the penis. The penis and testicles are, like the female genitals, part of the biological development of an initially sexually undifferentiated foetus, but to Blackledge the basic human blueprint is female. ‘If the Y chromosome did not exist, it appears we would all be women.’ And if there were no genetic instructions for the right lower limb, we would all be one-legged.

[*] Robert Hale, 282 pp., £14.99, September, 0 7090 7475 1.