‘Civilization is a circle squared . That’s why in civilized societies, women’s lot and Nature’s lot has been such a sorry one. It’s the duty of advanced women to teach men to love the circle again.’
– Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues
If ever our bodies held secrets like how and why women menstruate; like where our pleasures are located in square millimetres, like what soft spoken miracle melts an ovum and sperm into foetal life, the twentieth century blabbed them all out like a nosy neighbour with nothing better to do.
Once shrouded in mystery and obscurity, women’s bodies in the course of Western culture were put on pedestals, idealised, veiled, and corsetted. Men swooned over bare ankles. A Victorian author upon discovery that women are not spared the baseness of defecation lamented, ‘Oh how I nearly lost my wits, Celia, Celia, Celia shits!’ In Africa, women have always worn their body parts on the outside, swaggering pendulous breasts white men could only conjure up in their imaginations. Yet they too have been pretty much damned by their biology. In history, women who have been lucky enough to escape being burnt as a witch at the stake or dying in childbirth while their husbands either paced corridors or sat around fires, could only count on the utopia of compulsory domesticity and maternity. Or alternatively, a complete descent into madness. Choice and control were not buzzwords in those days.
But times have changed. Modesty and coyness, once the charms of the female sex are passe. Dead and buried is the etiquette that rendered the ‘Rape of a Lock’ of hair a violation of woman’s chastity. The longing to imagine what delicate curves and crevices are hidden beneath a tent of skirts has long since been sated. This century there was a sale on flesh and anyone could purchase a month’s worth of wanking from the local corner cafe, swelling Hugh Hefner’s empire built on beaver shots. Madonna, once an icon of religious sanctity turned up this century as a lascivious pop star with XX-rated fantasies. Virginity, prized by all self-respecting young women, a ticket into marriage, went stale these past hundred years, becoming a neurotic condition far more feared than sluthood.
In the past, women inhabited their bodies in dimensions defined by male needs. Either as the painter’s model, the poet’s muse, the bearer of the master’s seed, the wet nurse to his child, concubine or whore to the gentleman or tribesman, woman, derived from Adam’s rib, has, throughout time been valued for her parts. Cut up into titbits, dismembered into fractions, woman’s bodies have been subject to a romanticized objectification.
In the twentieth century the forces of feminism and technology have teamed up to form a partnership which has stripped the mechanics of our bodies down to the last proton, and radically altered the imperatives of biology.
Feminist consciousness gained momentum this century as a political force. The isolated voices of ‘disgruntled’ spinsters, madwomen and artists coalesced into a rousing blast, unhushing the codes of secrecy around women’s bodies which had kept them deeply misunderstood. In the 1920’s Georgia O’ Keefe painted flowery fannies, and Sylvia Plath scribbled her poetic torment, revisioning women as something more whole than the sum of Picasso’s cubes. In 1935, Virginia Woolf wrote that it would still be decades before women could tell the truth about their bodies. For the secrets and lies that kept women’s bodies mysterious, also kept them powerless and choiceless.
As the consciousness of sexual inequality brewed, truths began to emerge, like earthworms after a rainstorm. Women started to question the biology is destiny curse and to pose immodest questions, like ‘what the fuck about ME?’ Realisations that there was more to life than unmitigated maternity created a powerful shift in the ways women understood their bodies. In 1970 Shulamith Firestone wrote, ‘Pregnancy is barbaric…the temporary deformation of the body of the individual for the sake of the species. Moreover, childbirth hurts… like shitting a pumpkin.’ (The Dialectic of Sex, 188-9, 1970).
Shere Hite, in the same decade embarked on a campaign to resurrect female sexuality in the wake of the Freudian and Masters and Johnson conspiracy which decreed women as sexually passive and hysterical, imagining molestation by their fathers. One might be forgiven for assuming that the clitoris was the invention of the twentieth century. Nestling in a quiet spot, it could not outbrag the phallus. Shere Hite’s research introduced the possibility of the vaginal orgasm and multiple orgasms which posed a David versus Goliath challenge to the pecker because that sneaky little clitoris could bring down the heavens, again and again and again. However these discoveries have not come to the rescue of girlchildren who, in lesser visited tourist destinations, Alice Walker and Pratibah Parma document in Warrior Marks (1993), are still subject to female genital mutilation.
Though pornography is as ancient as the male response to which it panders, it is only recently that the question of women’s arousal (how, what and where) has been asked. Nancy Friday’s collection of women’s sexual fantasies in Women on Top (1991), reflect that women’s internal worlds teem with a libidinous lust, only vaguely interested in penetration by male organs. Female self-gratification is now very much in vogue, and women these days find joy in private collections that not only refer to a range of perfumes, but to latex and plastic object d’arts with switches that do the internal jitterbug, in search of that elusive G-spot. With the decline of the popularity of the penis this century, came the rise in the celebration of lesbianism as more and more women decided that they needed men like a fish needs a bicycle.
This century unequivocally raised the possibility that women’s sexuality is more advanced, more economically packaged and has a longer endurance than male sexuality. No longer unknown to themselves, women’s bodies are now being experienced not only as object, but as subject too. Annie Sprinkle, a modern day porn performer, in the spirit of reclamation of the female body, invites her audience up onto the stage, to take a peek at her cervix through a speculum, not only to ‘demystify the female body, but because it’s beautiful.’
Menstruation, once a conversational taboo, is now the subject of hundreds of commercials advertising the best and most efficient ways of dealing with light, medium, heavy and ‘oh-boy-am-I-bleeding’ flows. Since the marketing of tampons, ‘specially designed by female gynaecologists,’ which expand every which way and can absorb up to a glass and a half, women do not have to give up swimming, dancing or any other activity that requires a padless crotch. The past hundred years have resoundingly confirmed: not only do we shit, but we fart, we bleed, we ache down here.