The vagina: underappreciated and misunderstood
Rachel Gross's book 'Vagina Obscura' is let down by the final section
The female body has been underestimated for literally thousands of years. Deep cultural biases predispose us to believe that while males are agents, females are more of an inert receptacle. We see being female almost as an absence of maleness, rather than being a specialised sex in its own right. Whatever unique features males have are signs of their superiority; any uniqueness on the part of females either counts against them or is of no interest.
Countering these biases has long been a feminist aim, and a new book by science journalist Rachel E. Gross is the latest contribution to this effort. In Vagina Obscura we learn about the vagina’s multi-layered defences against microbial invaders, the active role that egg cells play in fertilisation, and the internal anatomy of the clitoris, only recently discovered to be “ten times the size people thought it was”. Gross emphasises that much is still to be discovered: such basic questions as why we menstruate, for instance, remain a mystery.
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The final chapter of Vagina Obscura, however, takes a turn away from the female body, instead detailing the latest developments in gender reassignment surgeries that fashion neovaginas out of penises. A recurring theme is that these surgeries are possible because both sorts of genitals develop from the same starting materials, so that changing from one to the other is just a matter of “putting the parts in the right place”. Marci Bowers, a medic specialising in trans surgeries, explains that “the penis is just a large clitoris. In fact, I don’t know why they don’t just call it a large clitoris”. This is despite earlier chapters detailing the underappreciated complexity of the clitoris, which, with arms and bulbs that project inside the body, is not simply equivalent to a miniature penis.
Bowers, who is given a glowing profile in Vagina Obscura, was the surgeon of a celebrity trans teenager who suffered serious transition-related complications, and may never experience sexual pleasure. The surgeon is on record saying that this is an expected side-effect for minors who transition — a snag that doesn’t get a mention in the book. Instead, in Gross’s history of trans surgery, individuals driven by desperate unhappiness to undergo experimental operations become pioneers in a golden age of genital rearrangement. Any difficulties faced (one patient recalls that after an eight hour surgery in 1961: “I was just a glob of aching flesh”) are counted as heroic sacrifices made in pursuit of a noble goal.
It’s hard to avoid the impression from this chapter (its placement at the conclusion of the book, and its title – “Beauty”) that, after all, the best and most interesting vaginas are the ones that used to be penises. In contrast, the role of vaginas in giving birth — arguably the organ’s primary function, and one which is responsible for the existence of almost everyone who has ever lived — is given only a relatively passing mention.
None of this is to say that adults shouldn’t have gender reassignment surgery if that is their choice. However, it is a bit galling for a book arguing that female anatomy is complex and active in ways we don’t yet understand to then turn around and say actually, ‘it’s not so complicated that it can’t be replicated by cutting and stitching other parts’. A vagina is not simply an opening somewhere in the pelvic region but its own organ, with a role as part of the reproductive system of females. Vagina Obscura, of all books, should know this.
“We see being female almost as an absence of maleness, rather than being a specialised sex in its own right.”
Yet ‘Mother’ is one of the strongest and most ancient of all archetypes. The bringer of life (in contrast to men who are the bringers of death), the nourisher (mother earth), the source of love, the most revered (mother mary). Woman, as mother, is the most specialist and most important sex.
The much more interesting question is why ‘mother’ has become so denigrated in feminist writing, while the female body has become objectified in a very male way, seen solely in terms of mechanical sex or appendage.
I think this is a certain form of toxic femininity: sacrificing yourself in order to ease others’ discomfort, so much so, that you allow yourself to be erased, not just mentally, but also biologically.
… and then become resentful after the sacrifice has been made… as in this old joke:
How many Irish mammies does it take to change a lightbulb? None, I’ll just sit here in the dark.
That’s a classic Jewish joke btw!
I recall reading a theory by Elizabeth Badinter to the effect that originally (early Bronze Age) female deities had the same status as male deities, but this changed when humans invented heavier ploughs that could bring heavier soils into agricultural production and so women no longer had the physical strength to do the same tasks in the fields as men. Female deities and being female began to be downgraded from then on.
In contrast, the role of vaginas in giving birth — arguably the organ’s primary function, and one which is responsible for the existence of almost everyone who has ever lived — is given only a relatively passing mention.
More sex denialism. Symbolises all that is wrong with modern progressives.
I am unclear what the denialism is that you are referring to. Can you elaborate?
It’s obvious to me. If you were gonna talk about vaginas truthfully and fully you would celebrate & highlight it’s part in childbirth. But being positive about being a woman and what a wonderful thing that really is – is sadly not allowed. How much better young women would be if their gender was considered a beautiful gift.
Growing up and observing my mother, it was clear that the power of a woman wasn’t from standing up front and demanding to be seen as right, it was to stand at the back and manipulate from there. My father absolutely respected my mother; her views and wishes, and enacted them and yes my father took the credit… and also any fallout. She got what she wanted and he kept his self respect. My mother would imply that any woman who believed herself powerless was doing woman wrong.
Well put. Manipulating is a big part of women’s power – and sadly for many, that power is rooted in promoting a narrative of perpetual victimization. The other day I read from one of Justin Trudeau’s senior female cabinet ministers that she was being victimized by an online troll who was saying mean things. Think about that – one of the most powerful individuals in the country claiming to be harmed by the ranting of some random social outcast. If that had been a male cabinet minister, everyone would have told him to ‘grow a pair’.
I’m afraid my instant reaction to the title was “not by me, really, really not by me.”
It feels like gaslighting, doesn’t it? The time in my life i’ve spent thinking about and looking longingly at vaginas is absurd. But somehow that’s not enough? Give me a break.
“The female body has been underestimated for literally thousands of years.”
The very first sentence, and I’m already done. Underestimated by whom? Do you really think that male humans throughout humanity’s history couldn’t countenance the miracle that another member of the species should incubate and emerge from a female? And that her body was equipped to sustain and nurture that life long after it emerged? The rest of the first paragraph is filled with projections that don’t match with a single belief anyone in my social circles holds.
“We see being female almost as an absence of maleness.” Who exactly is we? Where do they shop and talk and gossip? I haven’t met one.
Men underestimate the female body so much that the Achaeans and Trojans went to war over it. Men have sex seeking built into their biology. That 99% of them should want to have sex with a female, with all her attendant biology, should completely undermine that a female body is underestimated by anyone, except perhaps the occasional post-modern who is confused about what a woman even is.
I’m therefore sympathetic to the antagonistic role the article assumes towards transgenderism. But sweeping past inane comments like “the p***s is basically just a large c******s” is just asking for someone to write an attendant book about the miracles of the p***s. The world doesn’t need to read about this crap, it just needs to allow the sexes to get married and experience more of this discovery first hand.
“the p***s is basically just a large c******s”
What’s scary is that this sentence is coming from the mouth of a medic (a doctor ?).
Paraphrasing this illuminating turn of phrase, maybe we can say that, in the medic’s case, “the mouth is basically just a large a**h**e”. It seems fitting.
Because any reference to ‘just biology’ seems to get shouted down by the Borg nowadays the inclusion of the final chapter is probably an attempt at diminishing attacks. My guess is that those who are willing to be outraged will not be diverted.
Not underappreciated by me. Just sayin’.
There are wars, famines, and unspeakable tragedies and horrors in this world, but your genitals are misunderstood. How exactly does this advance the goals of women to be taken seriously?
What a weird title for a post. All my favourite women have one.
Underestimated? Perhaps. But how about undervalued? Whose bodies are entirely expendable for the sake of whose bodies? Whose bodies are worshiped, revered, protected, idolized, coddled, and whose bodies are ground into the earth on a daily basis? Whose bodies are regularly and legally mutilated at birth and whose aren’t? Whose bodies last longer?
Sorry, Ellen. While your primary point is spot on, your intro, “Deep cultural biases predispose us to believe that while males are agents, females are more of an inert receptacle. We see being female almost as an absence of maleness…” is living life in the past. Modern society attempts to feminize school age boys because biologically female behavior is “good” whereas male traits are “bad”. We should celebrate female and male forms equally in all their glory.
Toxic femininity – misandry. The defining ethos of the 21st Century.
“The vagina: underappreciated and misunderstood”
Really? By whom? Certainly not by this one time girlfriend. I remember her opinion very clearly…
“I look at it as… I have an ATM between my legs and I’m just using it. All I’ve got to do is put my card in and boom, money comes right out. It’s like pu55y is just this treasure that women are born with and I know how to use it.”
Why do so many people identify with their reproductive bits and secondary sexual characteristics? Surely the mind and the ego are almost everything significant in an individual. Don’t most people straightforwardly opine, “I think…”? Do they really have a conscious subtext about “I, as a woman, think.” or “I, as a man…”, or even (these days) “I, as a (identity of choice), believe/feel/think…”? Surely what I, a sovereign individual, a unique soul, think/want/feel/etc needs no qualifiers. It just is what it is. Self-consciousness is almost always weakening. As for those who would discount the opinions of the differently endowed on that basis, they are unintelligent and a waste of time. After all, honi soit qui mal y pense! And is having V-Pride necessary to empower a woman? I suspect that the sort of people who succumb to that first-world sentiment, reveal how little (sweet fannie-annie actually) they know about power.
Perhaps the last chapter should be by itself. From the description it is quite clear that turning male parts inside out doesn’t really create the female part but just a fraction of that subject part. And the ability of the vagina to adapt so readily with it’s myriad of folds seems quite a bit of remarkable biology. The Amazon reviews are quite good so I shall add to my list. Given the Amazon takes, the review here seems a bit short sighted.
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