The recent US-based debate about the HPV immunisation initiative has re-kindled some ideas I’ve been playing with in recent years (read a post from Feministe about reactions to the issue) around vaginas, sex, and reproduction.
This is the first time I’ve ever written about this… but here it goes anyway …
One evening I was watching a re-run of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. The voice-over during the introduction – ‘sexually-based offenses are particularly heinous …. these are their stories’ got me thinking, why sexually-based offenses? Why not elbow-based or brain-based offenses?
Why are offenses and assaults to some body parts worse than offenses to other body parts? The answer of course, is because we’ve culturally constructed it that way.
Feminism 101 teaches us that centuries of western culture (and other cultures too) have developed beliefs around reproduction and sexuality for the purposes of maintaining social control over property and women. Some of these teachings include:
- The labelling of women who like (and have) sex as sluts, to be shamed and ostracised, and other women as good and admired. Also includes the creation of symbols around virginity and purity. (think Madonna/Whore dichotomy here)
- Making nudity and nakedness as something to be covered and ashamed of. And by extension, create nudity as something that is ‘naughty’. There are whole industries dedicated to cheeky and naughty imagery, in photography, clothing etc.
In recent times, women’s sexuality is also something that has been commodified and and made sell-able. Though that may be off topic and for another post.
My vagina and other parts of my reproductive system are body parts – and it has a role within my body. While my vagina is important to me, so is my brain. And I argue that an assault to my brain would impact on my daily life significantly more than an assault to my vagina.
Yet because of the cultural construction of sex and sexuality, it’s the assault to my mind that was actually more damaging to me when I was raped as an eighteen year old. For me, the physical pain of rape was miles behind the mind trauma of fear and shame. I don’t know how this will sit with readers (and it’s taken my years to get to this point), but honestly, as I was being held down by two men I didn’t know, it WASN’T physical pain that I was experiencing that was terrifying as much as it was straight out fear of not knowing when it would end or how it would end, was it rape or was it something worse? And afterwards, it was the embarrassment and shame of thinking that I had somehow let this happen and that I was now dirty because of it, enabled the assault to continue for much longer. A year later this shame and embarrassment was further compounded by finding out I did have an early stage sexually transmitted disease (I can’t remember the name of it), and then being encouraged by the nurse to tell the doctor I was raped, so he wouldn’t think I was a ‘easy’.
Each of us is different and each of us relates to our own bodies and our experiences differently. But for me, learning to understand where fear and shame come from (hundreds of years of social and cultural constructions) and how I have regularly allowed it to invade my thinking about my own body when my body has been assaulted, has been a powerful tool over the years.
This year the boys and I have had great (ie. thought-provoking & meaningful) yarns about gender and sex. We’ve talked about pornography, language, and behaviour. The majority of our yarns are just that, yarns, they’re incidental conversations that occur not because ‘it’s time to talk about x,y, z’ but because something going on around us will kick it off. It’s not easy, being a 42 year old woman and talking to your teenage boys about stuff like porn. But talking to my kids clearly and honestly about history and how the
mixed messages we receive and act-out are our responses to history, is
my way of preparing them for their future.
Todd Sampson said something on last week’s episode of The Gruen Transfer that really struck a chord with me. He said ‘we can’t child-proof our world, but we can world-proof our children’.
And that’s what I’m aiming to do.
Note: There are much more experienced writers out there who talk about issues of sex and sexuality, and rape and assault. My first attempt here is probably clumsy but I guess ya gotta start somewhere. I’ve said above that an assault on my brain would be worse than an assault to my vagina. I acknowledge that there are men, women and children who have experienced rape that have been left with physical, emotional and mental illness and scars as a result of incredible trauma. It is not my intention to diminish their experiences in anyway.