E-Vulva-lution and the Phantasmagoric Penis

Vaginas are, apparently, obscene. Honi Soit, the University of Sydney’s student newspaper, ran a story attempting to address the stigmatization and distorted media representations of vaginas. The cover featuring 18 photographed vaginas of student volunteers from the Women’s Collective was forced, threatened by legal prosecution under the Guidelines for the Classification of Publications 2005, to censor the pictures using black bars and then later, due to a printing mishap, to guillotine the covers completely.

The cause for offense was simply the appearance of real vaginas, replete with labia minora. Furthermore, this type of censorship extends even to soft porn, an industry whose business is to convey nude imagery. Except these magazines show genitalia not masked by black bars, but airbrushed and transformed into Barbie-like nether regions. This has unwittingly lead to widespread misconceptions of how female genitalia should look, which was exactly the problem Honi Soit attempted to rectify.

It is clear why thwarting naturalistic representations of female genitalia amidst the prevalence of pornography’s artificially sexualized standards may be objectionable; what is less clear is why this happens at all. What drives the urge to discriminate against body types and police the appearance of the vagina? Contempt for women is a possible argument, but alone it is an insufficient explanation and perhaps relies on the claim that what underpins our culture’s sexism is fear—fear of Otherness. What qualities of female genitalia are so terrifying that they demand the distanced containment of pornography and the regulation of censorship’s moral watchdogs?

It is interesting to consider the differences in media representations of male and female genitalia. How would the situation have differed if 18 penises were on the cover, imploring the end of genital-based body shame for men? Technically, a cover with full penis exposure has been published before (in a Woroni vintage edition no less). However, appeals to end ‘penile shame’ would probably receive some contention and quite likely, scorn from men and women alike. After all, what have men to complain about in a culture where graffiti penises run amok in public restrooms and bus stops, like banal reminders of the privilege their “manhood” enjoys?

The truth is, compared to the scrutiny female bodies and other marginalized bodies in many fields of discourse, there has been a lack of critical reflection paid to the male body, and even less to its overriding feature: the penis. It is not society’s disregard for men and their bodies that leads to this oversight, but that the penis as a symbol, the Phallus, already stands (erect no doubt) at the centre of culture, constructing patriarchal values and masculinities. Hence, the heightened cultural fixations with its dimensions: girth and length.

Adverts for penile enlargement are one of the most relentless distributors of junk email or spam with subject lines delivered to hit the nerves of the penis anxious population with statements like ‘Get your main love weapon bigger!’ In describing enhancing procedures, advertisers use aggressively phallic language to discuss ‘the one-eyed monster’ that will ‘cause her eyebrows to raise.’ This assures that a new ‘love gun’ will scare the female species into sexual submission. The Phallic myth is thus reinforced.

In advertising penile enlargement or potency products, the dual nature of the penis is played upon. Revealing the flaccid penis, especially involuntarily flaccid or small erect penis, betrays the mythology based upon it, and is treated privately or with derision. And so the penis is paradoxically both omnipresent, through pervasive phallic imagery and privilege, and absent in its inability to give stable form to this abstract ideal. To compound the situation, both worrying about one’s penis and talking about it is taboo and for this reason Peter Lehman states, “it is no coincidence that the most traditional men have been comfortable with the silence surrounding the penis…Silence about and invisibility of the penis contribute to phallic mystique. The penis is and will remain centered until such time as we turn the critical spotlight on it.”

And so, reassessing the representation of the penis does not ignore or reinforce male domination, but can direct our attention to cultural norms that dictate, not only the male body, but more stringently so, the female body. Let us look to the censorship procedures in soft pornography, so that we may begin to see how those strictures are carried out. Although, it is worth noting that to directly or indirectly consult pornographic imagery for a sense of a cultural norm is a sorry state of affairs.

First to set the record straight, only a small minority of women come out of puberty with non-protruding inner labia. And though it is commonly acknowledged that a spread-legged position displays the labia minora, seeing the labia in standing and close legged positions is also perfectly normal, yet largely unacknowledged. And counter to common misconceptions, the size of the labia has nothing to do with sexual activity, states of arousal or child birth, but simply with individual development. Soft porn models are not chosen from a non-labial showing minority, in real life these women have protrusions of their own but their images undergo drastic digital manipulation.

This is not some editorial process the industry tailors to the delicate sensibilities of their readership—of course, mainstream pornography is not a genre known to commit to realism. The reason why female genitalia is airbrushed, like cellulite or blemishes, is not because it lessens sex appeal, but again because the labia minora is just too obscene. The clause in the Guidelines for the Classification of Publications 2005, concerned with the standards of nudity for soft porn states:

Realistic depictions may contain discreet genital detail but there should be no genital emphasis.”

To avoid breaking this arbitrary rule means all vaginas in their degrees and varieties of ‘discreetness’ and ’emphases’ are, as coined by the magazine industry, ‘healed to a single crease’ with image editing software. How interesting to consider the word “healing” in this context. Is the vagina some unseemly lesion that needs to recover to a sealed and contained state? Such descriptors like, “axe wound” and “gash” would suggest this might indeed be a mindset with some currency. It seems however, contradictory, to prevent the display of mature, adult vaginas and instead endorse a pre-pubescent portrayal with no mind to possibly inciting pedophilia.

Pornography, with heterosexual men as its default target audience, seeks to objectify women when it plays out the subject/object dichotomy that casts men as the consumers of porn and women as the objects to be consumed–thereby institutionalizing the sexuality of male supremacy. This voyeurism also extends to the intentional visual fragmentation of the female body that equates or reduces women to the sum of their distinctly female body parts. In fusing these two analyses, Kuhn, a feminist pornography critic, asserts, “the vagina in the picture stands in for the enigma of the feminine.” This is troubling. If the vagina stands in for a woman or for the feminine, what does it mean for female sexuality when the vagina is acceptable only when stripped bare and anatomically altered, so that it is essentially neutered? A eunuch vagina?

Again, although pornography should not be the one space where people come to understand sexuality, there exists a correlation between men, women, and the pornographic scenario that cannot afford to be overlooked given these circumstances. There is a relationship between the real world of gendered subjects and the private world of fantasy and desire to which pornography presumably responds. To continue to force digital labiaplasty upon the female subjects of pornographic imagery suggests that women are there solely to feed a sexual appetite, not to have any of their own.

Disclaimer: Technically, the accurate terminology of the female genital region is the ‘vulva,’ the vagina only describes the canal leading to the uterus. For the purpose of keeping a connection to the Honi Soit incident and avoiding confusion I’ve continued using the word ‘vagina.’