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The origin of the world

MIthu M. Sanyal's cultural history of the vulva has directed the media spotlight into a symbolic and semantic void. By Ulrike Baureithel

Chocoholics know Godiva as a Belgian chocolatier. There is also an electro rock band called Lady Godiva. But the real deal was an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman in the 11th century who, legend has it, rode naked through Coventry to persuade her husband to lower taxes. A single man, Peeping Tom, dared to stare at the 'gift of God', and was blinded.

Vulva: exposing the invisible sex
by Mithu M Sanyal.
Published by Wagenbach

It's not hard to spot the biblical origins of this medieval peepshow, and legion are the men who have been struck blind for staring at the female sacrum. But, Mithu M. Sanyal remonstrates, in Western cultural history there is no mention of the object of this male gaze. The female genitals, the vulva, she says, is a symbolic and semantic void, a feared "gate to Hell" behind which lies the "vagina dentata". To expose "the invisible sex", to seize it from the male power of definition and reinstate it in our minds is the aim of Sanyal's small cultural history of the vulva, and it belongs in a line of "provocative feminism" (Sanyal) that turns the media into babbling wetlands.

After a rather cursory review of medical discourse on the vulva, from the Roman doctor Galen to psychoanalysis and the famous image of the vagina as an 'inverted penis', Sanyal a journalist of Polish-Indian descent, opens a cultural-historical window onto the mythological realm. In the Iambe Baubo myth Sanyal finds a gesture which pre-dates shame and Judeo-Christian covering of the female sex. Buabo, or Iambe as she is sometimes called, exposed her genitals so brazenly that the Goddess Demeter, in mourning for her daughter Persephone, couldn't help but laugh out loud.

Baubo's bawdy gesture not only appears in the "Homeric Hymn to Demeter", it also crops up in the Egyptian Ishtar myth and in the writings of countless other pre-Christian witnesses. Amazingly this ritual exhibitionism, the sheela-na-gig, even made it onto a number of Romanesque churches – an indicator that it took several centuries to turn the once honoured fertility and lustiness of the female crotch into a place of shame. Of course there's nothing new in pointing out that the genital mouth can represent not only lusty but also intellectual temptation or that the female temptresses– from Pagan goddesses to Eve and Maria Magdalena or the Indian goddess Kali – were not only sexy but empowered with language. But the strength of this cultural history lies less in the originality of its theses than in its knowledgeable and etymologically-informed synopses, plus the wealth of illustrations.

The second part of the book is dedicated to the return of vulva exposure to darkened western stages. She traces the reclaiming of the female genitals, from the dance of the seven veils to modern strippers and onto provocative artistic nudity. The subversive act being that women are regaining control over how their sex is viewed.

And among the more or less famous female performers from the Weimar Republic's Valska Gert and Anita Berber, to Carolee Schneemann and Judy Chicago, Kathy Acker and the Riot Grrrls – Sanyal refreshes our memories about the burlesque stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. But she would have been better off without her excursions into the world of fairytale and psychoanalysis. Anyone who works with postmodern theorists like Lacan or Baudrillard should at least acknowledge that "la femme n'existe pa" provided the critical impetus for an entire feminist generation.

This forgetfulness is something today's provocative feminists unwittingly share with those who pushed the holy grail, the vulva, into oblivion. Which is why the sanctification of the "void" and the "reclaiming of female tradition" (Sanyal) rarely overlaps with the matriarchal cult of a long forgotten Mary Daly, and blossoms instead into the world of labiaplasty and designer vaginas. Yes, in her vulva epilogue, Sanyal enthuses over "yoni puppets" soft vulvas to pat and stroke and buy online. She should have stayed with the chocolates.


Mithu M. Sanyal: Vulva. Die Enthüllung des unsichtbaren Geschlechts. Wagenbach-Verlag, Berlin 2009, 236 pages, 19,90 Euro

Ulrike Baureithel is a freelance journalist.

This article originally appeared in German in the Tagesspiegel on May 05. 2009

Translation: lp - let's talk european