The Common Good
June 2012

The Vagina Dialogues

by Julie Polter | June 2012

We've come a long way, baby. Or have we? Is it too much to ask legislators to speak cogently about women's health?

It’s profoundly disheartening to see people in political leadership and positions of cultural influence whose understanding of women’s anatomy—and that it is possessed by human beings, not mythical prototype “whores,” “virgins,” or “martyr mothers”—hasn’t progressed much past pre-adolescent hooting at drawings on the boys’ room walls.

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Don’t get me wrong—I’m not actually looking for excuses to chat about vaginas or hormones with strangers or friends. I’m fairly comfortable with prudish reserve in daily life, especially when the alternative is coarse humor that’s usually not very funny. Then again, if you watch TV sitcoms or contemporary comedy films, hearing the word “vagina” outside of a gynecologist’s office isn’t the surprise it once was. As Ann Hornaday noted in her March 13 essay in The Washington Post, the word is now so prevalent, “it’s hard to believe that, just six years ago, Grey’s Anatomy producer Shonda Rhimes made ABC standards and practices executives so nervous about the word that she substituted the far more playful ‘va-jay-jay.’”

By contrast, when Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues” debuted in 1996 it was controversial theater for a number of reasons, the most obvious being the first word in the title. The play was groundbreaking in its forthright exploration of women’s experiences—the brutal, the ecstatic, the ambivalent—in relation to women’s distinctive anatomy. It helped many women reclaim the language for their own bodies in the public sphere, rather than being limited to euphemisms and crudities deployed by others. The play opened up more space to talk about sexual abuse and violence against women, a step in weakening the shame that is part of any abuser’s arsenal.

Language is important for both literal health—knowledge of something is the first step toward caring for it—and the health of society. Our bodies are, as the psalmist writes, “fearfully and wonderfully made,” not inherently a source of shame.

Examples of why it’s important to understand all this came thick and fast this winter—which was, to put it mildly, an interesting time to be listening to the news while in a female body. In February, the Virginia legislature began debating a bill that would require women to get an ultrasound before having an abortion. The bill mandated a written estimate of “gestational age” to be part of “informed consent.” To see the baby at these early stages of pregnancy requires an invasive transvaginal ultrasound, not the abdominal “jelly-on-the-belly” kind.

According to Washington Post reporters Anita Kumar and Laura Vozzella, writing in late February about Virginia’s debate, there were people on both sides of the issue, women and men, who initially had no sense of the invasiveness of the procedure required by the law they were debating (that is, exactly where that ultrasound probe would go). When the bill first came before the state Senate in January, two Democrats, one a doctor and the other with a background in health care, did bring some of this information to the Senate floor—“but delicately.” Said Sen. George L. Barker, “We tried to be a little sensitive with the language, particularly when you have the pages sitting behind you.” (Senate pages are often 13- and 14-year-olds.)

The senator’s discretion when it comes to the minors in the room is admirable on the one hand—but when legislation will directly affect bodies, it seems incumbent upon legislators to engage in a clear debate, with technically accurate terms (as happened when the bill moved on to the Virginia House). Those young pages need only flip on the TV—network will do, no need for cable—to hear the word “vagina” employed in lame sitcom quips. Even if they were sheltered from popular culture, odds are some of those pages have surely been exposed in school hallways or playgrounds to at least a couple of anatomical epithets. Official medical terminology seems harmless compared to that.

For myself, I was blind-sided by how the political really did feel personal. I happen to know from experience that a transvaginal ultrasound is physically uncomfortable, but not necessarily traumatic when recommended by a trusted physician in a situation where you know you have full agency to accept or reject her recommendation. My personal beliefs about abortion, among other reasons, make it unlikely that I’d find myself under the purview of a law mandating such an ultrasound. Still, I was agitated for days when I imagined undergoing the procedure under government order.

(Cartoonist Garry Trudeau went much, much further in his March 15 strip, equating such procedures, as mandated by a Texas law, with rape and dubbing the probe that is used a “shaming wand.” More than 60 newspapers refused to run some sections of the Trudeau series.)

Another troubling intersection of political debate with the female body this winter was the dispute over what kind of religious “conscience clause” will be included in the Affordable Care Act and how to handle paying for contraception. (That’s when Rush Limbaugh took the low road by calling Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute.”) The discussion kept circling back to insulting speculation about the “morals” of women. As a celibate person who takes birth control pills to address a medical condition, I kept wondering when someone was going to speak cogently about women’s whole health. When would the conversation steer toward women’s health being a many-faceted thing—not actually limited to one’s nether regions or to having sex, and with whom, and under what legal circumstances? While my personal choices have been conservative, oddly—or not so oddly, if one has a passing knowledge of feminist cultural analysis—I felt just as demeaned as if they’d been otherwise.

As a Christian and a feminist, I believe all human beings are made of body and soul united, in the image of God. I believe Genesis 1:27 when it says “God created humankind in God’s image … male and female God created them.” I believe that you and me and Rush Limbaugh too are fearfully and wonderfully made, knitted together and intricately woven, with inward parts that bear the signature of God (Psalm 139: 13-15). These don’t have to be just lovely sentiments. They should have concrete, utterly unsentimental implications.

Because we know we are intricately made, I’d argue that Christians should reject public policy debates that don’t acknowledge the details of medical procedures, a working knowledge of human anatomy, and the specialized knowledge that health-care providers bring to the discussion.            

Because we are knit together with nerves and sinew and blood and hormones, and made in the image of God, I’d argue that Christians should resist all efforts to reduce other human beings to pieces and parts—women are not “T and A” as the now-quaint sounding entertainment euphemism used to put it, nor are they just a uterus or vagina. Men, likewise, are more than six-pack abs or beer guts or penises.

In her essay, Hornaday argues for at least a partial moratorium on the use of the word “vagina” in TV and movies. She writes, “In entertainment, the use of the word may have started as a subversive expression of women’s empowerment, but the jokes are beginning to feel forced, lazy, and opportunistic.” Conversely, Hornaday notes, politicians and pundits and other political commentators, including Limbaugh and Trudeau, might be said to be taking women’s bodies very seriously. But culture warfare leaves something to be desired, she writes: “Forget ‘The Vagina Monologues’: Now the only show in town is the ‘Vagina Demagogues.’”

In the culture of the American church, we have a long way to go before we need a moratorium on speaking and writing forthrightly about our bodies. In a recent small blogland kerfuffle, evangelical writer Rachel Held Evans revealed she had to carefully parse with her publisher how she uses the word “vagina” in an upcoming book, lest it be rejected by the major Christian bookstores that cater to her prime audience. In an effort to protect purity, religious folks often allow the dragons spawned by ignorance to roam freely. Most churches would cringe at the thought of holding sex ed classes, for example. But if properly done, what better place to learn about the care and functions and health of our whole selves, bodies and souls?

Any word can be used or abused, and even properly used terms can sometimes make us uncomfortable. But bold language about bodies, when rooted in respect and care and when used to honestly convey experiences that can’t be described otherwise—e.g. the power of sex, the trauma of obstetric fistula, the intricacies of medical treatments—is never profane. Abuse, commercial exploitation, trafficking, sexual harassment, rape, domestic violence, humor that demeans and belittles—now those are obscene.

Whatever language we use, all of us can find ways to teach children, to teach one another, that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and that our bodies are not primarily problems to be regulated or solved, but reflections of the living God.

Julie Polter is an associate editor of Sojourners.

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