When I was three, I knew that boys had penises. I did not know that girls had vaginas because no one told me. I presumed, as I think many do, that my lack of a penis was just that: a lack. Even later on, when I learned about human reproduction, still I found my role in it to be passive, that of a vessel waiting to be filled. The noble sperm battles his way through the harsh environs of Womanland, hunting out the ovum, who is playing hard to get. The continuation of the species depends on the sperm penetrating the boundaries of the resistant egg, or at least that’s the narrative spin that patriarchy puts on it. Woman as creator was never going to fly.
The reduction of women to holes, serving only to define those who fill them, is central to how misogyny perpetuates itself. Our perceived permeability and lack of completion is used to justify the marginalisation of women and the exploitation of our bodies and labour. Our own flesh and blood does not make us weak, but the metaphors derived from it – woman as hell mouth, moral abyss, cesspool, vacant space – have long supported arguments that women are not quite people. We tend not to voice these arguments today but the fundamental assumptions remain.
These assumptions are there whenever it is decreed that women cannot have full ownership of themselves. It’s there when we tell women that they must always be quiet and listen, offering greater credence to the lived experiences of others, those who manage to be more “real”. It’s there when women are denied reproductive freedom and the right to say no to unwanted sexual advances. It’s there when we tell women that they are flexible, jugglers, multi-taskers, all those sly little words we use to suggest that shaping your identity around the needs of others comes naturally to people with minds and bodies like yours. It’s there when women who don’t conform to stereotypes of passivity and submissiveness are called bigots for not bowing to the authority of others. We want women to lie on their backs and just take it. That’s what women are for; ein Loch ist ein Loch, as Freud would have it.
In such a context it’s not surprising that some women wouldn’t want to identify as women at all. You might have been born with the hole but you don’t need to take all the metaphorical crap that goes with it. Quick, call yourself queer and make sure all the misogynist bullshit gets redirected at the women you dismiss as cis stereotypes. It doesn’t matter that these women do not exist in reality – no woman is a hole, existing purely for others to fill with their shit – because as long as we live in a misogynist, patriarchal society, we will need some women to perform that role. It is better, of course, if they perform it willingly, or at least appear to do so. Hence female socialisation and, underpinning it, the constant threat of male violence.
This week someone who calls herself (erroneously) a feminist published a blog claiming that “there are precisely two times in live [sic] when someone else’s genitals are really relevant”:
The first is if you are a medical professional and someone needs some medical assistance with their genitals, something which, for the vast majority of us, is never going to be the case. The other is during sex, and even then it really doesn’t matter exactly which way they point. People say “oh, but I just don’t like penises/vulvas”, but that, too, is rooted in cissexism and general poor sex education. […] I instinctively distrust anyone who professes a dislike for a certain type of genitals: it usually means they’re either cissexist, or completely lack imagination in bed, or both of those things.
It is a fundamentally stupid argument; people prefer all kinds of weird things to do with sex and they have every right to do so. There is no moral value in not preferring one thing over another (and I don’t particularly see why someone who lacks imagination in bed should be any more or less trustworthy than anyone else. It’s not a fucking competition). Moreover, it’s clear that this argument is not really about people; it’s about women in general and feminists in particular:
They make a litany of excuses, conveniently forgetting that rape isn’t just about penis to attempt to excuse their obsession with other people’s genitals. However, ultimately, it’s all about entitlement nonetheless. They genuinely feel entitled to know the precise configuration of everyone else’s private parts.
Imagine that! Feeling “entitled” to have knowledge and preferences! That is surely not something a female, a walking vessel, should do (in the comments the blogger goes on to reassure a trans woman that she is allowed to feel discomfort around penises “however, much of the time, it’s cis women, who are basically just bigots!”).
It is ironic that the very prejudices arising from an obsession with women’s physical reality now fuel attempts to tell women that their physical reality, and that of others, is irrelevant. As hole, as vessel, as passive entity, women must shape themselves around the “more real” realities of others. Women cannot have sexual preferences. Women cannot move beyond being defined as receptacles for others. Moreover, those telling them this seek to justify it by smugly announcing that they are open-minded and therefore do not associate having a vagina with being a woman. How can it be sexism when I’m not calling you women? I will explain why: it is sexism because it is the same hate aimed at the same group of people for the same reasons. It’s the same expectation that woman – or cis woman, however you wish to name her – will open her legs and keep her mouth shut. You ask this of women and then claim not to be focused on their genitals?
I simply don’t believe you.