On Vice and “honest” expressions of misogyny and disgust

When I was growing up, my dad had one of those family in-jokes – a “dad joke” – that went on for years and years. Whenever I entered a room, he’d put on a ridiculous gameshow host voice and announce “It’s the Fat And Ugly Show! Starrrrriiinng Victoria!”

Obviously I knew this was meant to be a joke and that therefore it was impermissible to show any displeasure (beyond the requisite withering “da-a-ad!” protest). I knew my dad didn’t literally think I was fat and ugly. Nonetheless, whereas ugliness may be a subjective quality, I was measurably overweight, so the “joke” was based in a sort-of truth. My brother was overweight, too, but he never got the Fat And Ugly Show treatment. It was therefore made clear, through the medium of dad humour, that fatness and ugliness were particularly underdesirable qualities in girls.

As I’ve got older I’ve realised that there are many ways in which men express their prescriptions for and/or distaste of the female form. The fact that now few do so directly – that few would write religious tracts comparing the vagina to the gates of Hell – does not mean that many do not find more subtle ways to express their views. One way is humour – the I was only joking, why is she so touchy? approach to making women feel ashamed of their flesh. Another is the I’m only being honest tactic, in which men “bravely” confess to their discomfort with various aspects of women’s bodies, as though to do so is taboo and therefore a courageous act.

In recent years this has been evident, for instance, in the number of new or expectant fathers coming forward to announce to the world that they didn’t want to be present for their baby’s birth. Of course, I can see perfectly valid reasons for them not wanting to do so; it is not pleasant to see one’s partner in extreme physical distress, to feel some responsibility for it and yet to be unable to alleviate her pain. Nonetheless, if you care about someone (and even if you don’t), perhaps it’s only fair to let them decide whether you should be with them when they are going through something as painful and frightening as labour. Perhaps, indeed, you should keep your feelings to yourself. Alas, such restraint is not the way of our new generation of honest dads, with the likes of Robbie Williams claiming that the sight of his child emerging from his partner’s vagina was “like watching his favourite pub burn down.” He’s just being honest, right? As far as men are concerned, vaginas are for fucking, not giving birth. They don’t want to see that! The message to women is: don’t get all uptight about it. He’s got his preferences. You don’t have to put everything – all of your femaleness, all of the blood and guts – on show. Not even if you’re giving birth.

So we accept a culture in which it is considered perfectly fine to find women’s genitals, in their most natural form (not just in childbirth), “not quite right.” Walk into any chemist and you will find a wide range of products aimed at waxing, shaving, refreshing and cleansing the unkempt wilderness that lies between a woman’s legs in order to make it less inherently offensive. There are no such equivalent products for the penis and testes. Indeed, in a recent Guardian article, one male commentator seemed to suggest that while we lavished so much attention on the penis, we were neglecting to offer sufficient adoration for the testes in their natural state. “Cunt” remains an insult far deeper and harsher than “dick” because of what we think cunts are: disgusting, unpleasant, unclean. Dicks are, at worst, just a bit ridiculous.

And so we get to this week’s Vice, featuring a brave, honest account from a straight man who does not like cunnilingus. Which is fair enough. Lots of people don’t like lots of different sexual acts and no one should feel under pressure to perform them. What is different about this account is just how far the writer feels it is acceptable to go in explaining why he dislikes this particular act. He describes the vulva as “a wound in an otherwise perfect whole.” He mentions “the stench.” He talks about wishing to dedicate himself “to rounder and perfumed” parts. But don’t be upset, ladies! This is just his preference!

To be clear, none of us know – at least not in any absolute sense – why we prefer some things sexually and not others. Sex is weird and there’s no point in torturing yourself with guilt over what does or does not turn you on. Nevertheless, I am getting rather tired of this assumption that sexual responses exist on some plane far removed from all other emotions, fears, phobias and prejudices, this belief that somehow, misogyny is a problem for the world of the mind while the penis is its own domain. We don’t know that. We have to live with not knowing that and with trying to make the world in general a less sexist place. In the meantime, sure, don’t do anything you don’t want to do, but don’t fall for the idea that there is some form of pure, abstract honesty regarding matters of sex which absolves you from all accusations of misogyny.

What makes a misogynist isn’t the fact that he won’t sleep with a fat woman or won’t perform cunnilingus or really, really prefers shaven pussies. What makes him a misogynist is the belief that his personal preferences have no broader social context and what matters is that he has the right to express them in intimate detail, regardless of the impact on women around him. This is not honesty; it is entitlement and cruelty. I doubt very much that Vice would run a similar piece from a woman who rejects sex with penises (the mere act of saying no – minus any expressions of disgust – is enough to warrant her being deemed cissexist and prudish).

Disgust for the male body is pathologised, disgust for the female body is accepted. But of course we’re not meant to make a big deal of this. After all, it’s only ever either just a joke or just someone – some man – being honest.