Monday, September 23, 2013

Censorship down under (NSFW)



Warning: This post contains graphic photos of real women.

A couple of weeks ago my friend The Hot Italian sent me an article about vagina censorship. Seems the oldest student newspaper in Australia, Honi Soit, published cover photos of 18 vaginas (vulvas really, with some labias poking out). Just before the paper went to print, the university decided to stick a black rectangle over the juicy parts of the photos to avoid a lawsuit.

Australia has a law that only a closed slit can be shown. Most women don't really look like that once they've passed through puberty. Black rectangles to the rescue. Or not.

Turns out their rectangles were unacceptably transparent: the vulvas were visible. The university pulled the entire run of the paper.

You might ask, "Why the hell would a student newspaper want closeup photos of vulvas on the front cover of their paper?" I kind of wondered that myself. It's sensational, right? Vulgar? Pornographic? Unnecessary? Meant to send a message?

The answer is the last one: meant to send a message. As this article explains, they were tired of the way vaginas are portrayed in the media, when they are shown at all: shaved clean, surgically altered, pale, girlish. They wanted to show what real lady bits look like, because a lot of girls and women think they're deformed; they don't look like what we've been told is the ideal.

In fact, the author of the article notes that 12,000 Australian women a year have labiaplasty. I imagine the rates are higher here in the U.S. That's a lot of labias going into the trash.

I can see their point about the mystery and misrepresentation of female genitalia. Unless we're lesbians, most women don't get a good look at adult vaginas other than their own (and rarely that) unless it's in porn. And those vaginas don't look like my vagina. At least not the modern vaginas.

Their other point is that the vagina isn't just a sexual object. It's a body part like any other, and there's no reason it shouldn't be out there, free and proud. Hiding vaginas makes them seem dirty and only useful for sex.

They made some good points. I looked at the photo of the censored vaginas first. Here it is. I have to admit, even censored this photo would have caused a stir at any of the universities I attended.


Then I followed a link to the original photo, which one of the editors tweeted. And I'm going to admit this even though it's hard: It was a little strange looking at those disembodied vulvas all in rows. My first thought was that I should look away. They looked too private, like they shouldn't be posing like that.

And they didn't look especially attractive, alone there without their tummies and legs and breasts and faces. I had to puzzle about my reaction for a few days, because I was uncomfortable about those 18 vulvas, and that's not what I would have expected.

 I'm still conflicted. Yes, on the one hand, I think we should stop chasing a surgically altered ideal of women's bodies. It's damaging to women and to men. I doubt there are many readers I have to explain this to, so I won't. The editors of the paper made valid points about why they wanted to show those 18 vaginas on the cover.

On the other hand, why these disembodied close-ups? The answer: there's no reason not to. My discomfort comes from my own socialization and indoctrination. Just like I find perky, round breasts, flat stomachs, smooth round asses, and long, thin legs most attractive, I also find those closed up, pale vulvas more acceptable too. Shame on me, but I do.

It's not how I want to think, but I have to be honest about this. Even though they look perfectly normal, those vaginas don't look like what public vaginas are supposed to look like.

It's some hard brainwashing to reverse.

(I'm going to cut myself a tiny bit of slack here and say that I wouldn't find most parts of the human body attractive if they were photographed this way, not even breasts. It's too clinical, which I suppose is one of the effects the editors were going for. I could never understand it when a guy I was dating wanted me to send him a photo of my breasts. They look much better in context than they do in a static photo all alone. Same with my nose.)

The other thing I realized -- not to get too personal -- is that I don't much think of my pudendum (that's the latin name for female genitalia) visually, like I do my breasts or my hands. I think of that area as a feeling area. I don't see it; I feel it there. I never think what it looks like.

That's no excuse though. These women are trying to normalize the visual.

I suppose I could go on and on about whether penises would have been censored (maybe not), and whether circumcision is just as bad as labiaplasty, and the unlikelihood that a student newspaper in Australia is really going to change anybody's mind about vulvas. (Yet here I am in a small midwestern city writing about it.)

I decided to go with my own reaction because I'm disturbed by it, and I'm sad and ashamed and I doubt I'll be able to change it -- certainly not by looking at or writing about these 18 vulvas.

I do think this photo changed something though: It changed the women who undressed, stood still for the photo, and agreed to have it printed on the cover of the oldest student newspaper in Australia. I know for a fact it changed them a lot, because I've recently experienced a similar adventure. As my friend Moxie would say, "It made them feel like goddesses."

Those women are changed forever. And 18 changed women is better than 0 changed women. Who knows? Now that those 18 young women risked showing their real vulvas to the world, maybe 18 more will do it. And be changed. Maybe they won't react like I did -- in spite of myself.

Maybe they will persuade 18 other women not to surgically remove their labias just because they think they should look like porn stars or little girls instead of real women.
******

I debated fiercely with myself about whether I should post the original, uncensored photo here. I believe I will lose readers if I do. I believe I will disappoint other readers if I don't (but I doubt they will stop reading because of it).

I struggle with knowing I don't find those photos attractive. I know it doesn't fucking matter if I find them attractive. They just are. It's not even my business whether they are attractive or not.

Trying to define what's attractive is how we got into this mess in the first place.

Then again, as much as I've written about vaginas, I've never posted photos. This isn't a sex blog.

I finally had to wonder what I would want me to do if I were one of those brave young women who bared their vaginas on the cover of their school newspaper. I have no doubt what the answer to that question is: "Yes. Override your own discomfort and post the photo. Be one of us."

For that reason, here is the uncensored photo of real women's vulvas, some with labias poking out. This is what we look like.


That's all I have to say. I would love to read what you have to say though. Comments are open below. Grab a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and let me know what you think.


18 comments:

  1. I have to admit-- I found the "black box" photo to be more disturbing than the actual uncensored cover. Why? I have no idea.

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    1. I found it disturbing too. They look like a "do not enter" sign. Like something dank and dirty has been quarantined in there.

      They also remind me of National Geographic. I grew up in a blindingly white little town in Iowa. And from a very early age I remember thinking black men had long, white, rectangular penises that went down to their knees. (Not that I gave penises much thought. They just .... were. I had a dad and brothers. They had penises. We called them ding dings. Big deal.) The reason I thought that is because I only saw black people in a few places. On a black-and-white TV. On infrequent trips to Des Moines. And in the stack of National Geographics upstairs at my grandma's house. And all of the black men in those magazines were naked and had long white rectangles covering their penises. I had no idea penises on otherwise naked people were something to be censored. The women weren't censored, after all. So I thought those were their penises.

      Those black boxes reminded me that covering something up rarely helps create understanding of the thing that's being covered. Which may be the goal ... but in this case, wasn't.

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  2. Typical me. I wound up more fascinated with the name of the publication than the subject. 'Honi soit' is part of a French phrase 'Honi soit qui mal y pense.' and it sort of means 'shamed be he who thinks it evil.' I think it's kind of appropos here, rather neatly so.

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    1. Wow! How perfect is that? Thanks for that.

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  3. Not offended. 8-)
    Vaginas. Penises. Almost everyone has one or the other. Hurray! As far as I know, no one has been struck blind or driven mad by the sight of one (or more). Showing what "normal" body parts look like may be helpful to some people, so why not? And for those who don'want to see them, don't look. 8-)

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    1. It appears nobody was offended. Or if they were, the deluge of comments on Facebook made them slink off and wank off in private. I'm glad people who read this post GOT what the editors of the paper wanted them to get. Vaginas are vaginas. They aren't sex and they aren't dirty. They're just like a liver or a heart or a tongue.

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  4. You bring up a topic that has irked me for a long time; Western culture (or more specifically American, but obviously Australia is a part of that culture) is terrified of female sexuality. Much of the rest of the world is, too, although not quite as abjectly, methinks. That's a terrible shame, and I blame Judeo/Christianity for a lot of that.

    Obviously, those Aussie need a few stagings of "The Vagina Monologues" to get their heads straight, no pun intended. Follow that up with mass distribution of "The Cunt Coloring Book" for good measure.

    "You've come a long way, baby." No, you haven't.

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    1. No, we really haven't. I would love to take a production of The Vagina Monologues to Australia. I've been in a production of it once, and I'm sure I will again. It was more powerful than I can describe.

      I don't think Western culture has a lock on the fear of female sexuality. I'm thinking of African cultures and the way female circumcisions are done. (Really I'm trying not to think about it.)

      Women are powerful sexual beings. I believe this to my core. I can understand why we are intimidating and intimidated, but oh, what would it be like if we could all get over that shit and just celebrate all of it together?

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  5. I feel SO grateful that the feelings that came up on viewing those beauties were: 1) awe, 2) curiosity, 3) yummy warm feelings of connection and appreciation with all women and my own femininity, 4) gratitude for the men I've known who appreciate all the diversity and hold us all in honor and respect. My extremely minimal exposure to porn and fashion magazines and commercial media seems to have had one major payoff: fewer Barbie-fied messages of what women's sexual presence "should" look and feel like. And my awesome exposure to women's healing circles out West and programs on healthy sexuality (yay Unitarian Universalist OWL for adults) gave me a terrific path for recognizing and celebrating the wild and natural as what feminine sexuality "should" look and feel like. Thank you for the gift of realizing I've successfully dodged our toxically shaming sexual culture, Reticula!

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    1. You're welcome. What a positive, affirmative comment. It took writing about it and discussing it for me to get there and remember where I want to be and not where I've been. :-)

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  6. Well, I have seen a diversity of vaginas and have appreciated them all. There is something very special about being right there that speaks to my soul. This made me think a lot of things but what I want to share is that I am a man and as a man I see my penis several times a day. However, I do not look at my scrotum and this story made me take the time to actually LOOK at my scrotum. Once I was looking at it, it was actually quite fascinating. It would be very interesting to see a series of pictures of scrotums, for me at least.

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    1. It would be interesting to see photos of scrotums. Why not? They are kind of hidden back there behind the star of the show.

      I'm glad to know there are men like you out there who appreciate real women. I think there are more of you than we think, but the media has glamoured us into thinking men want what they're selling.

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  7. I was disturbed by these photos when I first saw them weeks ago, and I'm still disturbed. For all the hoopla surrounding the publication of "real vulvas" there are not many natural vulvas on that cover. I'm not sure that it's progress. Labia rendered utterly hairless bring out my maternal streak, I want to throw a sweater on them and warm them up.

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    1. Yes, the whole naked vulva discussion is important. If the purpose was to show the diversity of female genitalia in a non-sexual way though, I think they nailed it. And this is a college publication. It probably fairly represents the women on the campus.

      I love your impulse to through a sweater on them though. :-)

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  8. Good article. I always wonder what women think of women's bodies in art or photography. The whole body is beautiful but I have to confess that the tight closeups in your picture is far more clinical than attractive.
    Your point about not seeing real vaginas is a valid one. I don't think porn or fashion wants anybody disturbing their marketing environment. I don't know how either industry fares at a nudest colony.

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    1. In my experience, most artists and photographers choose young, thin, small-breasted women as the subjects of their work. As of recently, I have some experience to draw on in saying that.

      Again with limited experience, I don't think nudists give a shit what people look like under their clothes. And I find that idea quite liberating, although I've never experienced a nudist community. That should go on my bucket list.

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  9. Quite honestly, this makes me uncomfortable (uncomfortable -- not offended)...but in a GOOD way. In a way that's like "oh...so we can have actual conversations like this? And we can see pictures like this? And this actually IS really what we look like? And there are real women out there who celebrate this? AND I CAN BE ONE OF THEM!?!?!" That's pretty cool.

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    1. YES! It is pretty cool. I had to uncover what was behind my discomfort before I could get there. I had to peel away the "oh, we need to cover that up" impulse that was probably planted in me while I was still in diapers. I have been so thrilled with the conversations that have come from this post.

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