In the struggle against ‘sexism’ (some) women demanded that we end the fetishisation of their breasts and accept them as just another part of a woman’s body. One of the results of this struggle for ‘free nipples’ was that, in some big cities, groups of women organised protest walks where they were naked above the belt – the point was precisely to de-eroticise breasts. We are now entering the next logical step in this direction – the goal is now to ‘demystify’ the ultimate sexual object. After publishing a book of portrait of breasts and then on penises, photographer Laura Dodsworth has now taken portraits of 100 vulvas – here is a report on the last volume in this trilogy: “It’s this shame that photographer Laura Dodsworth is aiming to overcome with her latest project, Womanhood. In a book and accompanying film for Channel 4, she tells the stories of 100 women and gender non-conforming people through portraits of their vulvas. It’s the third instalment in a series: in Bare Reality and Manhood, Dodsworth photographed and talked to people about their breasts and their penises, respectively.’’
“The vulva is often seen just as a site of sexual activity. But we talked about so many areas that aren’t ‘sexy’ – periods, menopause, infertility, miscarriage, abortion, pregnancy, birth, cancer.’’
We read in the same Guardian report how Dodsworth’s book and film “arrive at a time when the vulva appears to be having a cultural moment”: in near future, Lynn Enright’s book Vagina: A Re-education will appear: Liv Strömquist bestselling Fruit of Knowledge (subtitled Vulva vs. Patriarchy and with stabs at Freud) is dedicated to vulva and menstruation; there is a new British musical Vulvarine; live events that aim to reclaim the body are increasingly popular – from body-positive life-drawing classes to “pussy-gazing workshops”.
Further steps in this process are on the horizon – new campaigns target periods, “encouraging young people to shake off any shame about menstruation.” So why not go to the end and “demystify” and de-fetishise excrementation – let’s organise some shit-gazing workshops! Some of us remember the scene from Bunuel’s Fantom of Freedom in which relations between eating and excreting are inverted: people sit at their toilets around the table, pleasantly talking, and when they want to eat, they silently ask the housekeeper ‘Where is that place, you know?’ So why not trying this in real life (better to prohibit eating from public space since our excessive food production is one of the main reasons of our ecological crisis)?
To avoid a misunderstanding, the point that these phenomena are making is obvious and well-taken: to get rid of the male fetishisation of vagina as the ultimate mysterious object of (masculine) desire, and to reclaim vulva for women in all complex reality outside sexist myths. So what is wrong with it? Let’s return to Bunuel. To quote from one of my own books, there is series of Bunuel’s films which are built around the same central motif of the – to use Bunuel’s own words – ‘non-explainable impossibility of the fulfilment of a simple desire’. In L ’Age d’or the couple want to consummate their love, but they are again and again prevented by some stupid accident; in The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz the hero wants to accomplish a simple murder, but all his attempts fail; in The Exterminating Angel, after a party, a group of rich people cannot cross the threshold and leave the house; in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie two couples want to dine together, but unexpected complications always prevent the accomplishment of this simple wish; and finally, in That Obscure Object of Desire, we have the paradox of a woman who, through a series of tricks, postpones again and again the final moment of reunion with her old lover. What is the common feature of these films? An ordinary, everyday act becomes impossible to accomplish as soon as it finds itself occupying the impossible place of das Ding – ‘the thing’ – and begins to embody the sublime object of desire.
This object or act may be in itself extremely banal (a common dinner, passing the threshold after a party). It has only to occupy the sacred/forbidden, empty place in the Other, and a whole series of impassable obstacles will build up around it; the object or act, in its very vulgarity, cannot be reached or accomplished.
We should recall here Jacques Lacan’s definition of the sublime: ‘an object elevated to the level of the Thing,’ an ordinary thing or act through which, in a fragile short-circuit, the impossible Real Thing transpires. That’s why, in an intense erotic interplay, one wrong word, one vulgar gesture suffices, and a violent de-sublimation occurs, we fall out of erotic tension into vulgar copulation. Imagine that, in the thrall of erotic passion, one takes a close look at the vagina of the beloved woman, trembling with the promise of anticipated pleasures, but then something happens, one as it were ‘loses contact,’ falls out of the erotic thrall, and the flesh in front of one’s eyes appears in all its vulgar reality, with the stench of urine and sweat, etc. (And it is easy to imagine the same experience with a penis.) What happens here? For Lacan, it is the exact opposite that takes place in the described scene: the vagina ceases to be ‘an object elevated to the dignity of a Thing’ and becomes part of ordinary reality. In this precise sense, sublimation is not the opposite of sexualisation but its equivalent.
And that’s why, in eroticism also, there is only a small step from the sublime to the ridiculous. The sexual act and the comical: it seems that these two notions exclude themselves radically — does not the sexual act stand for the moment of the utmost intimate engagement, for the point towards which the participating subject can never assume the attitude of an ironic external observer? For that very reason, however, the sexual act cannot but appear at least minimally ridiculous to those who are not directly engaged in it – the comical effect arises out of the very discord between the intensity of the act and the indifferent calm of everyday life.
This brings us back to the ongoing attempts to ‘demystify’ the vulva. To use an old (and otherwise very problematic) proverb, it seems that, in trying to get rid of the dirty water, they court the danger of throwing out the baby also. Their attack on the idea of vagina as the fetishised object of male desire also threatens to undermine the basic structure of sublimation without which there is no eroticism – what remains is a flat world of ordinary reality in which people all erotic tension is lost. They display their ‘defetishised’ organs which are just that – ordinary organs.
The moment we take into account the arbitrary nature of sublimation (any ordinary object can be elevated to the level of the impossible Thing), it becomes clear that sexual sublimation can be easily freed from patriarchal mystification. What we are getting instead of this new space of eroticism is a version of something that, long ago, Adorno and Horkheimer, the two masters of the Frankfurt School of Marxism, baptised ‘repressive desublimation’: our sex organs are desublimated, and the result is not new freedom but a grey reality in which sex is totally repressed.