Over at the local art museum, Aros, there's a particular piece of art that continues to intrigue me. Consumer's Guide to Safe Sex by Thomas Bruun (1988) is actually just a box. It has on its front a picture of the female intimate parts, cut out from, presumably, a porn magazine. It carries instructions on how to use the paper and a round hole cut where the vulva would be, with some very graphic language at that. Also, in my opinion, rather objectifying, but I'll get back to that. The hole in the paper fits a hole in the entire box, thus constructing a sex machine into which you may insert your penis (be you in the possession of a such). So to speak. For if curiosity overwhelms you and you look into the hole meant for the penis, you see – a mouse trap. If you use the machine: Snap. Ouchy. The machine bites back. A Vagina Dentata.
Vagina Dentata is an interesting concept. As such, the words merely mean “toothed vagina” in Latin, conveying the idea that a woman would have teeth “down there” that might bite off a penis should it dare to enter the premises. Not a nice thought, huh, gentlemen?
While it must be admitted that I have been slightly lazy googling, not much useful info has come out of my attempts at research. (As I have said before and will be happy to say again, google only works well if you actually know exactly what you're looking for.) Anyways.
The origin of the idea of such a toothed vagina seems to be mythological and appears to have come up various places in the world. It contains a profound fear of female sexuality; having sex with a woman might get you castrated. She be dangerous, basically. Urban Dictionary also is convinced that it's a Freudian concept for subconscious fears in men that their wives may wish to cut off their genitals (the husbands', that is).
At least in some myths, these dentata'ed women appear not to have been any regular woman you'd meet, rather mythological creatures to be feared and avoided; see the apparently Indian legend in the first link. On this note, I remember reading a science fiction novel, The Saga of the Pliocene Exile by Julian May (I remember it as fairly good, by the way, though I last read it when I was maybe 14, so my ideas might have changed if I read it now); in it, the females of one of the outer-space races, the Firvulags, have teeth in their genital parts; these they can choose to hide somehow, or draw out if some male specimen should get too close in an unappreciated manner, and bite. No one rapes a Firvulag woman.
This is one of the aspects I find interesting about the myth. On the one hand it displays a profound fear of female sexuality and strong women; on the other hand it can also reflect a need to self-defend. Depending on your point of view, biting off a man's penis upon penetration can be either an eeevviiiiiil eeeeeevil thing to do just to hurt mankind, or it can be interpreted as an act of defence against a violation of one's most personal self. (Depends on the particular legend I guess; perhaps they're not all so similar as google would have it; I must get to the academic books about this! Also, see this)
When Vagina Dentata is interpreted in a vein of defence, it becomes relevant today, more than it is even bearable to bring to mind. Take South Africa; estimates go that 40% of South African women will be raped throughout their lives. [This is an absurd number. Imagine almost half the women you knew had been raped. I sincerely hope this is not already the case for you.] The country is known as the “rape capital of the world”, and apparently 28% of South African men admit to raping someone. Admit. Then there's all the non-reported stuff apart from it. There's so much more, but I can't make myself open up this worm-can of horribleness today. So let's go to the reason I bring this up; for South Africa is also where the Rape-aXe was devised. Long story short, a woman who had been raped stated, "If only I had teeth down there" when she went to hospital, and gave the designer the idea for this ...thing. A sort of plastic tube inserted into the vagina, with barbs facing inward in a fish-hook manner, so a rapist's penis would get in, but get badly badly hurt when trying to get it out again. This is not the place for a discussion of the idea as such; let it suffice to say that I do not think it will do what it was meant to do – as is the case for many things – and it seems it was never released for sale on the South African market. I'll go a bit into the public reactions instead.
While it is meant for self-defense against a brutal attack, if you read Danish and feel like going through tons of nonsense and vile and scary stuff and people just being plain stupid (there's surely more out on the free internet, but I have not the heart to dig through it today), in the discussion on the facebook-link you will be able to find young ladies discussing ”how useful this could be for revenge” (-.-) and an unfortunately not surprising amount of male specimen objecting that ”what if they use it for bad stuff?! They might hurt my peniiiiiiiiiiiiis!!!1!!11” - Really, if you fear someone might do that to you, maybe reconsider how you relate to women; both how you treat them to possibly make them want to chop off your penis, but also how you think of them, since that thought would even occur to you. Most of us are actually rather nice people, ya know. Way to miss the point, basically, but also – this device does play into that age-old fear. If a woman does not welcome a penis, or at least does not actively reject it, but instead tries to bite back (not much pun intended), she's suddenly seen as cruel and malicious and vengeful. She should accept the rape silently instead? Peeps, in this case we're talking a place where even children are raped daily and routinely. This device is a counter-idea to a huge damage being done. Leave the evil wimminz out of this, please. (Also, stop suggesting to use it for ”revenge”, especially when we're just talking regular ”guy didn't text me back” hurt feelings.)
The Vagina Dentata seems to have become quite a joke of lately, really. This kind of made me smile, while this .. oh, for heaven's sake, already. This nearly convinced me it was real, though.
So what is to all of this? I'll return to the piece of art, since that's something more tangible than irrational fears on the internets, and maybe easier to interpret.
The thing with this box is that even if the 'vagina' bites back, it's a very passive vagina – ok, it's a metal box, but I'm referring to the language of the instructions; “you do such and such, I'll sit here and let you do it”. Female sexuality on its own is completely and utterly irrelevant here; this box is for the pleasure of men.* Since woman is but a recipient of male penises, she might as well be replaced by a box. The box bites back, as a woman might, but there's a fear even of passivity here. There's a certain hint of irony when the box warns, “Be careful! Our covergirl is very hot, so take her on at your own risk!” She contains a mouse trap, so yeah. But are beautiful women dangerous, too? Is that the point?
What I think I might be getting at is: even a Vagina Dentata, the fear of female sexuality, is at the bottom of it all about male sexuality. She hits right where manhood, so to speak, is located; the fear is of castration. Woman is really only relevant in the form of her vagina; the only difference is whether it is good or evil, and evilness is defined by the willingness to accept a penis or not.
* Yes, I'm being rather hetero-normative here, but just go with it for now. I'll get to all this hetero-normativity stuff in another post.