Saturday, July 05, 2008

Vaginas: Sex Sells

This story is a few weeks old, now, and it's pretty much made its rounds. There are women who seek to have their hymens repaired for largely religious/cultural reasons:
Restoring your Virginity - For him and for yourself

The virginity of a woman is valued for religious, social, and even economic reasons. Hymen gets disrupted after the first intercourse or even after strenuous physical activity or tampon use. Anyway, you wouldn't want your boyfriend / future husband feel ashamed because your hymen no longer existed. (emphasis mine)
It's been in the Times, which is where I saw it first, and covered all over the blogosphere. Here's the gist, in case you've missed it:

In Europe, Debate Over Islam and Virginity
Ed Alcock for The New York Times

PARIS — The operation in the private clinic off the Champs-Élysées involved one semicircular cut, 10 dissolving stitches and a discounted fee of $2,900.

Dr. Marc Abecassis carries out hymen reconstruction surgery on a 23-year-old French woman of north-African origin.

But for the patient, a 23-year-old French student of Moroccan descent from Montpellier, the 30-minute procedure represented the key to a new life: the illusion of virginity.

Like an increasing number of Muslim women in Europe, she had a hymenoplasty, a restoration of her hymen, the vaginal membrane that normally breaks in the first act of intercourse.

“In my culture, not to be a virgin is to be dirt,” said the student, perched on a hospital bed as she awaited surgery on Thursday. “Right now, virginity is more important to me than life.”
There was a great deal of moral outrage, and much of it justified. It's really disgusting that women would feel, first of all, that sex is a mistake, second, that their husbands wouldn't accept them, and third, that they'd be right. It's horrifying, and it's backward. The idea that a woman is worthless without that hymen is really quite disturbing, and that last sentence of the quote is frightening.
It's also the way of the world. It's not culturally exclusive, though. And while Muslim women have been able to elevate the misogyny of their culture to horrifying new levels, we in more enlightened cultures cannot be so smug. Everything revolves around vaginas.

Okay, that's hyperbole, but it's also true.

It's no secret that sex sells. Beer, cars, toothpaste, cosmetics and a bunch of other things are actually about getting more sex, or are sold with the explicit or implicit promise that legions of vaginas await the man who buys this, or that a woman's vagina will become so sought after that she can have her pick of sperm donors. There's also associative sex, like using a woman with a really throaty sexy voice as the narrator for a commercial for cat treats, or tall striking blonde women in ads for a new mop, lawn mowers, or cola. And there's cultural sex that's sold, too: buy this to fit in, to be hip, to be cool, or the girls won't talk to you.

Around London, there's a jeweller who sells the Hearts on Fire Diamond. One of the print ads is at the top of this post. They claim to not sell diamonds, but monogamy:
There’s monogamy. And then there’s (monogamy)¹⁰⁰

Traditionally defined, monogamy means being in a committed relationship with one person.

It is an admirable word, one that conveys love, honesty and integrity. But is it enough for people who seek more meaning and passion in their lives? For those who tread beyond tradition, especially when it comes to matters of the heart?

We don’t think so.

So, at Hearts On Fire we believe in something called monogamy to the hundredth power. The difference being a dedication to intensity. There is simply no better word to describe our diamonds or the unique relationships they have come to symbolize over the years. It’s this belief in intensity that drives us to cut and polish our diamonds at 100 times magnification, 10 times the industry standard.

As The World’s Most Perfectly Cut Diamond®, a Hearts On Fire diamond is an enduring declaration of your commitment to a relationship that is deep, rich and meaningful. One that goes beyond conventional definitions. One that exceeds conventional expectations of love and monogamy. And one that deserves a diamond beyond conventional beauty.

Hearts On Fire. The World’s Most Perfectly Cut Diamond.
They are selling monogamy. They're also making no secret of it. And that's what's interesting. Because really, that's what buying jewellery for women is all about. I bought exclusive access to my wife's vagina with a diamond. Almost every other married man did the same, and most married lesbians, too. Used to be you were getting exclusive access to her uterus, but contraception has made it more complicated, and the vagina is where all the fun happens anyway. Okay, not all the fun, but it sure is fun.
(As an interesting aside, how can mongamy be raised to the 100th power? Isn't it an absolute, like uniqueness or perfection? Aren't you either monogamous or not? I suppose you could be "technically mongamous", but how could you be more monogamous?)

I know it's crude. I know it's backward. And it's never this explicit. Except when you talk about hymenoplasty or the Hearts on Fire Diamond.
It's complicated, too, because monogomy is never simple, not for the couple involved, or the society that's built around it (virtually all of them).
First of all, the idea that monogamy is used to sell anything is a bit alien to me. Monogamy is useful, yes, and helpful even. It's biologically and socially sensible. But it's also less fun than having sex with more than one person (possibly at the same time). It's a contradiction, to be sure, but what's the most fun and what's best in the long term rarely coincide, and sex is no exception. (And don't try to sell me on the "sex with the person you love is so much more beautiful" thing. True or not, sex with the person you love for fifty years is usually going to get less interesting.)
But monogamy is also kind of artificial. Variety is the spice of life in everything, except love, it seems. André 3000 said it in Hey Ya: "If nothing lasts forever, then what makes love the exception?" He's right, and lust is even more short-lived than love. But we're all conditioned, brought up, and even perhaps wired to want faithfulness from our partner (even if we're unwilling to remain faithful ourselves), and in essence, that's what you buy when you buy a diamond for "your" woman: her faithfulness. Religion has something to do with it, but I think religion is the veneer we've put on a lot of things to give them higher authority. It's harder to stay monogamous if you're only doing it because it's useful. If god, however, demands monogamy, that's different.
I've been guilty of this preoccupation with who has or has had access to the naughty bits in the past--insane and stupid jealousy over my wife's previous boyfriends (well before we were married, very short-lived, and I am deeply ashamed of it). It was irrational, it was pointless, and it was destructive. I've grown past this juvenile behaviour, but we haven't. It's still all about exclusive property rights.
First of all, if I'm the one with exclusive access to the birth canal, then I know that any kids coming out are mine. Simple, direct and useful, and if I'm going to invest time, energy and resources into raising kids, then I should know they're carrying my genetic material (there are other reasons to raise kids, but from a strictly evolutionary position, it's all about my genes). It's useful for divesting property after my death: I know my kids get it. And finally, it's useful for protecting myself from STIs. So these are all technical reasons to make sure that I'm the only one with the keys to the VIP. Emotional reasons are more powerful, and also more stupid. But they're there, and while I've done my best to apply reason, and other emotional factors (like the fact that I want the woman who actually owns the vagina to be happy), there's still residual jealousy.
It's no wonder that most religions are so male-centred and misogynistic. It doesn't make it right, and we're certainly not beyond it.

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