“My Daughter’s Vagina” is the title of an essay I wrote about five years ago that was published online here but that I have never really felt comfortable with as a finished piece. Not too long ago, I came up with the idea of serializing the essay on my blog as I revised it, and so here I am. I originally had in mind that I wanted say a few things about the nature of the essay, but I think that, for the most part, it’s better that I just let the piece speak for itself. I will say that “My Daughter’s Vagina” is long, around 27,000 words, and so I will have to ask for your patience in letting the piece unfold at the pace that I am able to set for revising it; and I will also say that the goal of the piece is not to argue any particular position, but rather to raise questions about gender, sex and sexuality and explore them from within my own experience as a man in this culture. The narratives in the essay are deeply personal and very revealing, and do not always show me in the kindest of lights. I hope you will understand, therefore, that while I am perfectly comfortable reading and discussing good faith critiques of how I understand my experience in the essay, I am not going to tolerate any comments that even remotely resemble personal attacks on me or on anyone else who chooses to comment. Other than that, I am, for now, going to leave the comments section open to all comers. So, here goes:
My Daughter’s Vagina, Part 1
The first time a woman opened her legs long enough that I could look for more than the few seconds it took to bend to her with lips and tongue, or to climb up blind into her and start moving, I crouched between her thighs to get as close as I could, and I remember even now how the words began to list themselves in my head: pussy, beaver, twat, slit, fur, love muscle, muff, quim, cabbage, snatch, box…and all of them but one felt inadequate; and that was the one I wanted most not to use, not even to think, the one I’d come to understand as degrading of my lover by its very existence; and yet, somehow, no other word but cunt captured in my imagination the wet and hairy wildness, the pungent and disheveled and untamed and multi-shaded pink and red and brown and flesh-colored and even deep violet beauty of what I was looking at. I’d seen pictures of course, plenty of them, had discovered as a young teenager that I grew hard at the sight of them, but those images of carefully coiffed, sometimes completely shaven, meticulously arranged specimens of female genitalia were, I suddenly understood, so obviously composed, so clearly intended as artifice, that I felt, looking at my lover, as if I were seeing a cunt for the first time.
The more I stared, the more uncomfortable she became. “What are you looking at? Is something wrong down there?”
And when I didn’t respond right away, “Answer me!”
“You’re beautiful,” I answered, and I know it sounds like something out of a romance novel, but the words came in a whisper, and I looked up at her and I smiled, and then I tried in everything I did next with fingers and my lips and my tongue to make sure she knew I meant what I’d said; and when she asked me to fuck her, her words, not mine, tears–but how do I write this without sounding like I’m bragging? How do I make you see that this memory, even more than it makes me feel good about myself (which of course it does), humbles me and fills me with awe and gratitude–tears were filling her eyes. It was, she explained as we lay together afterward, the first time a man had told her she was beautiful “down there,” much less made love to her in a way that convinced her he really meant it.
“And all those other times,” I wondered to myself. “What had I meant then? What had she understood my meaning to be?”
The fundamentally alien universe that a woman’s experience of sex is to me. That mine is to her. So fully do we romanticize heterosexual lovemaking as a communion of souls, a synthesizing of opposites, the fulfillment and expression of our deepest emotional needs, that it’s easy to forget just how inaccessible the interior landscapes of male and female sexual embodiment are to each other. Or, perhaps more to the point, how strongly this romanticization invites our forgetfulness, encourages, even mandates that we refuse to see just how deeply, when it comes to sex, physical differences divide us.
When I began this essay, I was teaching an independent study project in creative nonfiction with two women, each of whom wanted to write about gender and sexuality, exploring specifically the meaning and consequences of the childhood sexual abuse she had survived. One of the books I asked them to read was Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse, which is too often, and inaccurately, understood as arguing that heterosexual sex is by its nature–man penetrating, woman penetrated–a tool of the patriarchy and therefore exists almost solely to demean and exploit women. Given the way Dworkin writes, this is not a difficult misreading to come to, especially for college sophomores who are encountering her ideas for the first time, and so when my students asked me whether Intercourse should indeed be read that way, I suggested we discuss the following quote from the section called Occupation/Collaboration: “The political meaning of intercourse for women is the fundamental question of feminism and freedom: can an occupied people–physically occupied inside, internally invaded–be free [...]?”
Easy to misinterpret and dismiss–after all, how can a woman who willingly has intercourse be understood as having been occupied and invaded, with all the connotations those words carry of warfare and colonization?–Dworkin’s question is less about any given woman’s personal experience of intercourse than it is about the nature of female identity. For while a clear distinction exists in most people’s imagination between a woman’s experience of rape and her experience of the kind of intercourse to which the term lovemaking is meant to refer, focusing on that distinction tends to obscure the fact that heterosexual intercourse is also generally understood in our culture–perhaps along with menstruation–to be the defining moment of femaleness and womanhood. More to the point, and this is what I understand the crux of Dworkin’s question to be, if a woman cannot be understood to exist fully as a woman until her body has been “physically occupied inside, internally invaded” by a man, then it doesn’t really matter how tender and/or loving and/or intensely pleasurable intercourse is for her. The freedom of her body was already compromised, by definition, not merely before she had sex, but even before she was born. If, in other words, intercourse is what makes a woman a woman, or, perhaps more precisely, if what makes a woman a woman in patriarchal culture is her capacity for being genitally penetrated–which means intercourse is both an expression and confirmation of her gender–then the question arises whether the difference between the kind of intercourse most people describe as lovemaking and the kind we call rape can accurately be described as one of kind. Maybe, Dworkin is asking, this difference is more properly described as one of degree, since in each case a woman is fulfilling the mandate of her socially prescribed gender identity.
I’d come to class prepared with references to passages in my students’ own essays that helped to demonstrate the validity of Dworkin’s question, but something in the
ir eyes told they’d already gotten it and that to say more than what I have paraphrased above would have been both superfluous and self-serving. For now matter how important I thought Dworkin’s question was, it would never mean the same thing to me as it did to them, and so I fell silent, letting the room fill with the gap of otherness that had opened between us; and it was in this silence, watching the faces of these two women who had placed their trust in me both as a teacher and, given what they wanted to write about, as a man, that my imagination made the leap that was the starting point of this essay: Had I lived a different life–that of my parents, for example, who married when they were in their very early twenties–one of those two women was young enough that she could’ve been my daughter. I don’t mean that I felt fatherly towards her, or that she saw me as a father figure, but this abrupt awareness of the age difference between us brought me back to a conversation my wife and I had been having about whether or not to conceive a second child. I thought about how, if that still-hypothetical offspring turned out to be a girl, she would grow up–I would have to raise her–in a world where the validity of Dworkin’s question inhered, inescapably, in the fact of her body. I thought about how I would, from the first moments of her life, face this daughter across the same terrain of difference that was separating me from my students, and I thought about how, precisely because she would be my daughter, that silence would not be an option.
“And so what,” I almost asked myself out lout, “what will I say to her?”
Cross-posted at It’s All Connected.