Photo credit: Sonu Kishan/AFP/GettyImages.
Snapshot
  • Since time immemorial, men have been afraid of the woman’s most private part. The easiest escape is to just blame it on biology.

Vagina is a curious word, indeed! Originating from Latin, the etymology of the word actually dates all the way back to the 1680s whence it basically meant a sheath or a “scabbard”. For those of you who are too lazy to consult a dictionary or Google the word on your smartphones or aren’t really into fencing (although you are into women… no pun intended), a scabbard, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is a “close-fitting cover for the blade of a knife or a sword”.

Well, to say that the etymology of the word that is used to describe a woman’s private part is rather curious would actually be quite an understatement. But it is curious nevertheless how a woman’s genitalia is actually compared to a “close-fitting” cover where one would symbolically (and sometimes in reality) thrust a weapon such as the sword or the knife (and sometimes… even iron rods). Then again, to be completely and brutally honest, it sure does call out for some serious deliberations, if not in-depth psychological assessments.

The first comparison is rather obvious, and deals with the clear allusion to a “close-fitting” cover. As I once-upon-a-time wrote in another article of mine, “Warranty Void If Seal Broken” (Swarajya, February 2015), such is the penchant of man to stick himself into the smallest virginal hole he can find (wonder what it says about his own private-part girth) that women in order to fit “into” this man-made allusion have now started resorting to surgical illusion. Thus, whether it is a simple hymenoplasty that guarantees to spill a little blood or a supervaginoplasty that promises to leave the woman as tight as an oyster, women too have been living up to this strangely contorted and constricted part of the etymology with respect to the female anatomy.

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The second, of course, is the etymology of the word itself and the strong imagery it espouses. Why would anyone (in their right mind) ever want to refer to the female genitalia using words wherein you start picturing dangerous weapons such as swords and knives being thrust inside? What is it about the female vagina that inspires both violence and violation, and which probably lie at the very heart of the increasing sexual violence against women, irrespective of their chronological age?

Well, to answer that, we actually need to take a closer look at the time period when the word itself came into the picture.

As stated earlier, the word “vagina” originated in the 1680s… and if you’re historically inclined, you already know that this was the period that is infamously referred to as the “burning times” – a term that refers to the systematic witch-hunting and witch-burning that began around the mid 15th century and extended all the way up to the early 18th century.

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In fact, to understand just how powerful a motif women-hatred had become during the Renaissance, all you really need to do is browse different textual sources of that infamous period. For instance, a simple reading of Malleus Maleficarum, a treatise written in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer, a German Catholic priest, reveals the dangerous devouring prowess of the carnally enlightened witches, who could use their glamour to cause the male “member” to disappear. (Poof… it’s gone… Sorry, men!)

Of course, what’s truly strange is that the same sentiment has been repeated ad nauseam by all prominent thinkers of yore, including Aristotle, who believed that women were born with a natural inferiority, for which there was no remedy or cure. Sadly, this charge by the great thinkers that women were inherently more evil – and therefore capable of devouring men (probably in the same fashion as the praying mantis) – was never questioned, with prominent thinker Tertullian (155-240 CE) going as far ahead as calling women’s vagina “the devil’s gateway”. (Note: Of course, it is still rather strange though… for I fail to understand why men still kept making appointments to see the devil!)

In fact, Spiro (1997) too found a similar belief in the rural areas of Burma, where he discovered an interesting verse in the Buddhist holy script, The Book of the Discipline, where Buddha warns men: “It is better for you, foolish man, that your male organ should enter the mouth of a terrible and poisonous snake than it should enter a woman. It were better for you, foolish man, that your organ should enter the mouth of a black snake, than it should enter a woman. It were better… that your male organ should enter a charcoal pit, burning, ablaze, afire than it should enter a woman.”

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Then again, considering that it was a woman who brought about the Biblical fall of man from grace (thanks to her original sin… never mind the serpent), it is not really surprising to note the brutal treatment that has been meted out to women, especially those who dare speak their minds. In fact, during the burning times, such dissenting women were called “scolds” and could be and were legally punished. Basically, we are always on the lookout to silence the “talking” vagina. (Note to Self: Mallika, if it already has lips and teeth, it can probably talk as well.)

Of course, while the father of psychotherapy, Sigmund Freud, dubbed it simply a “castration complex” prevalent amongst men (refer to “Let’s Get Into Medusa’s Head”, Swarajya, April 2015) that basically was a fear of emasculation, the simple truth is that man has been afraid of the vagina, and for far too long. The strange fear, in fact, becomes even more strange if one simply consults a strange folklore – The Tale of the Toothed Vagina, or what is formally referred to as “Vagina Dentata”, a Vagina with (Freakin’) Teeth. (Note: I mean… just how paranoid can men really be, which is why I am now wondering if the chastity belt was meant to save the woman’s “toothy” vagina or a man’s “disappearing” penis?)

While the folklore of Vagina Dentata – an actual vagina that basically bites off the penis – actually dates as far back as the stories in Greek mythology, it somehow also became the basic premise and the source of inspiration for the 2007 movie, aptly titled Teeth. Although, if you are busy shaking your head in disbelief, I would like to reveal that there has been one recorded real-life case in 1989, where a benign embroid tumour – with actual “teeth” – was found to be growing inside a woman’s vagina. (Well, talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy!)

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Thus, the fear of the “penis-devouring” vagina is certainly not a new concept. Man has, since time immemorial, been afraid of the vagina, which probably also explains why the Hollywood star Michael Douglas blamed the vagina for his oral cancer. (You too can, in fact, go ahead and blame Vagina Dentata for all the droughts and the famines and the murders and the earthquakes… probably, even the ISIS!)

Truth be told, maybe biology is to be blamed. After all, it was biology that made it possible to know a man’s length but made it difficult to know a woman’s depth, cursing the penis forever to its ultimate destiny, which is… to enter a vagina, enlarged and triumphant, but to leave, defeated and diminished!

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