America can be two-faced when it comes to women and sex. A lion’s share of advertising and other media pushes sexual content and innuendo into our homes with the force of a raging tsunami. Simultaneously, we are endlessly rebuked for our immoral ways of thinking about issues related to female gender issues. At the center of it all is the P-word. Some find the P-word detesting; others love it like crazy and use it every chance they can get.
From soap operas to soap ads, we’re bombarded by suggestive words and images. A lot of folks believe, and I count myself among them, our popular culture is devolving. But we live in a free market economy, sex sells and America is buying. Yet when it comes to the most natural things related to women, such as speaking aloud a legitimate word in the course of a human rights (pro-choice/pro-life) discussion, our collective consciousness gets turned on its head.
By now many of us are aware of the incident in which Michigan State Representative Lisa Brown was censured in the legislature for saying the word ‘vagina’. The following day she was barred from speaking about anything on the floor of the House, which caused a firestorm nationwide.
“What she said was offensive,” said Rep. Mike Callton, according to news reports. He reportedly went on to add, “It was so offensive, I don’t even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company.”
Rep. Callton’s rebuke of Rep. Brown reminded me of intolerant expressions spouted by Archie Bunker, TV’s fictitious patriarch from the hit sitcom “All in the Family.” Back in the ‘70s, such references to anatomical parts served as fodder for comedy writers as Americans struggled to come to terms with often irrational insecurities about issues like women’s rights.
But instead of berating politicians, we should be thinking about why that word conjures such an inflammatory connotation. Why are we so uptight when it comes to human sexuality? The duality of America regarding sex, especially as it relates to women, is as dizzying as it is conflicting. To quote a line from a movie: ‘Look but don't touch. Touch, but don't taste. Taste, don't swallow.’
This calls into question, at a time when ‘damn’ and ‘hell’ can be uttered with impunity on television and radio, why the word vagina – the correct and proper name for a part of female anatomy – conjures such discomfort among men and women, myself included. Although I don’t find it offensive, I do find it challenging to write it in this column, let alone say it aloud in mixed company.
A few days ago, several thousand people from around Michigan traveled to Lansing. There, on the steps of the state capitol, noted playwright Eve Ensler joined legislators who presented the controversial stage production titled, The Vagina Monologues. A fair number of men attended and participated in the demonstration. One can only guess but my hunch is most folks rallied to exercise their freedom of speech and also support women’s rights.
Which brings us back to the P-word: power. In nearly all facets of American life, who ultimately has the power to decide who gets to say what? An intelligent guess might be: it’s the ones at the top of the political process food chain, as well as those who head up corporations and systems, including the ones that produce, promote and distribute the gaudy cosmetics, sexually alluring fashion and racy television shows. And surprise, surprise; it’s not women.