The politics of porn and pubes: from the public to the personal
Joanna Whitehead // 16 February 2010
Around six years ago, I had unfortunate sex with an unfortunate fellow. It was unexpected and we ended up fumbling around in his bedroom. When we paused for him to put on a condom (one saving grace), he looked between my legs, looked back at me and tugged my pubic hair, pronouncing, “This has got to go ” I was young – and absolutely mortified. Rather than turfing him out of his own room and branding his behind with “this boy is bad for women’s self esteem”, I squirmed and giggled nervously, before getting back down to business. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t much fun after that, and I sure as hell didn’t feel very sexy.
Last Thursday, I went to a talk at the Women’s Library in London entitled ‘The Politics of Appearance’. As is often the case at such events, the audience question and answer session at the end proved to be the most telling and thought-provoking discussion of the evening. One woman put up her hand to say that she had a 20-year-old daughter who refused to go for a cervical smear unless she’d had a Brazilian. A smear test is a standard medical procedure, not Girls Gone Wild. Why should the poor woman feel such shame? Why was it so important for her to be trimmed and “tidy”? And, why was I embarrassed, rather than incensed?
For the uninitiated, a “Brazilian” is when all your pubic hair is removed except a neat “landing strip” of hair on your pubic bone. They have become de rigour amongst many women, some of whom apparently consider anything resembling natural pubic hair as “grim” or “gross”. Why is this?
One response to this question argues that the increased availability and (some could argue) prolificacy of pornography in society has seeped through from the public to the personal domain. Virtually all females in pornography are shaved and plucked within an inch of their life, and many people view this online and then request it or expect it from their real-life sexual partners.
If feminism is about choice, then women who make the decision to embrace the Brazilian, in isolation, should be respected (although as we don’t live in a vacuum, such a choice is no mean feat). Those who succumb to peer or partner pressure, body issues or unrealistic images of femininity, should also be respected, at the same time as being treated with compassion and empathy. The politics of disgust are hugely complex and it’s not easy to stand tall and furry while people crinkle their noses in disgust at you.
More worrying is the reality that looking at pornography is increasingly many teenagers’ first exposure to sex and sexuality. I acknowledge that in some instances it may offer an educational insight but, for the most part, pornography presents a very distorted image of sexuality. Female roles and basic female physiology is particularly problematic; available women with a very specific and narrow body type (in every sense of the word), who tend to perform rather than engage, is not the most positive representation of consenting sexuality, a concept I believe to be absolutely crucial for young people.
My escape from feeling insecure and inadequate about my body was increased security, maturity – and feminism. I still wouldn’t be 23 again, with all the body insecurity, loathing and shame that this entails for the average female. Let’s hope that time enables the 20-year-old referred to above to feel more comfortable in her own body.
Exploring feminism, educating myself and gradually accepting myself as I was my salvation. And it’s a work in progress. That and recognising that a partner who pulls your pubes without your permission is no rock and roll fun at all.