The denial of female sexuality is a form of oppression which has echoed down the ages: some of the censorship of the female sexuality we see in modern day media and literature is not a far cry from that in Victorian media and literature, a historical period which harboured a culture notorious for the repression of sexuality, and one that in many ways, we regard generally as being so far from our modern society.
The notion of denial in this sense is ambiguous and layered. One element is the denial of the very existence of the female sexuality, and the other the denial of the woman to traverse and express her own sexuality.
For an example of such female oppression in historical literature, we may look to one reading of Goblin Market, an 1862 narrative poem by Christina Rossetti. This reading through a feminist lens explores how the poem is a social critique by Rossetti of the treatment of female sexuality in the Victorian era. It interprets Laura’s malady following her yielding to the temptation of the goblins’ ‘fruits’ as a punishment for her expression of female sexuality, damning her to the status of the fallen woman. Although other critics may argue that Rossetti has in fact countered the notion that the ‘fallen woman’ is irredeemable and damned to a life of sorrow by bringing her back to good health and blessing her with a child as the narrative draws to a close, this is, in my opinion, merely a demonstration of a dangerous antiquated literary technique, which has spilled over into mainstream society and into our everyday dialogue even today: the Madonna-whore complex, in which women are categorised either as saintly, pure Madonnas or debased and promiscuous prostitutes.
As I have mentioned, this complex is not one which has remained neatly within the bounds of archaic literature. Instead, its core idea is one that has escaped into the mainstream. I would go so far as to say that it has become ingrained into even the most liberal of modern minds as a form of internalised misogyny or judgement of if/how women choose to express their sexuality.
It is easy to discern, simply listening to the modern conversation regarding female sexuality, that women today are, in more colloquial and contemporary terms, regarded largely as either ‘sluts’ or ‘prudes’. This is merely one example of how antiquated judgement on the expression of sexuality has bled into our supposedly tolerant society.
Another point of potent and unnecessary stigma surrounds the female sexual organs themselves. This is a stigma and censorship which, in my experience, stems from early childhood, where many children, especially young girls, are failed by both the education system and their parents in terms of their education on female sexuality and sexual organs, perhaps not even being taught the correct anatomical term of vagina – it is branded as a dirty word, being replaced with those perceived to be gentler on the tongue – flower, for instance.
Female sexual pleasure is also greatly overlooked, a disheartening and curious fact given that as a society we are so obsessed with the male orgasm, to which pages upon pages of medical textbooks are dedicated. The world is in essence a shrine to the male orgasm, utterly ignoring the presence of female pleasure.
However, despite the unfortunate denial of female sexuality which still prevails in modern society, there are influential women working towards the liberation of their own sexuality, and those of billions of women whose desires and pleasure have been censored.
One such woman is the artist Phoebe Crossing, whose project Viva La Vulva Casting (@vivalavulvacasting on Instagram) aims to destigmatise the vulva through the creation of stunning casts. These casts aim not only to educate people on the infinite variation in appearance of the vulva, but also to serve as a tangible reminder to women to reclaim and love the parts of themselves which have been ingrained as objects of shame within their minds.
In summary, the responsibility to destigmatisation of, and the journey to liberating the female sexuality should not befall a small number of women – we should all be making a conscious effort to unlearn the lessons we have been taught, and uproot the shame we have been forced to feel, regarding not only the complex expression of sexuality, but the female body itself.
However, we should also admire the fervent passion and dedication of powerful women such as Phoebe to the cause of liberation of female sexuality and the female body, and their contributions to helping women feel confident in reclaiming their rights to express, or not express, their sexuality.