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January 01, 2006

Daphne Merkin and "genital cartography"

I don't usually read the New York Times Magazine on Sunday, so I would have missed a beauty of a column if I hadn't stumbled across it at the Ace of Spades HQ.

Daphne Merkin's column, which is called "Our Vaginas, Ourselves," and I'm absolutely not making that title up, is a pathetic effort to entertain us with her obsession about her private parts, or is it her obsession about a lack of obsession? The distinction is lost in the complex architecture of . . . oh, shut up.

These are cruel times for vaginas. Lately, as if I don't have enough to worry about, with the deadline on various unkept 2005 resolutions fast upon me, I have begun obsessing about various aspects of my genital appearance. Take my labia minora, for instance. Tucked away as those intimate folds of flesh are - hidden in the underbrush, you might say - I have never given them much thought, except as they relate to experiences of sensual pleasure. Ditto my labia majora, which dutifully served their purpose in guarding the entryway to what the Victorians would have quaintly referred to as my maidenhead. As for the much vaunted hymen (named for the Greek god of marriage), mine remained intact longer than most thanks to my slow-blooming erotic life, until such time as a boyfriend's patient late-night exertions finally parted me from it at the age of 25. Needless to say, its absence - much less the idea that I might be harboring a deep sense of nostalgia for this tiny piece of overinvested membrane, might indeed be secretly yearning to reclaim it - hasn't so much as crossed my mind in the intervening years.
But Merkin is way late, out of date, and behind the cutting edge. I wrote in December about hymenoplasties, and I wrote more than a year ago about "vaginal rejuvenation" surgery, which the Times itself described as "surgical techniques to enhance sexual satisfaction and improve the looks of the genitals."

So Merkin continues in a lame effort to find deep meaning in the female genitalia:

Indeed, it has always seemed to me that one of the singular advantages of being a woman lies precisely in the "dark continent" quality of our genital cartography. If we women don't get to stalk around flaunting our virile equipment the way men do, we also don't have to deal with locker-room slights or bedroom disparagements. We carry our signs of arousal - our receptivity - on the inside, as opposed to the straightforward jack-in-the-box readability of men. And although it's true that the very structural inaccessibility of the vagina may lead to difficulties with body image (how do you go about envisioning something you can't see?), it also serves as a kind of protection against the relentless judgment - the fierce critique - of every pixel of our appearance that women, far more than men, are inclined to. Men may have begun to worry a bit more about their drooping jowls than they used to and may be the target of those abject penile-enhancement ads that pop up all over the Internet, but 90 percent of all cosmetic procedures are performed on women. So having one less visual surface to commodify - to narrow our eyes at accusingly, checking out for acceptability or desirability in terms of size, shape and firmness - leads me to offer up silent thanks for small favors of chromosomal destiny.
And this belongs in the New York Times why? One of Ace's readers suggests declining readership. One could equally say that the Times's only remaining readership is a bunch of aging Upper West Side baby boomer women who want to read this stuff.

As for me, I read it because, well, because it's my job. It's my job to bring you the latest musings of the neurotic twits who write for the New York Times. Especially if they're writing about genitalia. It's a lousy job, but someone's got to do it.