Rights or Revolution. By Gay Liberation Network. flickr
The last few weeks have been interesting. First up, I was bored and channel surfing and I came across the ABC’s Hungry Beast at the beginning of a report of cosmetic surgery on female genitals. This is apparently becoming popular in Australia. It’s performed by plastic surgeons on women who think their genitals need a bit of a tidy. As I come from the generation who thought it revolutionary to crouch over the mirror and have a look, I was immediately engrossed in this report. I thought it might tell me how far we’d come.
How do you actually know your genitals need tidying, I wondered idly, as my revolution didn’t consist of a wide-scale comparative survey of loads of others. And this is where it really got scary.
The soft porn industry in Australia is allowed to publish images of female genitalia. However, these images may not be too explicit. You can’t show too many bits. So the photographs are airbrushed, with the result that the women in these magazines are portrayed as having genitals that are more likely to belong to a pre-pubescent girl.
In a wonderful example of a Baudrillardian nightmare in which the virtual not the actual has come to define what is ‘normal’, I learned that women and oftentimes their partners are taking these airbrushed models as guides to the way women’s genitals should be. The mature genitalia with their wrinkly bits and pieces are now perceived as imperfect. We can, and some think we should, get our genitals surgically deconstructed and reconstructed to look like we looked when we were ten.
The processing of photographs was described by porn industry air brushers as altering the appearance of the “vagina.” This confused me greatly for a while, being as the vagina is the inside bit. It seemed even more frightening than slicing up external bits. But to my relief the reporter explained that the industry prefers to use the term “vagina” rather than the term “labia,” due no doubt to some bizarre desire not to offend by being explicit.
I then watched in anguished disbelief as we were taken into the operating rooms of a plastic surgeon who was in the process of injecting anaesthetic into the genital area of an attractive young woman. After a bit of chat, and then getting down to some business we couldn’t see as he was filmed with his back to the camera, the surgeon emerged triumphant from his flurry under the blue sheets, holding aloft a piece of bloodied skin that immediately put me in mind of Van Gogh’s severed ear. It was, in fact, a good-sized chunk of one of the young woman’s labium.
Barely recovered from this, I next encountered the appalling treatment of Norrie by the NSW government. Norrie was registered as male at birth. Norrie began hormone treatment at 23 and then had surgery to become a woman. Norrie has since stopped taking hormones and identifies as neither sex. Norrie had become the first person in the state to be legally recognised as without gender.
When I heard this news, I was delighted. This is a great step forward for our society, I thought. At last we have matured enough to acknowledge difference, and to free ourselves from the cultural brainwashing that would have us imprisoned for life in limiting binary gender categories, and their at times crushing roles.
People like Norrie are, in my view, heroic vanguards of the better world that is there for us if we can only liberate ourselves from these entirely constructed (frequently by religions, then supported by the State) concepts of what is “normal” and what is “natural.”
But my pleasure was short lived. In a disgraceful turnaround, Norrie was stripped by the NSW government of the right to be legally recognised as genderless on the grounds of some obscure twaddle dragged out of some obscure twaddle book, specifically for the purpose of calming the fears of red-necked twaddlers everywhere who couldn’t get their heads around Norrie’s circumstances and just wanted it all stopped. The NSW government capitulated to these fear-ridden, angst-ridden, deeply threatened voters, and stopped it.
One step forward. Ten steps back. Norrie has vowed to fight on.
Finally, J.M. Coetzee. Who is one of my favourite authors and who is currently reading his novel “Youth” on ABC Radio National’s Book Show. I will state right now that it is not acceptable for the views of narrators and characters in a novel to be attributed by the reader to the novel’s author.
The narrator of Coetzee’s novel is describing the character’s first homosexual encounter. A shabby, impersonal encounter with a stranger that leaves the character feeling isolated and unsatisfied.
Prior to this encounter, the character wonders if he is homosexual and if that were the case, would this “explain his woes from beginning to end?”
After the encounter the character decides that homosexuality is a “puny activity…a game for people afraid of the big league…a game for losers.”
I first mused that some heterosexual encounters could be described as puny. The lack of connection and sense of distaste after engaging in impersonal and furtive sex is not confined to homosexual activity. The lack of interest in a partner as anything more than a means to achieving gratification as quickly as possible then let’s zip up and clear off is an un-gendered state of mind. Women do it too. The uncomfortable emotions it can lead to (but aren’t inevitable if you haven’t been looking for anything more) are un-gendered. While we have different bits, men and women and un-gendered people do share human emotions, many of which appear to be similar in certain situations.
So I decided that Coetzee’s character was on the wrong track – it wasn’t the homosexuality of the encounter that was puny it was the nature of the encounter itself. As long any character doesn’t grasp that, that character is doomed to reproduce the grotty experience regardless of their partner’s gender or if the partner has no gender at all. This isn’t an issue of sexual preference. It’s just sad sex.
I then thought that this characterisation of homosexual sex as something for people who can’t manage heterosexual sex, or who are losers, is very much alive and well and abroad in the world. Homosexual sex often isn’t thought of as “real” sex, heterosexual sex is held up as the “real” mature expression of sexual love. “Real” blokes have sex with women, and if you tell a bloke to “man up” the last thing you mean is go have gay sex.
In the same way that Norrie’s lack of gender is now not legally recognised, gay marriage is still not permissible in this country, and probably for some similar reasons. Marriage can only take place between a man and a woman, trumpet those who oppose, and it will be devalued if gays and lesbians and un-gendered people are allowed to do it too.
De-valued? De gays and de lesbians and de no-gendered people will strip the institution of marriage of a mysterious value that is only brought to it, that can only be brought to it, by heterosexuals?
What, one wonders, can that value possibly be?
Have these objectors ever stopped to consider that we live in a world in chronic need of all the love it can get, I wonder. So perhaps we have a sacred (in the sense of not to be disrespected) responsibility to celebrate love, including sexual love, wherever it appears, between men and men, women and women, un-gendered people, or women and men.
Apart from anything else, the refusal to recognise Norrie’s situation, and that of gays and lesbians who wish to marry, contravenes the human rights of all parties involved.
But not to worry. As long as we can still get our genitals sculpted we can be justifiably proud of the democracy in which we live.
I have wondered if this surgical procedure is available for men, and how many are taking it up. But which bits are considered the untidy bits?
I once had a fellowship at a writers’ retreat. There were several other writers present and after a hard week’s work, we took ourselves down to the pub. Everyone had a few margueritas and on the last round, a woman among us who had been very quiet in social situations up to that point, suddenly became raucous. She wanted to propose a toast, she said, to the best crowd of women she’d come across in a long time.
“Up yer flaps, girls!” she roared, and all the men at the bar turned round to stare. “Yair, that’s right mate,’ she sang out again, lifting her glass and her middle finger in their direction. “Up yer flaps!”
This article was first published in On Line Opinion, 26.03.2010