In a world that has incessantly been biased towards men, there are various social activities that continue to normalise this trend. The ubiquity of male genitalia in art and religion is one such process by which cis-heterosexual men’s superiority is normalised. Representations of female genitalia, on the other hand, are still concealed and criticised because of the taboos associated with it. Genitalia (both male and female) has always been used in symbolic imagery, which needs to be unravelled in order to make sense of the ever-flourishing biases surrounding them.
The phallic figure is an omnipresent symbol. While we are aware of how the phallus is reiterated as slang in films and television shows, it is also popularly preached as a holy figure (India), as a museum (Iceland), as a pompous festival (Japan) – and that’s barely scratching the surface.
Sofian Khan, in his video project The Dickumentary, traverses the thousands of ways in which penises have been exhibited and unravels facts about them. The hour-long documentary with footage from different cultures in itself suggests the ubiquity of the male genital organ.
Genitals as An Art Form
The Icelandic Phallological Museum exhibits the phalluses of different specimens from all over the world. With a collection of over 280 penises and penile parts, the museum witnesses thousands of visitors on a yearly basis. An entire museum dedicated to penises sounds amusing, but by far, the museum hasn’t faced any major criticism. In fact, the museum is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Iceland and is a point of discussion in various international scientific forums.
On the other hand there is not a single museum wholly dedicated to vaginas. There are small exhibits as part of larger museums (like MONA), and there is a virtual museum dedicated to vaginas. The sheer lack of a physical space only for the vagina is indeed problematic.
Art forms and representation is another way in which a symbol or an object gains authenticity and popularity, and phalluses have always been heavily represented in art forms across time and cultures. Greek art sculptures have always shown male genitalia clearly depicted, but female genitalia is usually shown as smooth, unbroken skin, due to it being a source of shame and vulgarity.
Scholars believe that the reason behind this difference emanates from the patriarchal urge to erase imagery of feminine power. Jane Caputi wrote in her 2004 book – Goddess and Monsters: Women, Myth, Power and Popular Culture – “While the phallus is deified, its female symbolic equivalent is everywhere stigmatised. It became synonymous with irrationality, chaos, the depths and common.”
The phallic figure continues to find space in various art exhibits and in even on giant walls. In Bhutan, walls are painted with giant phalluses to ward off evil. The inhabitants also wear them as lockets and put them right above their main doors to ward off the evil eye. The ubiquity of phallic figures in Bhutan has been documented by Ms Karma Choden in her 2014 book – Phallus: Crazy wisdom from Bhutan. Apart from shedding light on the evolution of phallic symbols as a sign of luck, she also talks about the essence of the tradition. “The phallus represents the centre of the male ego, and not the celebration of sex”, reflecting the power dynamics behind the representation of phalluses.
Genitals as Sacred Symbols
Genital worshipping is another tradition which hypothetically imposes the idea of male superiority in the society. The famous Japanese Kamara Matsuri, a.k.a the Festival of the Steel Phallus, is a time when participants parade phallic shaped figures to pray for good fortune and fertility. The tradition is a part of Shinto religion and is held annually in different parts the country. Similarly, the Bourani festival in Greece is yet another festival where people parade around a giant red penis to celebrate fertility.
India also has had a rich tradition of worshipping genitals. The Shivalingam is believed to be a representation of the penis and can be found in almost every nook and corner of the country. As per the scriptures, there are twelve main Jyotirlingas and thousands other Lingas in India. Although the lingam is believed to be a unified symbol of both male and female genitalia, but no ritual is dedicated to the goddess that is believed to lie beneath the Lingam.
Some scholars argue that vagina worshipping too was also part of ancient tradition in various cultures but subsequently declined. Catherine Blackledge, author of The Story of V: A Natural History of Female Sexuality, talks about how skirt lifting, or “ana suromai,” was once thought to help ward off evil and increase crop yields. Ancient Greeks paraded around cakes shaped like vulvas during the Syracusan Thesmophoria festival. While male genitals are still worshipped and is a part of various festivals around the world, ancient festivals venerating female genitalia continue only in a few cultures.
Amid thousands of Shivalingam temples, there is only one temple in India where the ‘Yoni’ (womb) of the goddess Kamakhya Devi is worshipped. The temple is called Kamakhya Devi temple and is located in Assam. The famous Ambubasi festival is held annually to celebrate the monthly cycle of the Goddess. The main idol of the temple is covered with red cloth. Ironically, menstruating women aren’t allowed in the inner sanctorum. Similarly, the Raja Parba festival in Odisha is another festival that celebrates menstruation and female sexuality.
However festivals celebrating female sexuality are only limited to a few regions in India. As explained by various scholars, the possible reason behind the downfall or unpopularity of such a tradition dates back to the Buddhist era. “The shunning of sexuality can be traced to the monastic orders. Buddhism tells us how Buddha outsmarted the daughters of Mara to find freedom from suffering.”, says eminent mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik.
The prominence of male sexuality over female in sacred domain has been further discussed by Peggy Reeves Sanday in her book on Female Power and Male Dominance: On origins of Sexual Inequality. She says, “Generally speaking, when men dominate, women play an inconsequential role in the sacred and secular domain. Almost always in male-dominated societies, the godhead is defined in exclusively masculine terms.” The unpopularity of vaginas as sacred symbols in India validates the above statement.
In this time of penis glorification, some communities and individuals are experimenting with different styles of art to challenge the ubiquity of male genitalia.
A UK-based Science YouTuber Florence Schechter launched a campaign an year ago to set up world’s first vagina museum. “There is a penis museum in Iceland. Which is pretty cool. But there is no vagina museum. Anywhere. In the world,” says Schechter. According to a news report, she was “pretty miffed” to discover this and therefore decided to rectify the absence of a vagina museum by planning to make one. Apart from this, there is already a virtual vagina museum which provides information about the wide variety of vaginas across the world.
Vagina art is another revolutionary trend where women are using various creative means to debunk the myth around female genitals. Georgia O’Keeffe, who is known as the mother of American Modernism, is famous for her paintings of flowers that looked like vaginas.
Eve Ensler’s play “The Vagina Monologues” has garnered worldwide attention. It is a fictional series of accounts based on interviews conducted with women of different races and ages about their relationship with their bodies. The stories ranged from traumatic childhood sexual experiences and first menstrual experience. The series has also crossed the borders to reach India where Mahabanoo Mody Kotwal adapted the play for Indian audiences. Contextualising the play to local issues, Kotwal has managed to touch upon a range of controversial subjects (like menstruation, sexual crimes etc.) which are usually hushed and never spoken aloud in public. Predictably, the play faced flak from producers and local administrations but was also critically acclaimed in other factions.
These unique styles of harnessing different art forms to spread awareness about female sexuality have pushed back against the overwhelming representation of male genitalia in art and society. They are a positive step towards normalising female sexuality and the female body and breaking taboos associated with them. However, we urgently need more of these initiatives to normalise it to the level of male genitalia.
Featured Image: Andy Warhol’s ‘Penis’. Image Source: Widewalls