This post is about sex, sex, sex. (Ears perked up?) Well... it's about sexual reproduction. (Droopy yet?) More specifically, it's about women's feelings surrounding sexual reproduction and their lady-bits. (I know, I know. I do try to not bring this stuff up at dinner parties...) It's also about a word I made up: Venusimo. Maybe you'll know what I'm on about.There have been times when I’ve felt so confidant and proud of my abilities in the arenas of sex, fertility, gestating, childbirthing, breastfeeding, and mothering.
I’ve felt totally high on myself for getting pregnant on the first try. I’ve felt so gorgeous sporting a big, hard, beautiful, round belly. I avow my finest hour to be giving birth in a candle-lit blow-up Mr.Fishy-pool without an epidural. I’m also proud of having produced an abundance of buttery breastmilk that nursed my squalling little infants into the plumpest little coochy-coos on the block. Don’t even get me started on the multiple orgasms. Oops, I’ve started…let’s just say I may sing songs usually reserved for sporting victories during what is referred to as afterglow.
These positive experiences have all contributed to my sense of feminine sexual prowess. They have empowered me with the feeling that I can best describe as the female equivalent of virility.
I’ve also felt the opposite of that. Like when I had a miscarriage. When I was diagnosed with cervical cancer and slated for a hysterectomy. When I couldn’t latch my baby on without a parade of lactational consultants and a nipple shield. I felt incapable as a woman. I felt the opposite of maternal empowerment. Of course I did.There’s nothing unusual about my feelings, I’m sure. The thing that strikes me as really odd, though, is that there is no word in the English language to express what I’m talking about. There is no term for the female equivalent of virile. Virility is, by definition, a masculine quality. It means to have "the nature, properties, or qualities of an adult male; specifically : capable of functioning as a male in copulation." (Miriam Webster) There is no antonym to express capability in functioning as a female in sexual reproduction. There's no word for being hot in bed, a Fertile Myrtle, growing a healthy baby in your belly, pushing it out your woo-hoo, and feeding it with your milky bosoms – and doing it well.
One can say a woman is very feminine or that she is womanly and that certainly means something – something the opposite of manly – but it’s not what I’m getting at. The adjectives feminine and womanly could describe someone who can’t parallel park, who has long hair, has even longer phone conversations, makes delicious apple crisp, and can really hold a grudge – not what I’m getting at. And I certainly don’t mean ladylike – which is more about the things you don’t do. I’m talking about something much more sexual than ladylike. I’m talking about the feminine equivalent of machismo.
Date: circa 2009
1 : a strong sense of feminine pride
2 : an exaggerated or exhilarating sense of feminine and maternal capability in arenas of sex, sexual reproduction, and mothering
It’s easy to talk about the things that make men feel more or less macho because we have the right vocabulary. If a dude gets canned at work and has to stay home with the kids while his wife (who made more money in the first place and everyone knows it) takes over the breadwinning, it’s easy to understand how this makes him feel like less of a man. There are G-rated movies shown on airplanes about this.
If a man can’t get his wife pregnant or just can’t get it up we have a word for that – impotence – and it’s easy to talk about and understand the ways in which this condition undermines his sense of manliness. I shudder to think of the volume of stand-up-comedy and e-mail spam written on this subject.
Virility and potency are quantifiable male sexual qualities. Machismo is something we just know the definition of. But the opposite – feminine virility and fertility and reproductive capability are non-quantifiable. We don’t have a vocabulary to describe a woman’s sense of power or disempowerment in regards to her abilities as a sexual creature.
If a woman isn’t physically able to get pregnant, of course this affects her sense of Venusimo. Likewise if a woman is very fertile she will feel a sense of pride, of Venusimo. I’ve heard boasting. I’ve done it myself.
If a woman isn’t able to, or struggles with breastfeeding, it impacts her feelings of Venusimo at a time when, due to crashing hormones and the newness of the role she finds herself in, is especially vulnerable.
Low libido or the loss of sexual sensitivity of course affects a woman’s sense of Venusimo.
Medical interventions in childbirth affect our sense of Venusimo. If we have to be induced, or have a C-section, for example, it takes away our sense of sexual fitness.
It’s very easy to understand this in terms of male virility – a man wants to sire his children naturally, without the use of doctors, pills, turkey basters, laboratories, and especially without a series of concerned spectators tsk-tsking the lack of progress he’s making. It is simple to understand why the need for interventions would hurt his manly pride.
But it is hard for a woman to describe her desire for a vaginal birth, or a natural birth because we don’t have a concept of women’s sexual strength and self-hood as derivative of childbirth.
This whole subject, Venusimo, lies where gynecology and feminism intersect. I understand these are enormously popular subjects for people to feel squeamish about.
I think it has something to do with our society’s way of desexualizing childbirth. We want to separate the social categories of sex and sexual reproduction. Why this seperation is necessary, what societal advantage it might convey, I absolutely couldn’t tell you. But I’ve heard people, sane, well-educated people, explain to me that childbirth has nothing to do with sex. Um... yeah.
After the birth of my first child, I was trying to wrap my head around the concept of Venusimo and childbirth. I hadn’t yet invented this term but I wanted to talk to people about how natural childbirth empowered me and how I thought the very elevated rate of C-sections in North America disempowered women by making them feel less sexually fit. I'm not saying women who need C-sections should feel crappy about themselves, I'm just speculating about how I would feel to discover that I “needed” surgery to do something that my mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, great-great-greatgrandmother, etc. all were able to do naturally. I'd get over it, but it would shake me down. And a full-third of women in North America are getting shaken down these days, despite the WHO's warnings that a healthy rate should be between 1-5 and 1-10.
“No way,” a couple who were close to me and who had just had a pretty straightforward hospital birth including an epidural after a really long labor told me. “Childbirth is not a sex-thing, it’s just a medical thing. Needing a C-section is just like needing glasses or getting your tonsils removed. Other women don’t feel that way, it’s just you.”
Years later, after we’d both had our second babies, that mother came over to meet my newborn and inquired about the birth. I told her my labor story.
“What about the pushing part?” she asked.
“Way easier than the first time,” I told her. “He was out in like, ten pushes.”
“Mine was out in six,” she shot back.
Now what, if not Venusimo, was this chick boasting of?
I really, really, really don’t think it’s just me.
I once watched an episode of the Mom Show in which Dr. Know-It-All was debating home-birth vs. hospital birth with a panel of women. One was a very articulate mom who had obviously done her research before coming on the show and had the onerous task of explaining to Dr. Know-It-All why she choose to have a homebirth. What her argument came down to was that home birth is just as safe, if not in fact safer, than hospital birth and that the experience of childbirth was, for her, beautiful and empowering.
Dr. Know-It-All’s response was something along the lines of “I don’t give a crap what kind of experience you have, all I care about is the baby’s health—in the rare instance that your baby would need emergency medical care it wouldn’t be there because you selfishly choose to think of yourself and your feelings and your psychological health, none of which matter one iota, especially to a doctor who has real and important things to think about.” (yup, I’m paraphrasing – I wish I could find a transcript of the show to quote.)
Now I’m going to go out on a limb here and say of course her experience matters! Of course her sense of self matters! And not just to her – to the brand new centre of the universe who is going to be very dependent on her after he or she is born. Venusimo makes for more confident moms and a confident mom is better equipped to raise confident kids, n’est pas?
When women talk about their feelings surrounding a C-section they usually sigh and say they wish they could have had a vaginal birth but it didn’t work out. Then they, or someone else, asserts that they had a healthy baby and that’s the only important thing. And everyone agrees that is the important thing.
But is it the only important thing? Aren’t women’s feelings of sexual fitness, of Venusimo, just as important as men’s feelings of sexual self-worth, of manliness, of virility? Doesn’t a woman’s lack of confidence in her self as a sexual being – someone who should be equipped, by the biological definition of being a woman, to get preggers, push a baby out of her hoo-hoo, and feed it with her mammaries matter at all? Shouldn’t it, just maybe, warrant at least one little word in the English language?
Because, Dear Readers, it matters to me.
Now tell me, am I just yaking with my lady-parts or am I on to something?
You might also like:
Childbirth: The Ordinary Miracle
Effects of Devaluation of Childbirth on Women's Self-Esteem and Family Relationships by Gayle Peterson, Ph.D.
"When a mother's self esteem is undermined, family relationships suffer as well. Perhaps it is possible for us to validate and share our female experiences in a manner that would build rather than devalue a woman's sense of self."