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The Female Sex, A Motif

As a girl, I imagined the fruit of the Virgin Mary’s womb as a bunch of red grapes.

March 2, 2021

Deanne Gertner
// Two Women Embracing (1913) by Egon Schiele.

ysteria comes from the Greek meaning “of the womb, suffering in the womb.” The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates believed the womb restless and wandering. Though the only place it tends to wander is out the vagina through uterine prolapse. Which happened to my maternal grandmother immediately after the birth of my aunt Christine, her fifth child in ten years. I imagine my grandma’s uterus — tired and stretched and over its wifely/motherly duties, slinking out after the placenta. She’s been uterus-less for over 50 years now.

Placenta comes from the ancient Greek meaning flat plate or flat cake. Let them eat placenta, says Web MD: “You could dry it and put it in pills. You could stir-fry it with onions. You could even eat it raw in the delivery room.” The eggplant we ordered on my thirty-third birthday came blackened, squashed, its sides splitting open, on a white metal plate. “It looks like placenta,” Jennifer said. We laughed and divvied it up. 

As a girl, I imagined the fruit of the Virgin Mary’s womb as a bunch of red grapes.



For a long time, orgasm was only thought of in terms of men. Female orgasms were demoted to paroxysm (from Medieval Latin meaning “irritation, fit of a disease”). Historian Rachel Maines hypothesized Victorian doctors performed medically-prescribed hand jobs as a routine treatment for melancholy wives. Her theories (while contested) survive. You can picture why. It takes the average woman twenty-plus minutes to achieve orgasm. In an eight-hour shift (four hundred and eighty minutes), you could treat twenty-four women (by hand). 

A (male) doctor invented the first electric vibrator as a medical device for men. According to sex historian Hallie Lierberman, “The only sexual uses he suggested were vibrating men’s perineums to treat impotence.” A brief, personal history of vibrators: Alotta Joy, a five-inch personal massagerpackaged similarly to an Almond Joy candy bar — proclaiming it fun even without the nuts — was received as the give-away at a cousin’s bachelorette party by the stripper-turned-sex-toy-sales- lady host. The deceptively named Magic Wand came highly recommended by some girlfriends, but suffered from spotty power surges despite having a cord. I then procured The Rabbit, a combination rotating dildo combined with a bunny-eared clitoral vibrator made famous by Sex and the City, midway through a fourteen-month dry spell. Pièce de résistance.  

JWT Intelligence, a center for provocative thinking that focuses on identifying shifts in the global zeitgeist, called 2017 the year of “vagina-nomics” due to the rise of female-designed, female-pleasing sex toys infiltrating the market. 

Pussy Galore, a trapeze artist turned cat burglar turned crime boss, was ranked second in a poll of favorite Bond girls by Entertainment Weekly in 2007. In 2011, LoveRance debuted his single UP! (Beat the Pussy Up) which climbed to the number two spot on the US Billboard Hot Rap Songs. 

Eleven years after Donald J. Trump bragged “…you can do anything…grab them by the pussy,” the American people elected him 45th POTUS. This spawned the creation of the Pussyhat™, a hot pink knitted hat that references both cat ears and labia, meant to symbolize women’s empowerment in the face of misogyny. Pussy meanings include: cat, diminutive of puss; a term of endearment for a girl or woman; to play pussy was WWII slang for ‘to take advantage of cloud cover, jumping from cloud to cloud to shadow a potential victim or avoid recognition;’ slang for ‘female pudenda.’ Additional meanings may also stem from Old Norse for pocket or pouch, the Low German puse for vulva, or possibly a double entendre from the French le chat – soft, warm, furry thing. 

Meret Oppenheimer’s iconic sculpture Object, an ordinary department store teacup, saucer, and spoon covered in the tan, speckled fur of a Chinese gazelle, simultaneously attracts and repels one’s lips. MoMA’s descriptive text about the work ends in: “Imagine drinking from it, and the physical sensation of wet fur filling the mouth.” Once, my ex-boyfriend of nine years fished out a hair (originally growing on my head) from my vagina. As he pulled and pulled, the hair horrific in its infinite length, I wondered how long it’d been in there, if in fact it had been growing in my dark and damp all along. The second man I slept with always brushed his teeth immediately following his going down on me. 


Meret Oppenheimer // Object

The word cunnilingus calls to mind cunning from the Old Norse kunna meaning “know” and linger from the German längen meaning “to make long(er).” Judy Chicago’s seminal installation, The Dinner Party, features thirty-nine place settings that pay homage to an important woman in history. The artist depicted each woman’s pussy as a fourteen-inch diameter porcelain plate giving new meaning to the phrase “eating out.” 

The last time my ex and I had sex before we broke up he said, “I’ve really been into pussy lately,” despite the fact that we hadn’t had oral sex in months. Six months later, I came to find out he’d been bestowing the favor upon a girl ten years my junior. A man I once worked with told me how he had — while severely drunk, of course — given head to a woman on the rag, which the Urban Dictionary defines as “Mexican lipstick.” He hadn’t realized it until he looked himself in the mirror later that night.  

Menses comes from the Latin for month which in German is related to moon. Though the moon conspicuously lacks blood, it controls the body tide. A body cannot menstruate unless it has sufficient mass (typically 17% body fat.) The earth’s mass includes the atmosphere — but not the moon — and is 81 times greater than its natural satellite. (The moon.) The average amount of blood lost during menstruation is one fluid ounce or two tablespoons which is less than 1/185th of the body’s total blood. 

Blood Moon // Deanne Fortnam

At my sixth-grade outdoor lab trip to Mt. Evans, my classmate, Diana, got her first period or menarche (meaning month beginning.) For five days, she hiked, shot arrows, tracked deer, and tasted lichen with a blossoming stain on her crotch. I can’t imagine that no one had a pad or tampon to give her. But maybe she foresaw the future of period panties (which can hold up to two tampons’ worth of blood.) 

At an outdoor dance performance this spring, I bled through a Tampax Super in an hour. Thanks to the darkness of both the night and my jeans, no one knew. And then afterward at dinner, I bled through another in even less time. Menorrhagia is defined as abnormally heavy or prolonged menstrual bleeding which can be caused by hormonal imbalance, ovarian dysfunction, uterine fibroids, polyps, IUDs, pregnancy complications, cancer or inherited bleeding disorders among other causes. At the time, I could not afford my urgent care co-pay and self-medicated with 600 milligrams of ibuprofen, Fruit Punch Gatorade, and a pillow between my legs. Martin Luther said, “Blood alone moves the wheels of history.” It can just as easily move the wheels of a Friday night.

Joyce Carol Oates says, “We are linked by blood, and blood is memory without language.” Think of those discarded tampons and pads, over 45 billion per year, forgotten memories each and every one. On a single day in 2015, the Ocean Conservancy collected 27,938 used tampons and applicators on beaches across the globe deposited via sewer systems. Flushed out to sea. I once worked with a woman whose septic system backed up in part from years of improper tampon disposal, her yard a bloody (cottony) mess.

Ashley Fetters in her 2016 article for The Atlantic, “The Tampon: A History,” describes tampons as “intra-vaginal devices made from a string and a wad of something absorbent.” Tampon use can be traced back to ancient Egypt and Rome. Throughout history, women have used wool, grass, vegetable fibers, paper, and cotton as tampons. Today, most are made from cotton and rayon. Tampon comes from the Middle French meaning plug or stopper.” Now you can tamp down on Aunt Flo in Light, Regular, Super, or Super+. 

Leviticus 15:19-30 says, “…she shall be in her menstrual impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening. And everything on which she lies during her menstrual impurity shall be unclean. Everything also on which she sits shall be unclean. And whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. And whoever touches anything on which she sits shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. Whether it is the bed or anything on which she sits, when he touches it he shall be unclean until the evening.” 

In the 2007 film, Super Bad, Jonah Hill’s character epitomizes this idea of menstrual uncleanliness when he dances with a girl who leaves a smear of blood on his thigh from their bump and grind. A quick look around the party confirms those the girl has danced with and therefore marked with her menstruation of which he desperately and unsuccessfully tries to unsully himself. 

I know several people who eschew sex during That Time of the Month, but my ex-boyfriend was not one of them. His theories on the benefits of menstrual sex included: increased lubrication, reduced cramps, increased oxytocin release and therefore improved mood, more intense orgasm. Never mind the mess, the coppery/musky scent, the visceral, suctioning queefs, he said. I would like it, he said, and I did. After I (mostly) got over my squeamishness. 

A September 2014 article in The Cut by Maureen O’Connor calls men like my ex “Blood Hounds.” While there’s ample medical evidence to supports his theories, I believe he simply reveled in the post-coital look of his blood-stained penis, the idea of his appendage as a bludgeoning tool of sorts. He would even prolong his shower to let the oxblood stiffness on his pubes last, another reminder of his bloody conquest. Other men I’ve slept with, of course, have not been as enthused. One man, for example, could not contain his restlessness, opting not even to use my shower but preferring to drive twenty minutes home to cleanse himself of me. That was the last time I saw him.

“Blood is the rose of mysterious union,” said Jim Morrison. He was wrong. 

I am alone with my uterus, my vagina, my clitoris, my labia, my blood, my tampons and pads and panty liners, my single working vibrator. I am, as Mary Ruefle says, “just a girl playing at life.” And boy, is it nice.


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