Vajazzled and bemused: Laurie Penny on the latest bizarre trend

This latest trend shows that female sexual shame remains big business.

Just when you thought that there was nothing more you could do to make your genitals more acceptable to the opposite sex, along came "vajazzling". The term refers to the burgeoning celebrity craze for shaving, denuding and perfuming one's intimate area before applying gemstones in a variety of approved girly patterns. The end result resembles a raw chicken breast covered in glitter. As the name implies, this one is just for the girls - nobody, so far, has suggested that men's sexual equipment is unacceptable if it doesn't taste like cake and sparkle like a disco ball.

Surely it can't catch on. Surely, no matter how ludicrous, painful and expensive consumer culture's intervention in our sex lives becomes, nobody is disgusted enough by their own normal genitals that they would rather look like they've just been prepped for surgery by Dr Bling. Or are they?

Suddenly, my teenage friends are popping off to get vajazzled. During the biggest shake-up of higher education in generations, someone at the University of Liverpool advertised a vajazzling evening for female members of the student body who really want their STDs to sparkle. All of this is sold as a fun, pseudo-feminist "confidence boost", as if what women really need to empower themselves is not education and meaningful work, but genitals that resemble a traumatic, intimate accident in a Claire's accessories shop.

The beauty industry is constantly raising its already absurd standards for what constitutes an acceptable female body. Thirty years ago, plastic surgery was seen as the preserve of porn stars, actresses and the ultra-rich. Today, middle-class mums get their facial muscles frozen with botulinum toxin as casually as one might pick up a pint of milk on the school run; businesswomen take out loans for nose jobs and liposuction; and I can hardly turn around on public transport without seeing beaming adverts telling me how much happier and more confident I could be if only I paid a private surgeon to chop away at my healthy, living flesh.

All that glitters

Despite the downturn, 2010 was a record year for cosmetic surgery in Britain, including surgeries to help women's labia more closely resemble the plucked, blasted and sexless genitals of porn stars. Like vajazzling, labiaplasty is supposed to make one feel sexy but is a part of a creeping consumer war on sexual satisfaction.

What's most interesting about vajazzling is that it doesn't even pretend to have anything to do with pleasure. Most of the people I've spoken to who are attracted to women are bewildered by the idea of a vagina that looks like it's off to the Golden Globes without you. Vajazzling has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with the cruel logic of identikit, production-line womanhood, in which "fun" means slavish adherence to the joyless motifs of corporate pornography and "confidence" means submission to a species of surveillance whereby your nether regions are forcibly reshaped into a smile.

It's all about making us feel that women's bodies - which are supposed to smell, leak and grow hair - are shameful and need fixing. As long as the beauty and surgery industries remain profitable, female sexual shame will remain big business.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 07 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The New Arab Revolt

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder