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 Tinder dating app isn't just about sex – it's about friendship, too. And sex

The lines between sex, love and friendship are blurrier than ever, as I found out quickly while using the app.

The first time I met someone using Tinder, the free dating app that requires users to swipe left for “no” and right for “yes” before enabling new “matches” to chat, it was an unqualified success. I should probably qualify that. I was newly single after five years in a committed relationship and wasn’t looking for anything more than fun, friendship and, well, who knows. A few weeks earlier I had tried to give my number to a girl in a cinema café in Brixton. I wrote it on a postcard I’d been using as a bookmark. She said she had a boyfriend, but wanted to keep the postcard. I had no date and I lost my page.

My Tinder date was a master’s student from Valencia called Anna (her name wasn’t really Anna, of course, I’m not a sociopath). When I arrived at the appointed meeting place, she told me I was far more handsome IRL (“in real life”) than my pictures suggested. I was flattered and full of praise for the directness of continental Europeans but also thought sadly to myself: “If only the same could be said about you.”

Anna and I became friends, at least for a while. The date wasn’t a success in the traditional sense of leading us into a contract based on exclusivity, an accumulating cache of resentments and a mortgage, but it had put me back in the game (an appropriate metaphor – people speak regularly of “playing” with the app).

According to Sean Rad, the co-founder who launched Tinder in late 2012, the service was invented for people like me. “It was really a way to overcome my own problems,” he told the editor of Cosmopolitan at an event in London last month. “It was weird to me, to start a conversation [with a stranger]. Once I had an introduction I was fine, but it’s that first step. It’s difficult for a lot of people.” After just one outing, I’d learned two fundamental lessons about the world of online dating: pretty much everyone has at least one decent picture of themselves, and meeting women using a so-called hook-up app is seldom straightforwardly about sex.

Although sometimes it is. My second Tinder date took place in Vienna. I met Louisa (ditto, name) outside some notable church or other one evening while visiting on holiday (Tinder tourism being, in my view, a far more compelling way to get to know a place than a cumbersome Lonely Planet guide). We drank cocktails by the Danube and rambled across the city before making the romantic decision to stay awake all night, as she had to leave early the next day to go hiking with friends. It was just like the Richard Linklater movie Before Sunrise – something I said out loud more than a few times as the Aperol Spritzes took their toll.

When we met up in London a few months later, Louisa and I decided to skip the second part of Linklater’s beautiful triptych and fast-track our relationship straight to the third, Before Midnight, which takes place 18 years after the protagonists’ first meet in Vienna, and have begun to discover that they hate each others’ guts.

Which is one of the many hazards of the swiping life: unlike with older, web-based platforms such as Match.com or OkCupid, which require a substantial written profile, Tinder users know relatively little about their prospective mates. All that’s necessary is a Facebook account and a single photograph. University, occupation, a short bio and mutual Facebook “likes” are optional (my bio is made up entirely of emojis: the pizza slice, the dancing lady, the stack of books).

Worse still, you will see people you know on Tinder – that includes colleagues, neighbours and exes – and they will see you. Far more people swipe out of boredom or curiosity than are ever likely to want to meet up, in part because swiping is so brain-corrosively addictive.

While the company is cagey about its user data, we know that Tinder has been downloaded over 100 million times and has produced upwards of 11 billion matches – though the number of people who have made contact will be far lower. It may sound like a lot but the Tinder user-base remains stuck at around the 50 million mark: a self-selecting coterie of mainly urban, reasonably affluent, generally white men and women, mostly aged between 18 and 34.

A new generation of apps – such as Hey! Vina and Skout – is seeking to capitalise on Tinder’s reputation as a portal for sleaze, a charge Sean Rad was keen to deny at the London event. Tinder is working on a new iteration, Tinder Social, for groups of friends who want to hang out with other groups on a night out, rather than dating. This makes sense for a relatively fresh business determined to keep on growing: more people are in relationships than out of them, after all.

After two years of using Tinder, off and on, last weekend I deleted the app. I had been visiting a friend in Sweden, and took it pretty badly when a Tinder date invited me to a terrible nightclub, only to take a few looks at me and bolt without even bothering to fabricate an excuse. But on the plane back to London the next day, a strange thing happened. Before takeoff, the woman sitting beside me started crying. I assumed something bad had happened but she explained that she was terrified of flying. Almost as terrified, it turned out, as I am. We wound up holding hands through a horrific patch of mid-air turbulence, exchanged anecdotes to distract ourselves and even, when we were safely in sight of the ground, a kiss.

She’s in my phone, but as a contact on Facebook rather than an avatar on a dating app. I’ll probably never see her again but who knows. People connect in strange new ways all the time. The lines between sex, love and friendship are blurrier than ever, but you can be sure that if you look closely at the lines, you’ll almost certainly notice the pixels.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad