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 Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.