“Rape, properly understood, is always aimed not just at the female sex organ but at the female brain.”
-Naomi Wolf, Vagina
I spent the month of January deeply engrossed in Naomi Wolf’s biography of female sexuality, Vagina; an incredible piece of work that successfully transformed the way my mind processed everything I have ever learned about the vagina. Wolf’s objective, outside of documenting her own brief medical misfortune, was to illuminate the neural pathways within all women which link the wiring of the sexual and reproductive organs to the lower spinal cord and directly to the brain. Furthermore, how this neurological express lane directly influences the release of hormones, ultimately affecting widespread and complex mental states and behaviors such as happiness, confidence, creativity and well being. She uses this knowledge to weed through several different facets of female sexuality in the context of our modern understanding using historical, artistic, scientific and social lenses to examine subjects such as the female orgasm, sexual violence, pornographic desensitization, and overall wellness of the female mind to name a few.
The chapter “The Traumatized Vagina” applies Wolf’s newfound understanding of not only the psychological but also the chemical connection between the brain and the vagina to that of women who have experienced trauma to the vagina through sexual abuse and rape. The revolutionary quality of this passage is not simply this connection but the understanding of our western definition of rape and how it is simply inapplicable to all situations, most specifically to that of the violent and systemic rape that is utilized by troops within war. Through this perspective, rape no longer exists solely as the act of a sexual deviant, a sadistic woman-hater or a man who believes himself entitled to conquering whomever he so chooses. It becomes deeper, more profound, in the sense that it’s not done on a personal level but on a broad scale to put in place a system of control, to effectively break a woman’s body, mind and soul, in order to force her into the ultimate submission and omission of herself.
As an example, Wolf discusses her experience with women in Sierra Leone who have become victims during their countries period of war and also her encounter with the young men who have committed these heinous acts. She also consults with Jimmie Briggs, founder of Man Up an anti-violence and anti-rape organization that works globally, but has been frequenting the Democratic Republic of Congo during this time. In Sierra Leone she met with women who have been victims of rape in its most heinous form, thousands of women who have been literally shredded internally, brutally penetrated with knives, glass, sharpened sticks and the metal barrel of a gun. These kinds of attacks often result in what is medically referred to as a “vaginal fistulas” which are tears and punctures in the vaginal wall that connects to other internal organs, i.e. the colon, rectum and bladder. In turn the damage caused is not simply the mental scarring and the physical pain, these fistulas tear apart the delicate internal high way, severing the connection between the neural networks in the vagina to the spine and reducing the secretion of specific hormones which modulate the neural substrates to women’s self value, happiness, agency and creativity. In other words, this kind of rape goes beyond our everyday understanding, it is a complete invasion of the mind, crippling a woman’s ability to feel, to connect her body and her mind. There are hundreds of thousands of women who will have undergone this merciless torture and there are thousands more that will continue to face this brutality through the orders of war commanders. Yes that is correct, these attacks are in fact a military officer’s direct command and are being carried out with devastating frequency.
In discussing this kind of sexual assault, it is crucial that in this western bubble, we do not attempt to separate ourselves from or think ourselves better than these practices; it is simply not true. America has a deep-rooted history of this military tactic. From the earliest days of settlement, the more land the settlers conquered the more bodies of native women they conquered as well. This continues into the development of the country, as the rape of female slaves was not only socially acceptable, but seen as a right to property. The truth of the matter is that this has been a weapon of war for thousands of years and has always been the ultimate form of defeat for victims.
Through these connecting parts, Wolf concludes that there seems to have been an understanding amongst men about these actions. The disgusting prevalence of this practice proves that it must have occurred to the perpetrators that this form of warfare was in reality the most effective at subduing and destroying the will of thousands of women. It is also important to note that the men who commit these rapes are not acting on their own will or compulsion; they are often young men, child soldiers, who are forced into these actions with the cold metal of a guns mouth at the back of their head, reminding them that if they fail to fulfill orders they will lose their lives.
What I am covering here is a far too brief summary of a much larger issue that deserves to be explored and discussed further. There should be pages upon pages about these brave women who despite there excruciating wounds have had the courage to move forward, to walk through barren land in search of refuge, clinging to one another for support having been abandoned or ostracized by their families. This little bit I have written fails them in the sense that you cannot completely tell of this crime. As we reflect upon sexual assault awareness this month, giving our support to those who have had to overcome sexual abuse and rape, we must be aware of the broad spectrum of these crimes, its profound history and damage.
I walk around any city, from Chicago to Rome and so on, sometimes in fear. As I walk any street late at night, I clutch my keys and a ferocity in my eyes, pray that this night is not the night I am followed, forced into a corner by a man with no where to escape. However, there are women, in all parts of the world, that are directly attacked in their home. There are entire villages that will be ravaged by a flood of men who have come to conquer the bodies and minds of women and young girls. And they too will have nowhere to escape. All forms of rape and sexual abuse will have a lasting effect on the vagina and the mind; the more we understand this and discuss it, the closer we will come to learning how to heal these wounds and perhaps discover new ways to begin to dismantle rape culture as it exists.
All information presented in this essay was learned from Naomi Wolf’s book Vagina. To learn more, pick-up your copy here!