Dear Virginia…

One of the features selected by The Independent for re-publication in I, its spin-off  experiment in combining tabloid format with broadsheet quality, is the weekly Dilemma and accompanying advice from resident agony aunt Virginia Ironside. Yesterday we heard from Adrian, who writes:

Dear Virginia, Ten years after I was diagnosed with HIV, my parents cut me out of their will, leaving everything to my sister and her children. They reasoned that I would die early and have no children and wanted their possessions to remain in the family. I was devastated and remain so. It’s not the money, but their possessions would give me a sense of place, a belonging, and a remembrance of my early life. What should I do? Yours sincerely, Adrian

Warning that she “hates to say this,” Ironside kicks off by asking: “are you sure that your parents have accepted your sexuality?”

That would be his… homosexuality? Bisexuality? Heterosexuality? Asexuality? We don’t actually know anything about Adrian’s sexuality, because nothing in his letter indicates whom he has sex with, nor how he identifies. The unabridged version of Virginia’s response, printed in the Independent, is even more direct: “Just because you’re gay and HIV positive doesn’t mean to say you’ll die early.” If we read this as “just because someone is gay and HIV positive doesn’t mean to say they will die early” we have a factually accurate and clued-up statement. But Virginia, dear Virginia: just because a man is HIV positive doesn’t mean to say he is gay.

When Ironside hypothesises that Adrian’s parents are “punishing” him for his “sexual orientation,” it is clear that she has assumed him to be a man who has sex with men. Which he may be – and, sadly, his parents’ actions may be driven in the way she suggests. But the fact that it is taken as read, when the letter in no way references sexuality, makes me sad. HIV status is not, and has never been, a reliable diagnostic tool for categorising someone’s sexuality. The fact that people are still using it as such seems to me to matter for two reasons.

Firstly, let’s think about prejudice. Homophobia and the stigmatisation of HIV have been buddies since the ’80s. Like a couple of bullies at the back of the classroom, feeding off one another’s general nastiness, they just need to be separated. This can only happen if we all – however well-meaning, queer-positive and accepting of HIV we are –  keep our assumptions in check.

Secondly, perpetuating the link between gay men and HIV encourages complacency amongst those who fall outside of the demographic. When it comes to risk and STIs, it’s how we fuck, not who we fuck, that we need to focus on. Regardless of the genders and genitalia involved, using protection when one person’s semen, vaginal fluid or blood could enter the body of another person is what matters. Knowing the gender of someone and their partner[s] does not mean that we know how (or whether) they have sex. To believe otherwise is not only presumptuous, but a little unimaginative.

I hope it’s clear that the content of Adrian’s letter was not my focus here. Nonetheless, I’d like to conclude by acknowledging how hurtful his situation sounds, and wish him all the best.


Give ’em the old Razzle Dazzle

How better to start my blog than with an article about vajazzling?

For those unacquainted with the term, to vajazzle is to affix glitter and crystals to one’s vulva. I’m not making this up. The trend seems to have been gathering momentum for about 18 months, and is now mainstream enough to warrant a report on the BBC’s Newsnight earlier this week. Vajazzling.com has a handy FAQ section, but strangely it doesn’t list “WTF?!” – sure the most frequently asked question about the bejewelling of the vajayjay. Apparently we have Jennifer Love Hewitt (remember her?) to thank for bringing the term into popular parlance after she discussed a post-break-up vajazzle on a talk show last year.

The Wikitionary helpfully notes that the term combines “vagina” and “bedazzle,” defining the latter “to confuse or disarm by dazzling”. Now call me unambitious, but I’ve never aspired to confuse or disarm people with my vulva. If I did, I think gluing craft supplies on there would be quite a good start, so perhaps the vajazzlers are on to something. The official vajazzling site, though, tells us that the practice is for “aesthetic purposes”, which highlights the BeDazzler’s place in vazzling’s etymology. The slogan of this rhinestone-fastening gadget, popular in the U.S. in the 1970s, asks “How do you take something from dull to dazzling?” It’s an innocent enough question when it comes to revamping jeans, but makes me feel somewhat defensive as I think of my unvajazzled lady parts.

Apparently the idea is to “decorate” the vagina. Does the vagina need to be decorated? It’s not a Christmas tree or a guest bedroom. To be clear, vajazzling is done after a “Hollywood” wax: the crystals are sadly not, as a friend of mine suggested, “surfing” in the short & curlies. So first you pay to have all your pubic hair removed, and then you pay some more to have jewels stuck on where the hair used to be. I can’t be the only person to whom this seems, at best, a gigantic waste of time. Perhaps it’s intended as some sort of gift to a partner: like buying someone a bunch of flowers, pulling all the petals off and wrapping the stalks in tinsel before delivery.

There is some debate about how much vazzling has to do with pleasing or attracting men, but it is certainly marketed in those terms. Strip (the UK’s “premier waxing destination,” apparently) advertises specials for weddings and Valentine’s Day, and boasts that their designs are “fun and flirty”. Surely you’re past the flirting stage once someone is face to face with your mound of venus? As for fun… I want to believe it, I really do. I am the last person to judge anything that makes sex between consenting adults more fun for them. But I keep remembering a night out a few years ago: I was with some female friends and a guy one of them had hooked up with a few times was at the bar. When we asked her if she was going to go home with him again, she told us (in absolute earnest) that she “couldn’t” that night because she was overdue a bikini wax. If vajazzling adds metaphorical as well as literal sparkle to your sex life, good for you. But anything that prevents people from having sex with tried-and-tested lovers because they are so anxious about their bodies seems to me to be the polar opposite of fun. I admit that “I can’t tonight, I’m not vajazzled” seems far-fetched, but my mum assures me that “I can’t tonight, I have pubic hair” was unheard of in the 1970s.

I’m far from the first feminist to note the various problems with the increasing demand for women to have little to no pubic hair. Being told – verbally or through incessant and increasingly pornified imagery in the media – that our bodies are not acceptable in their natural state assaults women’s self-worth, not to mention bank balances. You’re looking at around £50 for a bikini wax, £65+ for a vajazzle, or £175 for Strip’s charmingly titled “Showgirl”, which seems to be a depilating of the entire body so exhaustive as to seem frankly medical. One Strip customer told Newsnight that she gets waxed because it keeps her “clean and hygienic.” This line of thinking is particularly bizarre: imagine someone waxing off their eyebrows and plucking their eyelashes out to keep their eyeballs “clean and hygienic”.

Perhaps the most commented-on ick-factor of the cult of hairlessness is that it makes the vaginas of adult women look like those of little girls. I hope I don’t need to explain why that’s creepy. Vajazzling seems to take this infantilising a step further: grown women are invited not only to look like little girls, but to behave like them too. While the creative energy of female children is increasingly channelled towards making various things sparkly, female adults are expected to to find “fun” in the act of gluing glitter to their shorn genitalia. Hair removal and vajazzling is glossed as “intimate grooming”, a euphemism which suggests that between my legs, rather than a sophisticated sexual organ, I have a My Little Pony. I can’t help but feel that the vajazzling phenomenon is indicative of a society in which women’s bodies are so relentlessly objectified that women themselves are beginning to see dolls where people should be.

On the other hand, perhaps I’m reading too much into it all. Vajazzling comes from Hollywood, after all, the world in which Kanye West can replace his teeth with diamonds (a story I genuinely thought had been made up by The Onion) without anyone batting an eyelid. Fashion is fleeting, ridiculous and always in search of a new blank canvas, and not everything requires a feminist analysis. In which case, I’ll look forward to this kind of thing catching on. Wayne Rooney will be gutted that he spent £12,000 on his hair transplant when follically-challenged men start gluing bling to their scalps. Until Baldazzling hits the headlines, though, I’ll be here, thinking that it’s probably got something to do with gender.