My book partner Jill Posener once made a presentation on lesbian photography to
an art history class. One of the
young men students had a demanding question for her. "How is it,"
he said, "that you can say 'cunt'-- every time you refer to women's
genitals? If I said 'cunt', to my girlfriend or anyone else, I'd get the back
of her hand!"
Lesbians have actually made the world a safe place to say cunt...if you respect the proper historical antecedents. 'Cunt', of course, is a woman's vagina and vulva, her pussy, her private parts, her sexual pleasure. It's also been used as a pejorative since the early 20th century. My father Bill Bright, who was a linguist (and curious to boot), investigated the word for me:
"There are related words in Dutch and the Scandinavian languages," he said, "So it has probably been in English as long as the language has existed. The oldest printed occurrence is from 1230, when a list of streets in London included 'Gropecunt Lane'. That suggests that the word was not especially taboo at that time.
"In 1400 a medical textbook says: "In wymmen the necke of the bladdre is schort, and is maad fast to the cunte" - so apparently it was respectable terminology then.
"But in 1622 I found a source which jokingly spells it as "sunt", suggesting that there was some taboo associated with it at that time.
"It's interesting that use of the word as an insulting term not for the body part, but for a human being, is quite recent. The oldest printed record is only from 1929: "What's the cunt want to come down 'ere buggering us about for ...?" I can't tell whether the reference is to a man or a woman. But in 1932, George Orwell used it in referring to a man: 'Tell him he's a cunt from me.' "
While the women's clitoris is the proper pleasure analogy to the male penis, in terms of Western art, women's sexuality has traditionally not focused on their genitalia. Feminine sexuality is typically shown by her curves, her breasts, her hips-- or even, in the most risqué fashion, her bush.
What lies beneath her bush has only been detailed by two groups : hard-core pornographers and lesbian/feminist artists. Male-oriented Hustler magazine and the lesbian underground press have been the two places you could count on seeing woman's cunt displayed for arousal. The difference between the two (besides the audience) is that, in lesbian work, the cunt comes in every authentic style, and her presentation is narcissistic, impudent, even grand.
There is no great secret to the meaning of genital portraits-- they are as unique as faces, and they carry all the meanings we associate with women's orgasm, menstruation, childbirth. They are a symbol of life and joy; and in the same way that the phallus is often celebrated, cunt pictures are undeniably a signature for power. A strong woman, in this understanding, is not afraid her cunt, either of looking at it or of naming it. She can appreciate other women's cunts for their beauty and their audacity to be displayed, as well as their signal to arouse.
Although there have been a million conflicts in feminist politics over eroticism and sexuality, there has always been a unified camp regarding the need for women to love their genitals. Enjoying masturbation is practically considered an accomplishment among feminists-- rather than something one would take for granted, as most men do.
There is a special feminist homage to be made in any discussion of cunt portraiture, to Betty Dodson, the enormously talented writer and painter who literally changed the female world when she self-published Liberating Masturbation in 1974. Her descriptions of solo sex were accompanied by her exquisite illustrations of many different women's pussies.
woman was lucky if she saw Dodson's illustrations as an introduction to female
sex. Commercial porn is often the first opportunity a woman gets to see
what other women's vulvas look
like,which can be both thrilling and misleading.
Hairlessness, which can be evocative and beautiful for the camera, is nevertheless bewildering when it is shown as the norm for adult females. Lesbian cunt portraits are sometimes shaved, but more often hairy, sometimes shown off the way a man might display his hairy chest. In one of Tee Corinne's cunt portrait, from her "Isis" series, the pubic hair is silver white with age (and presumably with commensurate pussy wisdom).
The first lesbian criticism of cunt pictures came only in the 1980s, not because of any puritanical distaste, but because many lesbians felt that the image had become the only picture that was acceptable to the community. that daring to show women's faces and fantasies was the territory that was ignored in the cunt-positive presentation of women's sexuality. Some women felt like the association between cunt and nature was condescending and old-fashioned.
The best cunt photographs show more than just beautiful composition. Cunt imagery is not necessarily "ovular''. It can be very aggressive, e.g., when a cunt adopts a cock-like attitude, as seen in photographs by Phyllis Christopher and Jamie Griffiths. Lesbian cock-consciousness is just the latest twist on cunt: proclaiming big clits, the dildo as genital signifier or gender distorter-- a symbol of lesbian braggadocio and desire.
Morgan Gwenwald's "Incorrect View of the Beloved" is one of my favorite cunt shots. She focused straight up from the floor into a headless woman's pussy, showing an angular figure with her hands on her hips and her cunt in your face. Gwenwald's tongue-in-cheek title says it all-- satirizing the claim that women are objectified when their genitals are exposed so blatantly, when their facelessness is judged as anonymity. I may not know this Beloved's name, but she is anything but a blank sheet of paper. Her cunt is not so much being peered at, as it is advancing upon us.
Women's genital portraiture would simply not be controversial if there was not such a strong taboo against nudity and female self-knowledge. Because a women's vulva and clitoris are not as apparent to her as a man's, she is not guaranteed their visibility unless she parts her lips, holds up a mirror, and looks. A man simply gazes south and there it is. Girls are brought up to protect their virtue, in part, by preventing them from exploring their genitalia. Fortunately, those preventive measures have failed over and over again.
From Nothing But The Girl: The Blatant Lesbian Image- A Portfolio of Lesbian Erotica Photography, by Susie Bright and Jill Posener. All the photos described here, you can see in the book.