Sunday, 4 July 2010

The horrifying truth

Ever since Eve first waved her Cox's Orange Pippins at Adam, female sexuality has been portrayed as the pinacle of terrifying temptation. Bite the fruit and you'll pay the price.

Most cultures, unsurprisingly the patriarchal ones, have all developed their own folklore concerning the imaginary dangers of sexually active women. It's a handy way of passing the buck - like stealing a newspaper and then blaming the newsagent for displaying it in the first place.

One of the most enduring myths is that of vagina dentata. Engineered to put the fear of God into tumescent young men, the legend warns people of the perils that await their overeager member if they go diddling where they shouldn't.

Only recently, writer/director Mitchell Lichtenstein made a film exploring the concept, suggesting that the ridiculous concept is still very much alive and well. 'Teeth' tells the tale of a young high school student who discovers that not all her bicuspids are in her mouth, which gives her an evolutionary advantage when she 'becomes the victim of male violence'.

The film wasn't a big hit (I guess audiences only want to see beavers with big teeth if they live in Narnia and talk like Dawn French). Or perhaps they didn't like the idea of the vagina dentata myth being reclaimed for female empowerment.

Bizarrely, that's precisely what's happened in South Africa where a terrifying new prophylactic has been developed to protect women from the all-too-real threat of rape. Invented by a doctor called Sonnet Ehlers, Rape-aXe is essentially a female condom, but with one major difference: "jagged rows of teeth-like hooks line its inside and attach on a man's penis during penetration." Once it's lodged into place, only a doctor can remove it.

There's no denying Ehlers' good intentions - she sold her house and car to finance the project, and set out to donate 30,000 units during the World Cup. But I'm not sure that this cross between Chinese handcuffs and a Venus Flytrap is the most effective solution for South Africa's vulnerable female population.

Critics have pointed out that the device constantly reminds women that they're a potential victim and can cause its own psychological traumas. And since rape is usually about violence and control, rather than sex, someone finding themselves suddenly clamped into a medieval torture device is unlikely to leave quietly, putting the woman at further risk of attack.

A 2009 report by the South African Medical Research Council found that a horrifying 28 percent of men surveyed had committed rape. Dr. Ehlers' heart may be in the right place, but her device certainly isn't - it's going to take much more than a folklore nightmare realised in rubber to turn the country's attitudes to sexual violence around.

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