Jesse Bering, of the Scientific American column Bering in Mind, has taken a bit of a man-hating beating this week. Over what? Cervical mucus. That’s right. Women’s post-sex discharge mucus, used to expel excess semen.
In a recent column, Bering half-jokingly commented that researchers poring through two-day-old female cervical mucus must have “stomachs of steel.” In response, a sex educator and blogger, Dr. Nagoski, went on a rant about his anti-feminist attitudes that undermine the supposed glory (or, in her words, “intelligence”) of female cervical mucus.
His amusing response is the backlash that his critic deserved. However, it still leaves something to be desired.
Awhile ago, I went to an acupuncturist for help with irregular and intensely painful periods. She asked me point blank what types of mucus I excrete at different times of the month. I was like, lady, I have no idea. So she taught me the different types of mucus, which stages of my cycle they indicate, and how to tell if I’m ovulating. It was like a revelation. In all my science classes, sex-ed, or gynecology appointments, the practical daily functioning of women’s bodies was never discussed (and I never asked). So I had no idea if my body was normal, and I sort of assumed I was weird. Turns out, I wasn’t weird at all. Just a little ignorant.
I would imagine that there are many other women who are also a little bit ignorant, assuming that sex ed hasn’t dramatically improved in recent years (which I highly doubt given the plethora of abstinence programs in schools now). The result, if we aren’t adequately educated about our own bodies, is that we naturally struggle to engage in a cultural dialogue that could imbue women’s mucus with a benign sense of normality, rather than the fear or repulsion that often comes with otherness. In our silence, we remain distinctly ‘other,’ and our own perspective on ourselves takes on a judging and shameful quality.
So yes, Dr. Nagoski was way over the top (can anyone really “LOVE the word mucus”?). But what if we operate under the assumption that she is responding out of frustration toward a broader cultural dialogue and that her reactivity may also arise out of an honest soft spot of insecurity?
In many cultures (arguably including our own), semen is seen as an essential life force. It is revered and imbued with power. Women’s fluids, on the other hand, get no such status. Menstrual blood is commonly seen as ‘unclean,’ and vaginal discharge is widely described as gross or smelly (remember middle school?).
In fact, women are often expected to actually want to swallow semen (given, most men will give us a break on this one). But would men ever willingly swallow a teaspoon or more of vaginal fluid, shot projectile into the back of their throats? I highly doubt it. Most of them are probably cringing at the thought. It’s okay, I am too.
Bering’s comment could be perceived as upsetting because it fits into a larger cultural dialogue that tends to assign power to men’s bodily fluids and deviance (or even disgust) to women’s. I would argue, though I don’t have anything more than anecdotal evidence, that this attitude is so pervasive that women often adopt it unwittingly, causing the insecurity that Dr. Nagoski’s rant betrays.
Let’s step back and be honest for a minute: Neither women’s nor men’s fluids are particularly savory. So there’s no need for a contest over whose is better. And there’s no need to pretend like both are so amazing that they should be revered. But perhaps we can all agree that both are equally natural, sexual, and sometimes a little bit gross?
Unfortunately, nothing is communicated in Dr. Nagoski’s post because she’s too reactive to sound rational. She sounds like that cringe-worthy brand of man-hating feminism that most women do not identify with, no matter how ardently we support women’s rights and equality.
To illustrate the impact of her attitude, Bering cites an interesting study, which showed that men and women alike associate negative words with feminism, suggesting that the negative connotations of a feminist identity might deter women from calling themselves feminists. (Note: This gets to some of the issues discussed in the comments section of my Lady Gaga post, about why Lady Gaga might hesitate to call herself a feminist).
You certainly won’t find me loving the word mucus, or demanding recognition for my cervical mucus’ “beauty and wonder.” But perhaps Bering could be moved to admit that he’s prodding a soft spot when he calls cervical mucus cringe-worthy. We’ve heard that a bit too often.