Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Women and bodily functions: scratching an "inappropriate" itch

Scratching one’s balls is a common and accepted pastime for cis men in casual contexts, public or private. You won’t see many men adjusting themselves at their wedding, or at their inauguration, or coronation. But when hanging with friends, watching TV, chilling, it’s not a big deal. Men with cis privilege can do it without being chided or thought disgusting. Balls need adjusting sometimes, and that’s understood.

But vaginas itch too, and it’s not okay for women to relieve their genital prickles when they’re just chilling. Vagina is made of skin, and it’s skin that sometimes gets irritated. For me, it’s particularly bad when I shave off my bush, as I occasionally do - the two weeks after I quit shaving are usually filled with mid-conversation trips to the bathroom just to scratch. Chilling with friends is supposed to be relaxing, but as with many spaces in this kyriarchy, women have additional pressures and requirements to live up to.

I didn’t notice this disparity until my very clever friend remery scratched, apologized, and complained about it one day, but it’s true: as with many bodily functions, cis women only feel free to attend to pressing bodily urges when they are in cis women-only spaces. If we are in the middle of a conversation with a cis man, we must excuse ourselves so they’re not confronted with the horror of our ladylike hands scratching our precious flower.

But though balls are safe for cis men to scratch, not all people with testicles are quite so free to soothe themselves. As with many of the itches of inequality, people who are trans experience particular and intensified scrutiny in attending to their prickling private parts. Genital policing is not just socially awkward for trans men, women, and nonbinary people; any extra attention to the contents of their underwear can be dangerous, particularly since bathrooms are a contested space where trans people receive extra scrutiny rather than the relief of privacy. Trans women particularly have no recourse for this cissexism, since they do not usually get into the “women-only” spaces referenced above, where scratching lady bits openly is okay.

I’ve never seen a woman scratch her bits with men around, so I have no idea what the reaction would be in a mixed-sex social situation. But I do know what the reaction is when those most overwatched, overpoliced, overexposed women - celebrities - scratch themselves in public:

The animated picture [since removed] above, of pop singer Christina Aguilera scratching herself while wearing tight clothing, is described with distaste and slight disgust in the attending text. Scratching balls as a concept has 65,000 fans on Facebook, and describes the practice as "natural pleasure that is every mans god given right to enjoy at home and in public!" The image of men watching TV with their hands in their pants is familiar because of characters like Al Bundy. But scratching vagina just elicits the adjective “gross”.

Christina Aguilera is being judged because she’s a woman attending to her needs in a way the kyriarchy doesn’t like to see. Though there’s much emphasis and judgment placed on our bodies, an awareness of the needs of our bodies is more than the kyriarchy can handle.

As a woman, my body is supposed to be without functions or needs. There is a huge culture of shame and stigmatization around discussing the processes that are a natural part of our body - my menstrual cycle, my bowel movements, and my sexuality are all things that are supposed to happen for the most part alone, something I shouldn’t talk about.

Though our bodily fluids and urges are often beyond our control, we must keep them clamped down so that we can remain appropriately feminine: scratching, pooping, and bleeding are gross, and if we discuss or attend to them, we are gross.


  1. Scratching one’s balls is a common and accepted pastime for cis men in casual contexts, public or private.

    I'm not sure I'd agree with you on that at all. I've never felt that it's appropriate to do that in public or even in "private" with some friends. I can't remember ever being with someone and seeing them do that in another person's presence, to be honest.

  2. This brings up sad memories for me. When I was dealing with the worst of the vulvodynia, one of my problems was frequent vulvar itching. It would last all day or for days and maybe calm down for a few days... then come back again.

    It made work and school frustrating and uncomfortable. I'd have to leave to use the ladies room but nothing I did helped except for a topical hormone prescription, which I didn't get for a long time because my main doctors didn't think it was all that big of a deal. They did not understand the severity of the chronic itching.

    Again as with poop stuff this is something I could only discuss and hear about in support groups.

  3. K, I hadn't even considered the perspective of ableism in this, even though many people brought up IBS in the poop thread. Thank you so much for expanding the point of view of this piece.

  4. I agree, in general.

    But as a secondary note, I think your reference to Al Bundy is flawed. His character depiction is actually one that shames those kinds of behaviors in males. (i.e. don't scratch your balls, otherwise you're one of "those guys" like Al Bundy.) His character isn't the kind of character that guys try to live up to, he's a shaming depiction of a lot of the things guys fear becoming.

    But again, I agree in general. There is definitely less stigma attached to guys scratching their crotch than women doing so. Although in my experience it's still not considered appropriate for guys to do it in mixed company.

  5. The expectation not to scratch (on the outside of one's clothes, anyway) seems particularly strange. For all the sexist and heterosexist stereotypes about how men are indiscriminate hornswogglers, forever yearning to see female flesh, it seems that vulvas are still seen as being these kind of...nasty,oozy, mysterious, better-not-touch things when not in an explicitly sexual context (and then its usually the *vagina* that's the focus of attention anyway.)

    I've always thought that the various cultural expectations for women to be hairless, odourless and essentially lacking in biological functions/impulses are not disparate phenomena, but symptoms of an overwhelming pressure on women to hide their creaturely, organic selves. Perhaps because women's bodies are so culturally sexualised, envisioned primarily as a consumable (whether luscious or 'spoiled' through age, childbearing or autonomy!), any intrusion into male awareness of their actual purpose is seen as a gross imposition. Whereas default* male bodies are most often positioned as neutral (or, because of homophobia, as mildly disgusting but essentially inert, not threateningly, encroachingly repugnant) it's as though female bodies can only exist at either extreme of a dichotomy - as tantalising and arousing or repulsive, an affront to male eyes.

    (*Obviously some stereotypical/racialised characteristics such as 'excessive' body hair, the bodies of men with physically visible disabilities and the bodies of gay men are often discussed in ways that are more analogous to the cultural discourse around women's bodies, with a heightened sense of disgust/threat.)

    Sorry for the two ridiculously lengthy comments in as many days! I've just started regularly reading your blog, and really like the angle you approach things from.


  6. i have also been thinking about this and why scratching the vulva, which is just skin and meant to itch sometimes, could carry such a stigma. i think it is unspoken that vaginas are frightening things. in the film world, female characters are usually presented as savvy sexual beings who are confident in their abilities to seduce and make lots of money (or be popular in school), or they are virgins--either because they are distracted by their studies or they are deathly afraid of their own bodies. this dichotomy is, duh, problematic for lots of reasons, including this one.

    i also think that there is a stigma attached to the vagina since it is the sexual organ that is inside the body. balls are outside (high and outside! baseball pun just for you!) and more, i guess you could say, blatantly THERE, so of course they could need some adjusting and scratching. when we think of vaginal or vulvar itching, all too often, we think of something unclean or infected.

    but i just gotta itch my vag, yo.

  7. To be honest, I just don't get anyone scratching there. It's not polite. Maybe this is another regional/local/familial thing, but no one I know DOES this. Men don't scratch or adjust their balls publicly, ever. In fact, I don't think we really scratched anywhere south of our shoulder publicly where I grew up.

    For me, this continues for a number of reasons:

    One, I have OCD, and if I give in to scratching, I will begin to feel itchy everywhere and be driven to scratch, in symmetrically even amounts, on both sides of my body. This is less than awesome and has led to sore throughout my life.

    Two, because of my OCD, ignoring itching has become a sort of test of will and zen focus for me. An itch that I think will trigger my OCD if scratched is ignored, and that ability to ignore the itch becomes almost a focus for meditation.

    Three, bodies are personal to me. I don't want to know more about another person's body than they know about mine. A person scratching or adjusting their reproductive organs feels invasive to me, regardless of gender, because it draws attention to them and, in some case (with particularly rude men), is meant to draw attention in the presence of women.

    So while I don't agree, it's because I don't think anyone should really scratch in public, because, as someone who has to ignore itching for mental health reasons, I see itching as something that doesn't HAVE to be acknowledged except in the case of physical illness where itching is extreme. It can be dealt with privately, and I think rather than saying women should be able to do this publicly, people should consider the company they are in regardless of sex or gender and excuse themselves.

  8. Until i read this post i had never given much thought to why i haven't observed women openly scratching themselves between the legs in public (or at least not that i remember since i stopped drinking). Upon reflection it did seem like there was some chatter about Madonna grabbing her crotch the way Michael Jackson used to, but i guess thats not the same as adjusting and scratching openly. i have no idea why people would object to women scratching, feeling, adjusting, or doing anything else in that region any more than they do with respect to guys. It does sound like another double standard. It certainly doesn't bother me. As long as people don't stick their fingers up our noses right afterwards it seems to me that people should be able to do pretty much what they want with their own bodies. Women aren't property and they have the same right to scratch, fart, or do whatever else just as much as men do. It bothers me when some people try to manipulate and control others with guilt and it's compounded when it is done selectively. i hope Christina Aquilera and other women will start doing it more (and then some) until people get used to it.


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