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Human beings are born with several instinctive fears, each of which can be traced back to maximizing our furry ancestors’ chances of surviving and passing on their genes. Losing your grip on a tree branch would have made you a dead monkey — thus, our fear of falling. Fear of snakes is also understandable, considering that many species are poisonous and others would have liked to eat early hominids. And, of course, given the male tendency to try to hump everything with a conveniently sized hole, there’s the fear of putting your penis somewhere it won’t come out of again. Sex is aggressive and penetrative by nature; the thought of being caught in a situation where you’ve committed your forces but are unable to pull out is inherently terrifying — besides which, getting back less than you put in would definitely remove you from the gene pool.

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No wonder the vagina dentata is such a universal motif, showing up in myths originating everywhere from the Indian subcontinent to the Plains Indians. (It’s not true that the idea originated with Mrs. Freud’s little boy: While the good doctor did talk about castration anxiety in general, he never tackled the fanged furbox.) However, the interpretation of this symbol has changed over time. In the past, the woman with teeth "down there" was an object of fear; today, the vagina dentata approaches a symbol of female empowerment.

Like other human universals, the vagina dentata is born from our corporeal experience. Sex is an eternal choice between Scylla and Charybdis: we’re compelled by biology to do it, but it could be humiliating or damaging. Screwing makes us look ridiculous. We get sleepy afterward. Trying to obtain a mate is an ego-destroying experience that reminds us where we stand on the social ladder. Even though people rationally know that men can survive the loss of their genitalia, castration in these myths is universally associated with death.

No wonder, then, that a common motif in toothed-cootchie mythology is that the masculine part of the female must be removed to socialize her. (Take, for example, the delightful Native American tale "How Coyote Made

The theologian Tertullian noted that "woman is the gate to hell."

Woman Useful by Breaking the Teeth in her Vagina.") We’re all familiar with the frightening symbols of patriarchy — sky-fathers hurling lightening bolts, Bible-thumping televangelists, Wilford Brimley shilling oatmeal — but feminine symbols also hold power. In a patriarchal society, this is a power that needs to be tamed. The Nandi of Africa, for instance, justify female genital mutilation by explaining that the clitoris is a "tooth" that must be excised.

The Judeo-Christian tradition is no exception to this. In the apocryphal Book of Tobit, Sarah was haunted by the demon Asmodeus, who kills each of the seven men who try to marry her. To paraphrase Anne Carlisle’s immortal line from 1982’s Liquid Sky, she’s a murderer who kills with her cunt. The killing spree is halted by the archangel Gabriel, who instructs Sarah’s eighth husband, Tobias, to perform a magical ritual that drives the demon out. In the morning, Tobias is still alive and the dangerous woman, again made safe, is presumably free to make breakfast.

This sort of misogyny was appropriated by the medieval church. The theologian Tertullian noted that "woman is the gate to hell," and the artistic motif of the "hell mouth" — the gaping vagina as the literal door to damnation — gave his words concrete form. Late-medieval people believed witches could render men impotent without even touching them. In one legend from the period, a witch keeps her collection of penises in a bird’s nest; when a villager comes to get his cock back, she tells him to take any one he likes, but not the biggest and fattest, because that one belongs to the parish priest. Set against the demimonde of witches and devils with their all-consuming cunts is the Virgin Mary, immaculate and without sin, looking down from the church vaulting, safely enclosed in her vaginal mandorla.

The contrast between virgin and witch/whore highlights another aspect of the vagina dentata mythos: The sexually voracious woman who refuses to accept her passive role but instead consumes her lover like a praying mantis.

     

  

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In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the character Mellors describes his ex, Bertha, as a disagreeable yet sexually aggressive woman who would "never come off when I did," but "just wait" until he’d come, and then "start on her own account, and I had to stop inside her till she brought herself off, wriggling and shouting, she’d clutch clutch with herself down there":

She sort of got harder and harder to bring off, and she’d sort of tear at me down there, as if it was a beak tearing at me. By God, you think a woman’s soft down there, like a fig. But I tell you the old rampers have beaks between their legs, and they tear at you with it till you’re sick. Self! Self! Self! all self! tearing and shouting! They talk about men’s selfishness, but I doubt if it can ever touch a woman’s blind beakishness, once she’s gone that way. . . . She had to work the thing herself, grind her own coffee. And it came back on her like a raving necessity, she had to let herself go, and tear, tear, tear, as if she had no sensation in her except in the top of her beak, the very outside top tip, that rubbed and tore. That’s how old whores used to be, so men used to say.

Similar fears of women’s sexuality pops up in all sorts of boys-only culture: Shelob’s sting in The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien was an Oxford don who lived in an all-male world), Ripper’s theories of flouridation and lack of "essence"

The vagina dentata is intimately related to the culture of war.

in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, George Lucas daring us to ogle a bikini-clad Princess Leia in Return of the Jedi and then giving us the Sarlacc to remind us that girls are not only icky, but that they can swallow the biggest badass bounty hunter in one bite.

Likewise, the vagina dentata is intimately related to the culture of war. Like sex, war is both an aggressive, penetrative sort of exercise and unparalleled in its ability to bring out castration anxieties. The symbol had especially great significance for the surrealist movement after the trauma of the First World War "unmanned" an entire generation of Europeans. The first work of art Man Ray created after he moved from the U.S. to Paris was Le Cadeau, "the Gift," a flatiron whose surface is bisected by a row of tacks, suggesting a toothed vagina. It is a female domestic tool turned into a weapon of destruction — and then subjugation, as he had a "negress" dance in a dress "ironed" with his art work, remarking that the result was "beautiful like a bronze statue."

Vietnam-era folklore was likewise rife with imaginary female Viet Cong collaborators who put razor blades and broken-off Coke bottles in their vaginas. In keeping with the ancient motifs, it was universally held that such a booby trap would inevitably be fatal to the unlucky GI who jumped into that particular foxhole. Despite the illogical nature of the belief — how would the woman keep from cutting herself, and how would she keep the man from killing her after she inflicted what would likely be a minor, if extremely disturbing, wound? — it persisted. This spoke not only to the trauma of fighting in a foreign land where one couldn’t tell friend from foe, but also to GI guilt about exploiting otherwise powerless women. (And it perpetuated the stereotype that Asian women’s vaginas were somehow different and dangerous).

Life has already imitated art.

But Western culture is unique in that it can valorize the bits that bite back. Take, for instance, Judith, the Biblical heroine who saved her fellow Jews by seducing the Assyrian general Holofernes — and then cutting off his head with his own sword, his "tooth," as it were. Not only does Judith biting the powerful general back make her the prototype of the ball-busting Jewish woman, but she’s also an example of the strong made weak — the woman who would otherwise be the spoils of war becoming herself the conqueror.

While the story of Judith has enjoyed extraordinary popularity over the centuries, this motif has become more popular in recent years as women have gained political and personal autonomy. The vagina dentata, originally a symbol of men’s fear, has become a symbol of women’s strength and independence. One of the characters in Neal Stephenson’s science-fiction opus Snow Crash wears a "dentata" that delivers a fast-acting knockout drug to a would-be rapist — and she uses it to defeat the "baddest motherfucker" in Stephenson’s anarchic world. Multimedia artist/composer Jordi Vallis named his music project "Vagina Dentata Organ" to symbolize "our wish to spit blood, to castrate this boring and pedantic society." Artists such as Judy Chicago and Caitlin Berrigan deconstructed the image in their work. This Friday, the new film Teeth opens; it’s a black comedy about a high-school student who discovers she has a vagina dentata when she fights off an attacker. (View the trailer here, and Nerve’s interview with the star here.)

Life has already imitated art. South African inventor Sonette Ehlers invented the RapeX, a sort of female condom that painfully attaches itself to the penetrator’s penis with microscopic barbs and can only be removed surgically. The device has faced marketing delays and widespread criticism because of the potential for abuse. However, the fact that the RapeX has been so widely reported by the worldwide media speaks to another fact: there are a lot of women who think this is a product whose time has come. In the past, women’s bodies were objects to be tamed; now women are finding their "teeth" and seeing their bodies as tools for empowerment. Modern women, rather than finding contentment as stay-at-home Sarahs, see themselves as so many Judiths.

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©2007 Ken Mondschein and Nerve.com
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Ken Mondschein is a Ph.D candidate at Fordham University and the author of A History of Single Life.