It’s easy, really, to remove a penis. It might even be luxurious, like taking yourself out to lunch: starched tablecloth, martini-olive, glint of a diamond on the finger. It’s an act of security and authority, a statement of ownership, yes, but also elegance, desire – white linen and clean nails, of long fingers reaching out to take, take, take until we’re sated, day-drunk, a little giddy. It’s less about the removal of the penis than it is about how we as the castrators feel about removing the penis.
The hex for a penis isn’t really all about
[. . .]
hex with a plate of grilled pears
a glass of just-pink wine
teacups porcelain thrush egg blue
[. . .]
some woman in a mint silk pantsuit so happy with
a penis between her legs and the next shucking it off
‘/penis hex/’, WITCH
As described in WITCH, Rebecca Tamás’ collection released at the very start of 2019, the hex and its aftermath sound delightful – serene yet powerful. They hover somewhere between the aesthetic and the phenomenological; like taking a bath in the daytime or scenting your laundry with lavender. I can hardly wait to hex, convinced it will make me organised and attentive, a new and different woman, hair in a chignon, tasteful highlights, new leather. I think of what it must be like to wear those signifiers of power so easily, the kind I’ve been grasping for my entire life, to be so unconcerned, so unburdened that you can wear a jacket resting over your shoulders, arms down by your sides. I long for that newness, that space in my mind.
There are less joyful reasons to hex, of course. The kind we’d rather not speak of, because to even think of them destroys our dreams of power, of beauty, of complete ownership of oneself; the kind that act as splinters underfoot, shards of glass left in rows to make us hobble. But, more than silk against the skin or blush-coloured wine, they are why we need to hex. Often, the hex is less of a choice than it is a survival mechanism – a necessity – in a world that routinely and thoughtlessly violates, abuses and traumatises women. Tamás is aware of these, lays them out without fanfare:
hex at a child-wedding [. . .] the child-bride comes with you
her big gobstopper eyes and hello kitty backpack
full of dicks.
When it was reproduced by the Chicago Review of Books, ‘/penis hex/’ was tagged with the phrase #MeToo.
‘And what, then, is to be thought of those witches who in this way sometimes collect male organs in great numbers, as many as twenty or thirty members together, and put them in a bird’s nest, or shut them up in a box, where they move themselves like living members, and eat oats and corn, as has been seen by many and is a matter of common report?’ asks the Malleus Maleficarum, Heinrich Kramer’s theological and legal treatise on how to find, torture and murder a witch – published in 1486, the book had as many as thirty-six reprints in the ensuing years.
the witches eat your book
To be a woman is to be feared, to know fear. To hold the two simultaneously within yourself, to know that your body, by the sheer fact of its existence, will be terrified by the society that claims to be terrorised by it; that the patriarchy deems women’s bodies so awful, so monstrous, that it seeks to limit and control their power. These people not only hate women, but are afraid of them; scared of the capacity for women’s bodies to be unruly, unclean, unknowable. Despite the sheer and uncommunicable amount of violence enacted upon the female body throughout history, it’s woman as terroriser, as beast, that we keep coming back to. What better way to justify the ways in which we break her?
The female body has been codified as disgusting, defective – leaking, bleeding, oozing – from time immemorial. She limps, incomplete and half-finished, across Aristotle’s theories, a deformed ‘monstrosity’ and a ‘misbegotten man’; stalks through the Talmud on Lilith’s jackal-feet, flying through the night on her bird wings to sate her demon’s appetite; drags her heavy body through Greek mythology, crowned with curls of snakes. She’s simultaneously too-much and less-than; little more than an underdeveloped man, a foetus too weak to grow entirely, pale and fragile as an orchid. It’s this that Freud evokes when he writes ‘Probably no male human being is spared the fright of castration at the sight of a female genital.’ For Freud, the female body is defined by its fundamental lack: uncanny, strange, and unfinished. It’s why so many euphemisms for the vagina focus on the female genitals as a wound: cleft, axe-wound, gash – the woman is always a site of violence.
In ‘The Construction of the “Castrated Woman” in Psychoanalysis and Cinema’, theorist Susan Lurie asserts that it’s not the female-body-as-castrated-man that inspires such horror in men, but her status as something whole, unknowable. ‘Lurie asserts that the male fears woman because woman is not mutilated like a man might be if he were castrated; woman is physically whole, intact and in possession of all her sexual powers,’ Barbara Creed surmises in her introduction to The Monstrous Feminine, her landmark essay collection that explored abjection and female horror. Freud’s vision of the castrated woman is merely ‘a phantasy (sic?) intended to ameliorate man’s real fear of what woman might do to him. [. . .] Specifically, he fears that woman could castrate him both psychically and, in a sense, physically.’
If women are unsupervised, then what might they be doing? What might they be wearing? What could they become? What if, instead of being powerless and pliable, they learned that they could fight back? What if the woman who lies next to you at night, folds your laundry, cooks your meals, is merely hiding her claws and scales and razor-teeth and licking her lips with her forked tongue, counting the wrongs you committed against her – against all women – biding her time.
In February this year, a true-crime documentary series titled Lorena was released. It told the story of Lorena Bobbitt, who cut off her husband’s penis as he slept, of how she threw it into the long grass at the side of the road in Manassas, Virginia. I think of how they sold penis-shaped sweets outside the courthouse where her trial took place, of how the proceedings made it into a Saturday Night Live sketch, of how she was shown as crazy, fiery, a scorned wife mutilating her husband after he threatened to leave. What I think of most, though, is how Lorena Bobbitt was tortured physically, sexually and emotionally by her husband for years before she castrated him. How she became a punchline. Howard Stern, one of the most prominent voices in the discussion of the case, refused to believe the extensive evidence that supported her claims of abuse because ‘she’s not that great looking’. In the article that coincided with the documentary’s release, the New York Times ran with the headline ‘You Know the Lorena Bobbitt Story. But Not All of It.’ If Tamás asserts that the penis hex isn’t really about the penis, the way Lorena’s story was told definitely seemed to assume that it was: ‘They always just focused on it . . .’ she told one reporter. Her ex-husband – and his penis – were what attracted sympathy. The jury found her not guilty ‘by reason of temporary insanity’; she served a mandated stint in a mental health facility. The article ends with Lorena reflecting on how people react to her story of unendurable abuse: ‘“They laugh,” she said several times [. . .] “They always laugh.”’
In ‘Stop your women’s ears with wax’, from Julia Armfield’s recently published collection salt slow, an all-women band go on tour. Their music inspires feverish devotion in their female fans, with crowds of screaming and crying girls thronging the street outside their shows. At the venues they play, male employees are found murdered, and the tour bus is covered in black feathers. Their filmographer, Mona, enters the band’s dressing room and ‘briefly catches the lead guitarist without her face on [. . .] The face – the brief glimpse that she has of it – is a curious thing, familiar yet misplaced with its upturned nose and silvered eyelids, hanging over the back of a swivel chair.’ The double-meaning of ‘without her face on’ reminds us of the beauty standards women are under pressure to perform – the image of the unpolished, make-up-free face is heightened until it becomes a representation of something simultaneously inhuman and too human, the unforgivably real face of woman. This manifestation of excess – of too much – is seen in the bandmates’ feathers that litter the scene, spilling out onto the floor. Uncontainable, these evoke the image of the harpy, which Creed deems ‘another fearful image of the monstrous-feminine in classical mythology’. The music of Armfield’s band inspires its teenage acolytes to join together in ripping men limb from limb.
In March 2016, Brock Turner was found guilty of three felonies: assault with intent to commit rape, sexually penetrating an intoxicated person, and sexually penetrating an unconscious person. He was sentenced to six months in prison and served three of them. Judge Aaron Persky said that a longer sentence would have a ‘severe impact’ on Turner’s life, adding ‘I think that he will not be a danger to others’.
In September 2018, Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that the then-nominee and now incumbent Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a party in the early eighties. Asked what she recalled the most about that night, Blasey Ford stated, ‘Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter. The uproarious laughter between the two and their having fun at my expense.’
In April 2019, Michael Wysolovski, a thirty-three-year-old man who enslaved and sexually assaulted a sixteen-year-old girl for over a year, keeping her locked in a dog cage and starving her, was convicted of first-degree cruelty to children and interstate interference with custody. He will not serve any jail time.
In salt slow’s opener, ‘Mantis’, a boy leads the narrator upstairs, his hands ‘grabby’. ‘I knew you wanted it,’ he says, as the familiar situation washes over the reader: party, alcohol, a tightening grip on the arm. All around us, there are small flashes of violence, so commonplace as to seem mundane – the ‘force’ with which he yanks her, the dancing that she seems to have ‘no option’ but to partake in. We recognise this narrative because we have lived it, have heard and seen it, watched it play out a thousand times on TV and in newspapers and in quiet, hushed conversations between friends. Yet, somehow, it still stings; salt in a wound you thought had healed over. We know what happens next, because it has happened to our mothers and our sisters and our friends and our lovers. It has happened, in some way, small or large, to every woman we know, and to those we don’t.
But at the moment of the kiss, as if in a fairytale, our protagonist transforms. The flaking skin and painful, aching limbs, rather than signifiers of her vulnerability, are revealed to be markers of her strength, as she slips out of her body into ‘a suddenness of mandibles and curving neck [. . .] the last of my skin falls down unheeded to the bathroom floor’. She has shed the vulnerabilities attached to her human shape, and her new, monstrous form has given her the strength she lacked. ‘I flex my arms and raise myself a little higher’, she notes, emphasising her physical prowess. ‘It is possible the boy says something, possible he screams. My mouth is wide with anticipation’. The power of the boy has dwindled to the extent that he is denied a voice – denied the power to express even his fear. Earlier in the narrative, his exact words are related to us, dominating the space on the page. Now he’s an afterthought; merely a body to use and cast aside. The explicitly sexual overtone of the ‘wide mouth’ underscores the subversion of the societal order: the woman as the predator and the man as helpless prey. She realises that this was the true form of her mother, her grandmother; that this is a feminine tradition. Female praying mantises devour up to a quarter of males during intercourse, with the number increasing during repeated sessions of mating. Typically, they eat the head first – this may happen at the start or end of the sexual encounter.
Vagina dentata is a kind of fairytale: according to Barbara Creed, ‘Yanomamo myths state that one of the first women on earth possessed a vagina that could transform into a toothed mouth which ate her lover’s penis.’ The fear of a woman with the ability to devour a man during sex seems to recur across cultures, from North America to India to East Asia. There’s something almost darkly comedic about the fact that, as the overwhelming perpetrators of sexual violence, men could be terrified of being violated during the act. I find it unsurprising – often our most acute fears involve being the victims of our own actions.
‘The vagina dentata visualizes, for males, the fear of entry into the unknown, of the dark dangers that must be controlled in the mystery that is woman. The teeth must be removed!’ writes Jill Rait. She links the fear of vagina dentata to the widespread and unabated practice of female genital mutilation.
In 2007, the founders of the Rape-aXe female condom announced that it would go on sale in South Africa. It boasted a number of ‘teeth’ which would fasten around an attacker’s penis. The device was never manufactured.
Why do things float back to the top of cultural consciousness? Why don’t they remain submerged? In the last few years we’ve seen the resurgence of the monstrous-feminine wholesale. Not only in WITCH and salt, slow, but in the eldritch nude women of Dorothea Tanning, recently exhibited to much acclaim in a major show at Tate Modern; in Luca Guadagnino’s murderous witches in his remake of Suspiria, in the bored vampires and eel-women of Daisy Johnson’s Fen. Why now? The answers feel oppressive in their frequency. Is it the sexual predator as the President of the United States, and the ‘nasty women’ he tweets to his 61 million followers each day? Or the headlines about casting couches and under-desk door locks and penises exposed beside potted plants? Or the six-week abortion limit in Ohio, whose architect termed women who exercise their reproductive rights ‘heartless’? There will always be more answers, because there will always be more ways in which women are demonised, abused, destroyed.
At my most optimistic I think: there’s something happening, the slow cracking of an ice sheet out from the centre. At my most pessimistic I think: we retreat to fantasy when we want escape from that which we cannot change. At my most measured I think: these things tend to be circular.
The protagonist of Camilla Grudova’s ‘The Mouse Queen’, from her collection The Doll’s Alphabet, is not particularly sentimental about the fact that she has devoured her children. Having begun to transform into a werewolf, she finds that ‘The next morning, when I woke up, the twins were nowhere to be found. [. . .] They were gone. I must have eaten them in the late hours of being a wolf.’ She checks her excrement, in which she finds a single white bone, and then buys herself books and a too-tight skirt with the proceedings from selling the infants’ clothes and toys. The Malleus Maleficarum doesn’t take kindly to this, stating that ‘certain witches, against the instinct of human nature, and indeed against the nature of all beasts, with the possible exception of wolves, are in the habit of devouring and eating infant children’. Eating her children seems to come as somewhat of a relief to the narrator of ‘The Mouse Queen’, who has been abandoned by her Latin-scholar partner to deal with them alone. By the end of the story our protagonist’s friend also appears to have unburdened herself as a result of her transformation – ‘Sometimes Susan arrived at work with a few stray brown hairs around her mouth, or a spot of blood, but I didn’t say anything and neither did she, and we stopped asking each other about our children’, she concludes. The werewolf is within all the women in the story, and eating your child is an unfortunate, yet necessary, side effect of freedom.
And although she does not – yet – devour children, the central character of Armfield’s ‘Formally Feral’ sees first-hand the advantages of manifesting the wolf. Supporting Walter Evans’ assertion that ‘the werewolf’s bloody attacks – which occur regularly every month – are certainly related to the menstrual cycle which suddenly and mysteriously commands the body of every adolescent girl’, it’s tampons that provoke the violence and transformation of the protagonist. Having been regularly stalked by the (aptly named) Peter, she discovers that he is responsible for stealing her tampons out of her locker, leaving her walking home ‘bleeding unchecked’. As Leviticus 14 reminds us, ‘When a woman has a discharge, her discharge being blood from her body, she shall remain in her impurity seven days; whoever touches her shall be unclean until evening . . .’ Barbara Creed notes that ‘Menstruation was also linked to the witch’s curse [. . .] Historically, the curse of a woman, particularly if she were pregnant or menstruating, was considered far more potent than a man’s curse.’ It’s apt, then, that she and her sister/wolf, Helen, attack the boy, leading to his hand going septic and being removed. At the story’s close, the narrator has become identical to Helen in mannerisms, neglecting her personal grooming and ‘join[ing] her in dragging my teeth across the floor’ – the howl of the wolf becomes a cry of freedom.
Sometimes, when I’m walking home on my own at night, I think about what it would be like to stalk silently behind men, my feet soft and easy on the pavement, quick flash of my shadow under the street lights. How I’d watch the whites of their eyes shine as they turned to look behind them – softly, quietly, can’t be too obvious – see the glisten of sweat on the back of their necks. I’d watch them quicken their pace with fear, recognise the measured gait – not wanting to run so as not to inspire a chase, keep calm, breathe deeply, act self-possessed but do not linger. I’d like to test it; to not be five-foot-four, soft-fleshed, short-sighted, to not think about the keys slotted between my fingers, the correct way to escape a chokehold. To not think, even in passing, of defence. Just once I’d like to think about attack: scaled wings, glinting incisors, long, yellowed claws. A pact with the devil that let me split concrete, burn with the touch of my finger.
Artwork by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, ‘The Remorse of Orestes’