The transvaginal probe is a long, dildo-shaped instrument used to detect foetal heartbeats – or, at least, that’s what an unholy alliance in the US of state legislators, anti-abortion campaigners and their medical henchmen see as its purpose. Increasing numbers of states are demanding that women seeking abortions be subjected to the probe, so that they can hear the beating heart of the “person” they are about to murder. One doctor interviewed on BBC’s Newsnight – standing in front of the examination couch, probe in his hand – explained that the procedure had no medical utility and was simply a way of traumatising these women.
In his seminal text Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Charles Mackay gave the whole garment-rending subject of religious nuttiness a swerve – and, as a rule, this column has followed his lead. However, once in a while, something comes along like the transvaginal probe that’s so abusively crazy that it demands to be written about.
In the same Newsnight segment, we were treated to a coffee morning of so-called Christians who explained that, for them, the abortions in the US were on a par with genocide: “It is a Holocaust,” one harridan in pastel roll-neck inveighed. (It’s strange how they’re always wearing pastel roll-necks.)
I’ve no idea what Mackay would’ve made of the transvaginal probe but I suspect the general idea of forcing things up women’s vaginas, or subjecting their genitals to abusive “examination”, wouldn’t have been wholly strange to him. The anti-prostitution drive towards the end of the 19th century led to exactly this sort of carry-on, as young, working-class women were plucked from the streets and violated in the cause of hygiene. In order to convince these self-appointed authorities that you weren’t a streetwalker, it was necessary that you be proved to be a virgo intacta. Ritualised sexual assault in the form of “force-feeding” also formed a key part of the patriarchal establishment’s repression of the suffragettes.
And so it goes on: the “virginity tests”, carried out by Hosni Mubarak’s secret police during the Tahrir Square revolution last year, were merely the latest instance of sexual assault being deployed as a political weapon. In the west, we have the arrogance to think that we left this sort of thing behind a long time ago; so we inveigh against the genital mutilation (clitoridectomy, infibulations) of benighted Africans in much the same way as Mrs Jellyby passionately cared for the heathen while neglecting the starvelings in her own home. But once you begin looking, it becomes clear that a barely submerged culture of systematic misogyny continues unabated.
Throughout the 20th century, what were, in effect, state-sanctioned sterilisations of powerless women continued in the west – that they were hidden from view was a function of the way mental asylums and prisons operated as hidden gulags where the state enforced its power over the reproductive rights of women and, by extension, their genitals. The ongoing “debate” about single, working-class mothers who claim benefit is only the perpetuation of this attitude under a guise of social concern. That it has become unexceptional even for the liberal to censure these women is another indication of how this age-old hysteria can camouflage itself as socially acceptable.
Less socially acceptable – but a finger-flick away – is the spectacle of young women inserting transvaginal probes to provide a pornographic spectacle for web voyeurs. That the sight of women pseudo-pleasuring themselves with these cruel instruments should be a staple of the male imagination says a lot about how far we haven’t come towards a healthier notion of eroticism. Possibly we have the hidden hand of the market to blame for this lustful frenzy: in the realm of the collective jerk-off, it seems to maintain a ceaseless blur.
Do I blame Christianity per se for fostering this grotesque state of affairs? No: there are many good Christians who must find the transvaginal probe as disgusting as any feminist secularist. Rowan Williams has a couple of months to go before he sets down his mitre and it would be nice if he took the time to pronounce anathema on the madness and prurience of some of his co-religionists.