by Kat Letwin
I know you get asked this a lot, but: I’d like you to picture a timeline that encompasses the entirety of human existence.
On the left-hand side of the timeline is the appearance of Homo habilis (2.3 million years ago), the “yesterday’s classics” to “today’s hits” in the KISS 92 FM world of human evolution. I once saw a silverback gorilla that looked hauntingly like my paternal grandfather, so I’m picturing that as Homo habilis, even though it’s not scientifically accurate to do so. On the right-hand side of the timeline is us, today, right this very second. I’m picturing us, today, right this very second, and it’s scientifically accurate to do so.
It was only 200,000 years ago that archaic Homo sapiens, inventors of fire and more fire, gave way to anatomically modern humans, inventors of Motown and physics. In the context of the timeline, that’s so close to the present moment, it’s like we became people just about a decade ago. Which means women were legally recognized as people (in Canada) about a second ago. Which means we, as collective ten-year-olds, are flailing like ragecrying idiots while trying to adjust.
Let’s delve deeper into the timeline; let’s get waist deep in 12th century England. Now, I’m no historian, but here’s how I’m pretty sure it would go down if you were a woman:
One night, your dad and some guy named Snug the Joiner, who he met at the local tavern last week, run into each other at the local tavern after a hard day of being a dad and a Joiner, respectively. They get drunk together. Your dad starts gambling, which he knows he shouldn’t do because the drought’s been wreaking havoc on the crops. Your dad quickly starts to lose, because he never learned how to play dice, and he never wants anyone to find out. He gets further and further in debt to Snug. Your dad offers the farm. Snug is not interested in the farm, because it’s the worst farm in town. Your dad gets an idea and blacks out for a couple hours. The next morning, your dad and Snug barge into the room you share with your brothers and sisters, whom you’ve taken care of since your mother died last spring in a birthing accident. Just before your father pukes all over little Seamus slumbering away by the cookpot, your dad tells you,
“Myne dotter! myne Progenie! Thou shalt be joiynt to this -”
And he points to Snug the Joiner, but starts laughing pretty hard when he remembers Snug is a Joiner and he just said joined, and then the vomit comes with a bracing force. You don’t say anything, but it’s not just because Snug is the worst Joiner in town, it’s because someone has to get all that vomit off Seamus before the stench of pure alcohol seeps into his pores. You worry about who will be there to do that once you’re given away. Snug smiles at you, but smiling can wait – after all, you have your whole life ahead of you to figure out how to smile at your new husband.
That doesn’t happen so much when you go back to the future, or “Back…to the FUTURE!” as Christopher Lloyd once said during his guest appearance on Spin City. Upon returning to 21st century (in Canada), things are markedly better for women as a whole: we vote, we have access to birth control, we can keep our money, and we’re far less likely to die of anything plague-related. Yet, despite such progress into the furthest reaches of the right-hand side of the timeline, the idea of women being in control of their own bodies is still, to us, today, right this very second, kind of mind-blowing.
For fourteen years, I went to Catholic school in Brantford, Ontario, Canada, and Catholicism – as we all know – is firmly rooted in humanity’s past. It’s not uncommon to hear the Bible referred to as an historical text, and in a sense, I do believe they’re right. I think the Bible captures the time period in which it was written in a stunning fashion. In any other book, I would simply find this fascinating and leave it at that; but when we’re dealing with a text that purports to be the perfect word of God, then the social norms of millenia ago– especially those regarding gender– take on a real world, present day immediacy.
Every year’s curriculum, junior kindergarten to the very last year of high school, included mandatory religion classes. From Gr. 1 until Gr. 8, Family Life classes introduced us to the idea of sex and marriage. The two classes were inextricably intertwined. I was taught that marriage was a sacrament, a holy bond between a man and a woman for the purpose of procreation. I was taught that fallopian tubes were called fallopian tubes, the vagina was called a birth canal, and the clitoris was called absolutely nothing at all. I was taught that I was expected to marry a man. I was taught I was expected to bear children. I was taught that God wanted me to make this prospective man and these prospective children the centre of my life. Above all, I was taught that I could never fulfill God’s plan for me if I didn’t save my virginity for my husband like it was the last shrimp on the cocktail glass.
“What if I don’t get married?” I asked my Gr. 7 teacher.
“Then I guess you’re never having sex.”
“It’s in the Bible.”
It was a tiresome answer to a pressing question. Since I considered myself to be a full human being with a fundamental right to the truth about my body and sexuality, I ignored what I was taught and decided to learn on my own. My school’s library in both elementary and high school had very little in the way of non-religious resource material, which wasn’t a huge surprise, so my parents helped me purchase what amounted to a personal library over the course of several years. I had books about puberty, sex, feminism, queer positivity, and erotica; this was balanced by books about the history of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and atheism. I discovered that what I was being taught in my Catholic school was rooted in a dense, tangled history of misogyny and oppression, and that the Word of God could change drastically depending on the kind of Bible one read (for reference, my school always used the popular and problematic King James Bible, which was first published in 1769). If there was no definitive Bible, and if we were all talking about the same God when he was called Yahweh or Allah, then how could I silently accept “It’s in the Bible” as an answer? I said as much in class. I also said that what we were being taught about our lives and our bodies was wrong. I was told, more than once, I was going to hell.
I suppose I wasn’t too surprised when questions from my classmates – shy questions, curious and scared questions – started popping up like so many newly discovered boners that tented the pants of their religious upbringing. Here are some of the answers I remember giving:
1. No, your vag won’t stretch and sag if a dick’s been in it. No, not even if it was big.
2. No, not every girl is born with a hymen, and some girls naturally break their hymens doing crazy things like gymnastics. Or horseback riding. Or standing there and watching your friend’s brother try and fail to do an ollie for like twenty goddamn minutes.
3. No, you can’t get pregnant from a dildo, unless it is leaking with viable semen, which I’m genuinely hoping isn’t the case.
4. No, girls don’t orgasm from putting in a tampon. Girls tend to orgasm if you rub her clit the way she likes it.
5. No, you didn’t “ask for it” if you didn’t ask for it. Oh my God, that’s never the case.
6. No, abortions aren’t more likely to kill you than heroin. But giving birth is more likely to kill you than an abortion.
7. No, your vag isn’t disgusting. Your vag isn’t a flower. Your vag is a vag, and it’s awesome the way it is, and whatever has (or hasn’t) happened in there doesn’t affect your worth as a human being.
8. No, I’m not promoting sin.
9. No, you’re not a slut.
10. Yes, you’re a good person.
And these, but for the grace of small rebellions, were not a part of our education.Because human progress is slow. Maddeningly slow. It can feel like a sluggish, inexorable slog towards the future of spaceships and holodecks and complete and total egalitarianism we’ve all been writing fanfiction about, but let’s put it this way: in the context of the timeline you imagined at the beginning of this whole thing, women have only been people for a second, and already we’ve done some incredible things to push ourselves away from the bulk of history that precedes us. For example, I wasn’t stoned to death in the hallways of my high school, nor did my dad sell me into sexual slavery for a minor profit before I caused too much trouble. Which is great! It’s nice to not be killed or enslaved, I think most people can agree on that.
But does that make us equal? Does that mean we did it, we finally did it, and we’re totally all on the same playing field?
Hell no. The thing about experiencing the timeline as we humans do – day to day, month to month – is that we’re still enduring the residual effects of hundreds of thousands of years of both externalized and internalized oppression. It’s an almost incomprehensible amount of time and discrimination to digest and shit out of our collective butts, because human society is constipated with kyriarchy. Things are better now than they were, but how long can we be content with finding true equality tomorrow? Tomorrow isn’t today. Tomorrow is never today. It’s not too much to ask. The fight for freedom from stigma and oppression continues – and must continue – until our timeline finally breaks even.
Kat Letwin sometimes writes and mostly performs theatre and comedy in Toronto, ON. Follow her on Twitter (@letwinka) if you’d like to know when her friends are doing cool stuff.