Image above is a handmade vagina dentata brooch by Anna Siivonen, a jewelry artist based in Stockholm, Sweden, who graciously permitted me to use an image of her brooch.
I was inspired to approach this topic after receiving a phone call from a patient whose complaint was that he had teeth marks on his penis that were not healing appropriately. However, the teeth marks were not caused by a vagina dentata.
For those who don’t recognize the term “Hakuna Matata,” it is the name of a song from Lion King, a Swahili phrase from East Africa meaning “no worries.” The title of this entry is based upon the nice rhyme, with no real intention of having anything to do with the meaning of the term, although after you read the next few paragraphs, the title just might make sense you.
Vagina dentata (Latin for “toothed vagina”) describes a folkloric tale and myth in which a female’s vagina contains teeth, inferring that penetrative sexual intercourse with a woman with such anatomy could provoke penile injury and possibly dismemberment and emasculation, Lorena Bobbitt style. Interestingly, tales of the vagina dentata are present in the folklore and mythology of many diverse cultures, countries, and religions, including North and South American tribes, New Zealand Maori, Russian, Indian, Samoan, and Japanese cultures. A consistent theme in many of these folk tales is that a male hero must do battle with the toothed woman and forcibly extract her vaginal teeth to break her power before being able to engage in sex with her.
In Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, a movie that I found equal parts hysterical and outrageous, Borat’s daughter after discovering masturbation declares of her vagina: “It has no teeth at all!” The 2007 comedic horror film Teeth was inspired by the concept of vagina dentata. I recently streamed this fascinating and disturbingly graphic film on Amazon Prime. Directed by Michael Lichtenstein and starring Jess Weixler in the title role, the main character discovers that she is a living example of the vagina dentata myth and wields her mighty vaginal incisors (powered by her robust pelvic floor muscles) to exact retribution upon those who take advantage of her.
In many patriarchal phallocentric cultures, the penis is the literal “totem pole” of masculinity—symbolizing confidence, swagger, self-assurance, sexual potency and entitlement. The vagina dentata myth represents the great equalizer that refashions the female sexual parts — traditionally thought of as passive and submissive — into powerful structures capable of aggression and harm. It shatters the delicate flower imagery of the vulva and vagina, rendering the vagina as an active, dynamic, and commanding force.
The vagina dentata myth gives some literal and figurative teeth—metaphorically speaking–to the #Me Too movement that demands redress for sexual harassment, domination, abuse and assault inflicted to women by predatorial men. This movement is embodied by the vagina dentata myth that provides women the wherewithal and capacity to bite back and exact retribution against sexual intimidation, coercion and misconduct.
My wife and I are now watching Downton Abbey (superb production and acting, highly recommended) and as we were watching a horrific rape scene of one of the loveliest characters–Anna Smith–I could only wish that she could morph into a possessor of a vagina dentata and wreak vengeance on the despicable rapist. I’m not a superhero fan, but I fancy the idea of a super-heroine who has special abilities and powers beyond that of normal women and uses them to make the world a better place, possessing a vagina that can be morphed at will into a vagina dentata to avenge exploitative and predatory men.
Another interpretation of the vagina dentata myth is that it is a fictional characterization of the sexually threatening woman who engenders sexual angst and fears of weakness and impotence in men, a literal characterization of man’s dread and paranoia concerning the mysteries of female sexuality.
“The vagina is a place of procreative darkness, a sinister place from which blood periodically seeps as if from a wound.”
“Even when made safe, men feared the vagina, already attributed mysterious sexual power – did it not conjure up a man’s organ, absorb it, milk it, spit it out limp?”
–Tom Hickman from God’s Doodle
To quote directly from the movie Teeth: “The vagina dentata myth imagines sexual intercourse as an epic journey that every man must make back to the womb–the dark crucible that hatched him.”
Andrew Siegel, MD