Witty, clever and angry, this book about the suppression of female sexuality is fantastically acute
How I loved reading Liv Strömquist’s Fruit of Knowledge. Mostly, this was down to its sheer, punchy brilliance: should you be in possession of a teenage daughter, you absolutely must buy it for her and all her friends, in addition to those copies you will now immediately purchase for yourself and all of yours (I’m probably addressing female readers here, though there’s no reason why men shouldn’t get with the programme, too; in truth, it’s as likely to change their lives for the better as those of most women). But there was also, I must admit, a certain amount of pleasure to be had in watching people clock its subtitle, The Vulva vs. the Patriarchy: words that are scrawled on its jacket in blood-red letters beneath a photograph of the author with her hands strategically placed between her legs. The looks they shot me! I felt brazen, and powerful, and it was great.
Strömquist is a cartoonist and an activist, and in her native Sweden her comic-book history of female sexuality has already sold 40,000 copies (this British edition is one of 16 now in print in countries around the world).
It’s not hard to see why. If her strips are clever, angry, funny and righteous, they’re also informative to an eye-popping degree. While most women know very well by now how our culture has worked down the ages both to diminish the acceptability of our desires and to stoke our shame in the matter of our bodies, Strömquist is here not only to name names – step forward John Harvey Kellogg, inventor of cornflakes and author of health manuals in which he liked to claim that female masturbation caused uterine cancer and epilepsy, and who recommended the application of carbolic acid to the clitoris as a means of allaying “abnormal” excitement – but also to remind us that it wasn’t always this way. Once upon a time, people were neither afraid of, nor disgusted by, the female sex organs. The vulva was at the heart of spiritual life. In the middle ages, to take just one example, sculptures of women with parted legs were placed on the walls of monasteries and churches, as guards at the village gates, and even above the doors of ordinary houses.
I think I like it best when she invites the reader to imagine the patronising sexual advice regularly doled out to women
It feels unfair to single out one section of Fruit of Knowledge for particular praise; every page is so fantastically acute. The chapter on menstruation, in which Strömquist goes after the tampon industry and its obsession with the words “fresh” and “secure”, is particularly good; so, too, is her nifty send-up of Dr Freud. But I think I like it best when she invites the reader to imagine the patronising sexual advice that is regularly doled out to women – “a woman doesn’t necessarily want to have an orgasm every time she has sex” – being given to men instead. Can you imagine such a thing? No, nor can I – and yet, before the Enlightenment, few midwifery manuals ever failed to mention the then widely held belief that unless a woman climaxed during her attempt to conceive, she was unlikely ever to get pregnant.