The new book Fruit of Knowledge: The Vulva vs. The Patriarchy, by Swedish radio host and graphic novelist Liv Strömquist, mentions that the word taboo comes from the Polynesian word tupua, or menstruation. Tupua is spoken of in hushed tones not because it is dirty or shameful; tupua also means sacred or holy. Other things that are tupua: Burial sites and wounded soldiers.
Learning to appreciate the sacred nature of women’s sexuality and sex organs is the major thrust of Fruit of Knowledge, the English translation of which arrived in stores at the end of August from Fantagraphics Books. With a keen historian’s eye and a scathing satirist’s tongue, Strömquist exposes the centuries of historical hysteria and discomfort hiding away the truth about women’s sexuality.
While the book possesses an underlying bitterness, it’s extremely funny. When I told Strömquist I literally laughed out loud three panels into the book, she said that humor was her goal.
“There is a cultural perception that feminists are really boring and never can laugh or joke about anything, or take a joke about themselves,” she said. “So I enjoy going against that assumption. Also it’s good to laugh when you talk about heavy and depressing things. I’ve always liked joking and humor, since I was a little girl and watched Monty Python. For me it’s really important that my comics are fun to read. I don’t like boring stuff!”
Using comedy to educate is a tried-and-tested model, as Strömquist digs into historical trends about how women’s sexuality has been viewed over time and examines how those views have evolved. But at the core, the patriarchy has enforced just two models of feminine sexuality -- the frigid prude and the bawdy whore, templates that women confront in both the physical pursuit of sex and their emotional tenor. (Reading the book, it’s clear that the 19th century must’ve been the worst century ever for sex.)
Strömquist found the research for the book fascinating. “It was so interesting for me to discover that, in the 1600s and 1700s, women were generally considered to have a higher sex-drive than men. The stereotype was that women were unable to control themselves and were controlled by their bodies. A hundred years later this was flipped the other way around. What it tells us [is] that how we perceive each other’s sexuality and bodies is largely a cultural construct.”
From the archaeological records we have, we know that women’s sexuality wasn’t always hidden away and ignored. Menstruation and sex were often considered sacred. Menstruation is, after all, the indicator of a woman’s ability to carry on the human species.
“Well, we know very little of early stone age history,” Strömquist admitted, “but we can see on the imagery of early fertility religions that sexuality, reproduction, the female body and the vulva are portrayed in a quite explicit way. There is a big change in human history when the religions and cults of fertility are replaced with the monotheistic religions. In the monotheistic religions, there are only male deities.”