It’s trendy today for people to say that they are spiritual, not religious, implying that they have given up the traditional trappings of institutionalized faith-based structures in favor of a more personal, organic, DIY approach. Ironically, I often find myself in the opposite position: as a nonbelieving adult, neither theist nor deist, who was raised in an immersive and entirely positive Presbyterian (mainstream Protestant Christian) upbringing, I still retain that canonical language as a default diction, whether I subscribe to its sentiments any longer or not. The vocabulary of religion lingers, like the taste of bread and wine, on my tongue.
That’s why, when I think about my body, one of my favorite verses from the Jewish scripture (later appropriated by Christianity’s breakaway sect) is Psalm 139:13. In the New International Version’s translation from 1978, the psalm’s speaker says to their maker: “You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”
The word I’m most drawn to here is knit, because when my fetal form was finished being Etsy’d in utero, someone left a seam showing, and I love it.
According to Gray’s Anatomy (the book, not the show), the human scrotum “is divided on its surface into two lateral portions by a median line which is continued forward to the under surface of the penis and backward along the middle line of the perineum to the anus.” This line is known as a raphe, with descriptive modifiers based on its respective location: perineal raphe, scrotal raphe, penile raphe. Anyone with access to a scrotum should be able to see it: a slightly darker, slightly raised, frequently quite squiggly little line that meanders along the [ahem] taint, between the testicles, and up along the underside of the penis shaft (at least until, as in my case, it gets rudely interrupted by a circumcision scar and sadly disappears).
(Coincidentally, there’s a similar bifurcating line, also called a raphe, that runs down the center of the human tongue, just as there are similarly styled skin-bridges called frenula that anchor the tongue to the lower jaw and the foreskin to the bottom of the penis… or, again, would do so if not for involuntary infant circumcision. Grrr.)
The reason I love my raphe, however, isn’t for its aesthetics or parallels to other parts of the body. I love it because of what it represents: a time before gender. Again, from Gray’s:
“In the sixth week [of fetal development] a tubercle, the genital eminence, is formed… and this is soon surrounded by two folds of skin, the genital ridges. Toward the end of the second month the genital tubercle presents… a genital groove, which extends downward toward the [anus]. This groove becomes deeper, and is bounded laterally by projecting folds of skin, the genital folds. All these parts are well developed by the second month, yet no distinction of sex is possible.”
In other words, a human fetus at two months of development has a one-size-fits-all genital structure, identical regardless of eventual sex. How cool is that?
Eventually, of course, as time goes by, this multipurpose singular system commonly morphs into what we recognize as “female” or “male” external genitals. Gray’s calls the development of the vulva “an easy transition,” with “the genital eminence [becoming] the clitoris, the genital ridges [creating] the labia majora, and the lips of the genital groove [turning into] the labia minora.” For male organs, meanwhile, Gray’s observes that “the changes are greater. The genital eminence is developed into the penis… [and] the genital ridges unite in the middle line to form the scrotum.” In other words, the clitoris and the penis develop from exactly the same initial structure, as do the labia and scrotum below them, with the raphe being the seam where the scrotum gets stitched together to keep the testicles from falling out.
I don’t know about you, but this knowledge blew my mind the first time I encountered it. Firstly, my ’90s American public-school sex-ed classes had done nothing to prepare me for the notion that male and female genitals are more alike than different in terms of development structures (and certainly not that there could be any option besides the traditional binary, heaven help us, at any stage in the game).
Secondly, I still haven’t forgotten my sense of absolute bafflement the first time I actually came face-to-face with a partner’s real-life vulva: I had no idea what parts I was seeing or what to do with them, because that aforementioned sex-ed preparation had taught me nothing about labia or a clitoris. As far as I’d learned in school, a woman’s crotch consisted of smudgy photocopied arrows pointing toward even blurrier vaginal and urethral openings and maybe some hair, end of story. Staring at the actual beauty and complexity of a vulva left me inspired but absurdly ashamed of my ignorance. I didn’t know what to do. I had no idea what sensations might exist or could be elicited from such alien structures — until, that is, I discovered their developmental similarities to my own penis and scrotum. And no, I’m not dumb enough to suggest that these parts and their erotic responses are in any way identical in fully developed adults… but they definitely have more in common than apart. Clits get hard; cocks get wet; labia and scrotums share some of the most delicious nerve endings this side of their, um, respective “eminences.”
Even without using a superficial crash-course in fetal development as a primer for savvier sex, however, I cherish this knowledge simply for its proud claim on my universally common humanity. Every time I notice that squiggly line between my balls, I am reminded that once upon a time, I was literally open to possibility. I could have been anyone, but then I was “knit together” to become the uniquely specific person I am. It’s not about the demands or constructs of my ultimate gender. It’s about the potential personhood in my initial genesis.
“Such knowledge is too wonderful,” shivered the Psalmist in rapturous awe. “I am fearfully and wonderfully made!”
I’ve got a seam to show it. God or not, that seems like a miracle.
© Kent Clark, 2020