THE CULT OF THE SPHYNX
Herbenick and Fitzpatrick both believe one demographic group has embraced the hairless-cat look more fervently than others: college students.
In theory, this should come as no surprise; The average U.S. state university actually has all the right features to act as a veritable incubator for anti-pube sentiments. Where else do youth, skimpy clothing, rampantly available pornography, and non-monogamous sexual habits all converge so gloriously?
And as anyone who's ever lived in a freshman dormitory can attest, close quarters and newfound autonomy can produce an open forum for frank, peer-to-peer conversations about sex that would be less likely to arise in other adult settings. In other words, a conversation about pubic hair is more likely to come up in a frat house basement than at an office water cooler.
"If they want to take it off, they take it off. If they want to grow it back, they grow it back. But they're doing it because they want to."
Sometimes, those basements can act as warm, fertile petri dishes for the spread of contagious (and mostly unfounded) negativity. "Guys sit around and they talk about sex, and they think they're supposed to say, 'Pubic hair's disgusting,' and 'I hate pubic hair,'" he says. "They don't want to be judged for their sexual preferences."
And among women, Herbenick says, pubic grooming habits and preferences tend to spread among friend groups -- which leads to "clumps," she says, of women with similar grooming regimens. "Friends talk," she says. "So especially among teenagers and college students, when everyone is trying to be the same, 'the same' is what you get."
Herbenick recalls one encounter in which a popular, well-liked college student in a class she taught openly professed that he had never hooked up with a girl who had pubic hair, and would frankly be disgusted to undress a woman and discover a veil of genital fur.
"Some girls talked to me and wrote in their papers that they had always had pubic hair, and in a couple cases never did anything to their pubic hair," she said. "They never thought it was a problem. But when he said that, they went home and changed it. They really started to feel ashamed about their bodies."
Fitzpatrick, similarly, finds himself in a collegiate scene full of young women far too obsessed with the hair down there. "It becomes a compulsion," he says.
Fitzpatrick's female friends, especially those who confess to not having waxed in a while, have added a distinct new routine to their social calendars: weekend-evening freak-outs. "When they go out on a Friday night to the bar, if they think they might be having sex with somebody later, they're like, 'Is he gonna judge me? What is he gonna think?'" Fitzpatrick says. Other non-waxed coeds simply skip the bar altogether.
Pinto, too, admits that she gets nervous about having sex toward the third or fourth week after getting a wax. "If I haven't waxed and I suddenly end up hooking up with someone, I'm like, Oh, God. No, no!" she says.
And it's true, says Fitzpatrick: Guys can be, and often are, "absolutely brutal." It's not uncommon for a college-aged man to "go out of his way" to make fun of a girl's pubic grooming habits with his buddies after he's hooked up with her -- even if he's never expressed a preference one way or the other, he says. "Then all of a sudden, instead of just being a girl who's had a fun night with her respective guy, she becomes that girl who has weird pubic hair. And nobody wants that label."
But while university campuses may be hotbeds of body-hair negativity, individual college students' attitudes seem remarkably different behind closed doors.
"I personally find myself a little more attractive when I don't have it," Pinto explains. "But one time I had a consistent hookup and he told me, 'Either way, you're attractive. You're a naked girl, and you're in my bed. Doesn't matter.'"
Fitzpatrick, too, downplays the actual make-or-break importance of a woman's pubic hairstyle. "Back in the Victorian age, it was sexy to be really pale because it meant you didn't work in the fields," he says. "Or it was sexy to be fat because it meant you could afford to eat lots of meals."
Similarly, Fitzpatrick says, the waxed or clean-shaven vulva should be seen as little more than a fad -- albeit something of a saddening one. "At first, the powers that be tell you it's sexy, and then by the time you're done, you have a bunch of women obsessively waxing themselves."
"When I first met some of my friends," he adds, "they were like, 'Oh, I only like girls with 34D's who are six feet tall,' and run down this list of high standards. And then a year or two later, once I'd gotten to know them, those same guys were like, 'Yeah, you know, I really don't mind that she wears granny panties.'"
EMPOWERING OR DEFLOWERING?
Herbenick readily admits that today, both men and women alike largely consider pubic hair dirty or unfeminine. In other words, it carries a less-than-desirable stigma among members of both sexes. "But I would put it this way: so does the rest of women's body hair," she counters. "Pubic hair was kind of the last to join." After all, she says, women remove their leg hair and underarm hair all over the Western world, and many report that they would feel ashamed or embarrassed if they didn't. "They wouldn't want people to see that on them," she says. "They say they would feel unfeminine, or that they wouldn't feel sexy."
So what does it all mean? Is pubic hair removal a symbol of feminine pride, something that Gloria Steinem might be proud of? Or does it signify submission to a domineering male agenda?
"It's all in how people deal with it," Herbenick says. As she's seen in her lecture-hall encounters, the hairless vulva isn't always analogous to the clenched fist of female solidarity; just as often, it's a telltale sign of oppression or forced conformity.
But, she says, uncovered, demystified genitalia can just as easily be a symbol of empowerment. "Many women have started to feel a sense of ownership over their bodies -- an autonomy," she says. "If they want to take it off, they take it off. If they want to grow it back, they grow it back. If they want to shave it into a heart, they shave it into a heart. But they're doing it because they want to."
And sometimes, they want to make it permanent. Women aren't just striving for ways to attain that smooth, glossy, doll-like physique -- they're looking for ways to preserve it, too. Many advocate for laser hair removal as a quick, one-size-fits-all cure for the chronic problem of body hair; Pinto, who's already permanently depilated her forearms via laser hair removal, plans to undergo the procedure on her bikini area this winter.
Laser hair removal requires commitment: It can take eight to 12 half-hour sessions to completely remove the hair, with three to eight weeks between each treatment, and maintenance sessions are often necessary in later years to keep growth at bay.
Pinto's mother, a former plastic surgeon, plans to give her daughter the $3,000 procedure as a college graduation gift.