I remember once I was talking to a man called Neil, a friend of a friend who I was reasonably well acquainted with. We were in a flower shop, a group of us, we were buying some flowers for someone's birthday.
Neil and I were standing next to each other, looking at an orchid. I am very fond of orchids.
This one had a dramatic spray of ice-white flowers, freckled deep purple, rising from a nest of shiny dark-green leaves. It was so beautiful it made me shiver slightly.
I looked at the delicate, architectural folds of a single flower's petals, and I was struck by a thought. I turned to Neil and said: "Isn't it interesting? Sometimes you can really see that it's true - flowers are the genitals of a plant."
He said: "What?" and I said: "It looks like a vagina."
Neil fixed his eyes on me. His mouth tightened. He was clearly as disgusted and deeply angry as if I had hit him.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" he said quietly.
Then he turned his back on me and walked away. Following that day, he avoided me, and we never really spoke again.
I've thought about this quite a lot, and I still can't see why that was an offensive thing to say. It may be that in Neil's world one does not talk about genitalia unless it is under very specific circumstances, in which case I could well have embarrassed him by dropping the V-bomb in a public place at 10am. But that still doesn't explain why he reacted with such horrified rage.
The only conclusion I can come to is that Neil regarded vaginas as inherently offensive. He didn't understand how you could look at a beautiful flower and compare it to such a horrid thing, and he thought anyone who could make that mental connection was a pervert.
The folds of flower petals do look like the folds of labia (or, if you want to put it another way, vaginas look like flowers). I find this visual connection between plant sex - which (whether one pretends otherwise or not) is what all flowers are - and human sex very satisfying and beautiful. It feels like a subtle connection, a reaffirmation of our place in the grand order of nature.
The only way this resemblance is disgusting and horrifying is if you think vaginas are disgusting and horrifying. This interests me, because by Neil's own account - and by all the evidence of his behaviour - he was a straight man. Before this conversation - if I had ever thought about it - I would have assumed he would like vaginas, and generally be pretty unambiguous about approving of them as a good thing. Clearly this was not the case.
It's true vaginas are not anywhere near as aesthetically appealing as flowers. The resemblance is more in the arrangement of petals and the lines than in the level of beauty, but then penises aren't beautiful objects either. However, speaking as a straight woman, I do like penises. I like the way they feel to the touch, warm, the soft skin above the hard muscle. I like the men they're attached to. I like just generally having them about.
It does make me wonder what Neil was like in bed. Horrific, probably. Lust and revulsion, that's a toxic combination. Wanting to get off, hating himself for needing it. But he's not alone. One of the saddest things humanity ever did to itself was the way we have divorced ourselves from our sexual selves. The way, culturally, we have made sex into something that's separate from the rest of our world, our sexual needs into a weakness to be concealed and ashamed of, our genitals into something disgusting. The way we still marginalise prostitutes and condemn pornography. We could choose to celebrate one as a profession and the other as an art form, but that would mean accepting our sexual needs instead of masking them. Instead we continue to pretend neither exist, even though both have been present in our culture for as long as records have existed and will continue until the extinction of humanity.
Most people manage to get past this, ignore the cultural cues, and have a healthy relationship with their libidos. Some of us don't.
Neil clearly hadn't, and - for different reasons - I haven't either. I am in what one might define as ongoing peace talks with my sexuality. We are negotiating a ceasefire. I still hope that one day we can work together.