*Editor’s note: the following article contains a mindful discussion about language use and genital naming. It contains terms that are often considered ‘adult’ (but maybe shouldn’t be—or should at least be used with care and consideration of context, which is the point of the article).
“Why do people say, ‘grow some balls’? Balls are weak and sensitive. If you wanna be tough, grow a vagina. Those things can take a pounding.” ~ Sheng Wang (and actually not Betty White)
As a woman, I am tired of the disrespect shown to us by the incorrect naming of our genitals.
I’m not necessarily talking about slang words. I am, rather, talking about when people use the word “vagina” (or other singular word) to denote the entire female groin area. I can’t figure out if this is a natural shift in language usage. The dropping of “ly” off of adverbs is so common now, I can only assume it will soon be an official rule. The poor “ly” will be forgotten and archaic, destined to be relegated to those articles about words that used to be popular but that now no one has even heard of. Maybe it’s a lack of education and knowledge.
Or maybe it’s a product of shame.
The vagina is actually the internal tube (the birth canal) leading from the uterus to the outside of the body. The term “vagina” does not refer to the entire groin area.
I don’t understand the reduction of the beautiful, highly functional, well-designed female genitals to one incorrectly assigned word. I don’t understand why we are settling for this oversight, and—to my mind—this lack, this ignorance, this “norm” of making the female less: less known, less important, less studied, less worthy of respect.
I cannot participate in perpetuating this.
I think women’s bodies, and therefore women, will continue to be objectified and seen as less-than for as long as it is acceptable to be ignorant and ashamed of the female body. The famous line spoken by a kindergartener out of the (highly entertaining!) Arnold Swarchenegger movie, Kindergarten Cop, comes to mind: “Men have a penis; women have a vagina.”
And while these things are true, it is not the full truth. Not knowing and/or speaking that entire truth feels demeaning to women on a large, societal—even global—scale. To me, it’s like saying our female bodies aren’t worth knowing, aren’t worth studying, aren’t worth naming correctly, aren’t important enough to be bothered with and that they are too shameful.
How offended would you be if someone pointedly refused, even after repeated corrections, to call you by your correct name? Would you see it as a slight, a passive aggressive attempt to belittle you in some way?
When a woman is seen in a nude, upright, full frontal view, the vagina isn’t seen. It’s the vulva that’s visible. You might see part of the clitoris at the top/front of the vulva or even, further back, the usually frilly labia minor peeking out from inside the vulva, but the vagina itself is not in sight. This, my latest rant on this subject, was prompted by a young woman’s question on a Facebook group page of which I am a member. It is a group dedicated to and in pursuit of natural, “crunchy” alternatives for living. It is a group for those of us wanting to reduce our footprint on the Planet in whatever way we can. The question she asked was:
“Personal hygiene question! What do you use to wash your vagina? Besides plain water.”
I had the feeling she meant “my entire genital region” when she wrote this, but that is definitely not what she said. And it turned out to be true, because later in that same thread she explained she didn’t mean inside the vagina. However, she still did not use the word “vulva,” “genitals,” or even a slang term to denote the entire area.
Some time back, while researching the origins of the word “cunt,” I came across The Vagina Monologues definition:
“So when an abuser calls a woman a ‘cunt’ he is actually calling her a ‘queen who invented writing and numerals.’ Girls and women can thus reclaim the words in our language that have been used as weapons against us in emotionally explosive situations.”
If you need/want some good perspective on the word “cunt,” check out Jeannine Parvati Baker’s book Hygieia: A Woman’s Herbal, where she talks about how important it is to have “cunt consciousness.” The only time I have an issue with slang words for genitals is when those words are taught to a child because parents/society is too ashamed to use the correct words.
I have no problem with slang words that are commonly used to refer to the vagina…if they are used to denote the vagina itself and not the entire female genital area and if they aren’t used unilaterally.
I also see no problem with the popular terms: “lady parts,” “sexy bits,” “girly bits,” etc. Because it is pretty clear, from the plural status, that they refer to the vulva and its entire contents.
There are many commonly used words to mean “vagina,” some slang, some in different languages, such as “pussy,” “yoni,” “vajayjay,” “cunt,” etc., and none of which even give me pause. I don’t even have a problem with the word “gash,” as one of my girlfriends was called by a man years ago in what he hoped would be an insulting fashion. She just laughed, looked him up and down in that marvelous, putting-jerks-in-their-place way she has and sauntered away, unaffected.
Wikipedia defines “vulva” as “consist(ing) of the external genital organs of the female mammal.” The term used in medical circles for the vulva is the “mons pubis” (Latin for “pubic mound”).
The human female genitals consist of the vulva (the outside part seen when the woman is standing with legs together, full frontal), then (for simplicity’s sake) from front to back are the clitoris, the urethra (where urine/pee exits the body), then the vagina, and finally—behind the vulva—the anus (where feces/poop exits the body).
I know that’s a lot of things in one small area, but we really do owe it to ourselves, our lovers (if you and/or your lover happen to be a female), our children, and to every woman on the Planet—past, present, future—to be respectful enough to know a woman’s body parts. Once, during sex, I had to teach a grown man that the thing he was massaging (and much to my discomfort, while thinking, “Up or down, buddy, one way or the other”) was actually the urethra and not the clitoris.
His education consisted of me gently moving his fingers to the clitoris while saying, “It’s right there.” And then showing him, with my body movements and voice, how much I appreciated the switch. A simple search of “human female external reproductive viscera”online will pull up many literal, clear pictures of women’s genitals. Go ahead and have a look. I’ll wait.
It’s a beautiful work of art, the vulva.
It has not been until recent years that anyone has even bothered to study the clitoris. It was a couple of women, of course, that expanded that virtually nonexistent research. So therefore I was surprised to learn that the clitoris is primarily an internal organ. Internally, it encircles the vagina. Check out this great MRI of an erect clitoris.
“Sadly, it is precisely because the clitoris has no function apart from female pleasure that science has neglected to study it as intricately as the penis… “In 2005 The American Urological Association published one of Dr. O’Connell’s reports on clitoral anatomy. The report itself even states, “The anatomy of the clitoris has not been stable with time as would be expected. To a major extent its study has been dominated by social factors … Some recent anatomy textbooks omit a description of the clitoris. By comparison, pages are devoted to penile anatomy.” ~ Ms. M, Museum of Sex
Sexism and Slang
At one point, years ago, I decided that to own and study the book The Joy of Sex, might be a good idea.
I could not stomach the text, however, because he insisted on calling the woman’s vagina a “pussy.” I found his insistence upon using the word “pussy” to name the vagina objectionable only because he also, throughout the entire book, used the word “penis” for penis.
He didn’t use the word “dick,” “schlong,” “cock,” “johnson,” etc. to substitute the word penis, so why did he think it was okay to call the vagina a “pussy” ?
If he had used a slang word for penis, as he did for vagina, I might have actually purchased the book. For a book that’s purpose was supposedly to make sex about equality for men and women, I found it quite sexist and demeaning to women. I understand the book has been revised in the last few years from its original version, but I have not looked to see if that has been changed.
What does it tell a child when we won’t even teach her/him the correct names for body parts? I absolutely reject the idea of teaching a child slang, the incorrect names for body parts that we, as a society, have decided are too embarrassing or shameful to talk about.
From the very beginning of my daughter’s life, I taught her the correct names for body parts—all of her body parts, including her vulva and its contents—the same way I taught her the correct names for everything else in her world. I decided if we, as humans, were not somehow embarrassed and ashamed of bodies, sex and bodily functions, that’s what we would just naturally do. I didn’t use the excuse that “those words” are too difficult for a child to remember nor too many.
I didn’t use the excuse that there are so many slang words for genitals that if I teach her the correct terms she won’t be able to make sense of anything later. I didn’t use the excuse that it was too embarrassing (it wasn’t) or too difficult. I didn’t use the excuse that one vague, fear-based term like “down there,” for example, was good enough for my daughter and her journey through her lifetime.
This is a child who, as a toddler, with the most intense, serious, questioning look on her face that told me she had already given it quite a bit of thought, asked me, “Momma, did I have on clothes when I came out of your bagina?”
“Lord no, child, it was hard enough getting you out of there naked and slick. I can’t imagine having to do it with buttons and zippers in the way.” And we both laughed at that funny image.
It enrages me when I hear parents ask the question, “My daughter is starting to explore her body now, so what should I tell her to call those parts?” How about their real names, for humanity’s sake?! She’ll come across plenty of slang words as she grows up, she’ll encounter all types of misinformation, but at least start her, arm her, with the truth.
I want to honor bodies. All bodies.
I want to understand them. I want my daughter to understand, know and honor her body.
I want to help usher in the idea that the body might simply be a normal, healthy tool for navigating life, that it’s parts might be called just what they are called. I want female bodies to be just as important, revered, studied and understood as male bodies. I want to live in a world where females are treated with respect, both their bodies and themselves.
I want to live in a world where bodies are seen for their beauty and for their function, a world where we honor them and don’t abuse them. A world where it is safe for my daughter to walk alone at night in her female body.
A world where I don’t have to evaluate my safety parameters based on what I wear on my female body. A world that doesn’t see exposed female skin as an open invitation for sexual assault. A world where a woman’s body is not seen as dirty, wrong, unknown, wanton. A world where ignorance—about anatomy, sex, bodily functions, sexuality, the body, what constitutes respect and what doesn’t—is not tolerated.
Growing a Vagina
So I am growing a vagina, and I am speaking up—for women, men, children, humanity and bodies—but mostly for peace. The peace that might be possible if all people were seen as equal and as equally deserving, equally important, equally worthy, equally entitled to safety in their body.
I don’t think that’s too much to ask. I think it begins with respect for the body—chiefly, with respect for the highly ignored, under-appreciated, female body.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Apprentice Editor: Marcee Murray King / Editor: Renée Picard
Photo: Courtesy of Author