Jan 022017

vulvasWhen I was taking my Intro to Psychology class in college, I had this really great professor. She was all about discovery-based interactive learning, doing projects and activities to figure things out instead of listening to someone lecture and taking notes. One day, we did an exercise about slang words. She divided us into small groups and told us that she was going to put some words up on the screen, one at a time. In our groups, we were to come up with as many synonyms as we could think of for each of the words. The words were things like “penis,” “testicles,” “vagina,” “breasts,” “menstruation.” The word “vulva” did not appear on the screen.

After we finished the exercise, the professor had us look at which words had the most synonyms as a class. “Testicles” won, intriguingly enough, and there were also a lot of slang terms for “breasts”. The professor asked us what we thought this might mean. Why do we need twelve or more different words or phrases to talk about testicles but only three or so for vaginas? Our professor talked about how as a general rule, when a culture values something highly, it comes up with lots of synonyms for that thing. If we’re going to talk about something a lot, we’re going to need words for formal, informal, rude, polite, familiar, and academic conversations. We want different words with varying connotations and nuances. Connotations can be crucial: “beautiful” and “attractive” might be listed as synonyms in the thesaurus, but if you’re talking about how aesthetically pleasing your dog is, only one of those words is going to be socially appropriate. Speaking of “beautiful,” we have a lot of synonyms for it because as a culture, we care a lot about aesthetics and we like beautiful things. My professor finished the exercise by saying “So one could say that we have a culture of tits and balls.”

Words are important because they are an indicator of what we value, and conversely, the words we have also shape our perception of the world around us. One other thing my professor pointed out is that bio-sex male humans also have breasts, and that our slang words made no acknowledgement of that fact. We don’t value the breasts of non-female humans very much, and our language reflects that. Perhaps more interestingly, the words we use can change the way we think. Not having words for the breasts of male persons means that we don’t think about them when we talk about breasts. If we have certain categories, we will place the things we come across into those categories. As our type, number, and definition of categories change, so does the way we view our world.

Here’s how I see our cultural reluctance to use the word “vulva.” Our culture doesn’t value the non-vagina parts of female genitals very highly, so we don’t talk about them much, especially outside of scientific contexts. Since we don’t talk about vulvas very often, we don’t come up with vulva-specific slang terms. Individuals don’t want to use scientific, academic language in situations where slang might be more comfortable (like, say, dirty talk or erotica), so they instead use slang words that are less accurate but more situationally appropriate. In doing so, they reinforce the idea that we shouldn’t use the word vulva, and that vulvas aren’t of value to the erotic conversation.

We can break the cycle. We can talk about vulvas. We can come up with cool slang words that specifically refer to vulvas. We can bring vulvas into our erotic discussions and insist that vulvas belong there. Words can shape our perceptions and our values, but our perceptions and values can also shape our words. If we value vulvas, we should talk about vulvas. If we talk about vulvas, we can shift our culture towards valuing vulvas, and by association, recognizing the inherent value of people with vulvas. That sounds like a world I want to live in.

Annamarie Myers is a sex blogger with lots of opinions about genitals, culture, words, sex toys, and tea. You can find her at annamarieinthemiddle.wordpress.com and on Twitter @myers_annamarie.

 Posted by at 12:09 pm
Dec 052016

In 2012, feminist Lindy West wrote on Jezebel, “I will never, EVER stop saying ‘vagina’ when I mean ‘vulva.’ Yes, I know the difference. No, I don’t care how mad you are about it. Yes, I think your outrage is misdirected and humorless and pedantic and boring. No, I’m not sorry.”

While she’s certainly free to use whatever terms she wishes, I think any self-proclaimed feminist would be preaching the correct terminology for the female genitalia from the mountain top. I mean really, should we be reduced to just a vagina – the place where a penis goes? Should we ignore the fact that we have anatomical structures that are there just to make us happy and bring us pleasure?

Our sorry state of sex education in this country neglects to teach teens about anything other than the penis and vagina. Basically, all of the focus is on reproduction. Teens don’t learn in school that women have a sex organ that rivals that of the all important penis. A clitoris has around 5000 nerve endings whereas a penis has around 30001. So, if teens don’t learn it in sex ed, many of them go through their adult lives not knowing about all the wonders internal-clitorisof the vulva.

Historically, there’s been a lack of interest in women’s sexuality and that’s probably why it wasn’t until the 1990’s that we learned the true scope and size of the clitoris. By then, we pretty much knew the penis inside and out.

It’s not just the part you can see. It actually has a large internal structure with erectile tissues, much like that of a penis and, as far as we know, its sole purpose is to make us feel good. When we gloss over the specific structures of our sexual organs and simply call everything down there a vagina, it erases all those other parts of us. It’s like accepting that our pleasure isn’t that important and the man can just do his thing and be done with it.

I think it empowers people to learn and use the correct terminology. It can help them develop a deeper appreciation of what it means to be a woman. I think any feminist would demand the use of correct terminology, because maybe some men think that all we are is a vagina. And imagine the harm that’s caused if we go around substantiating that?

We are whole beings with our own intricate sexualities. We’re not just here to make babies or to be penis receptacles. Our pleasure should matter and it starts by recognizing that there’s more going on down there than just a vagina. Studying and understanding our sexual functioning is just as important as the attention given to that of men. I don’t want society to reduce me to just a vagina. We are complex creatures and I think it’s a fiercely feminist act to demand that we are recognized as such.

This post was written from a cishet point of view because honestly, that’s all I know. It’s my reality and I don’t feel qualified to speak on behalf of folks who are not cishet.

  1. I have seen different figures on the exact number but it’s a fact that the clitoris has many more nerve endings
 Posted by at 1:52 pm