The Va-jay-jay. The Vagina. The Vadge (thanks, “Superbad”). All words to describe a body part with an actual name of vulva.
Wait, you didn’t know that? Let’s repeat. Female genitals — those parts we commonly label “private” — are called the vulva. It is a term for the external female genital organs: the mons (the fatty pad above the pubic bone), the clitoris (the glans is an area containing thousands of nerve endings and it has a shaft/”legs” that extend down the sides of the vulva inside of the body. It’s sole purpose is pleasure, yes, pleasure), the clitoral hood (a fold of skin that protects the clitoris), the labia minora and majora (the folds of skin at the sides of the vaginal opening), the urethral opening (the entrance into the tube that connects to the bladder) and the vaginal opening. It is not the vagina. The vagina is the internal passageway connecting the external genitals to the cervix and uterus, only the very entrance of which can actually be seen from the outside the female body.
Why don’t we know this? In general, it is because we don’t teach girls about their bodies. Think about it: what boy (or man) doesn’t know that his penis is called a penis? Even if they use slang (which I find juvenile and problematic), most boys know what their anatomy is called. How many of us label our daughters’ parts correctly? How many of us use slang or, even worse, refer vaguely to ”down there?”
You may be saying: wait, I talk to my daughter about puberty and reproduction, I use the words menstrual cycle, uterus, ovary. But these words have their context inside the body. What about the part that girls can actually see? Or, sure, you may mention the term “pubic hair” but you don’t accurately describe where it is located. Pubic hair is not in our vaginas. But that’s not what we wind up telling young people.
Clearly, I have a thing about the vulva. More important, I have a thing about people not using the term correctly, or at all. Now you’re probably wondering if this is really a big issue or perhaps I am overreacting. Judge for yourself:
1. What message does it send to girls when we tell them that they have a body part (a wonderful and important body part) that doesn’t need to have a correct name? That the part is so unimportant that it doesn’t need to have any name?
2. Does this lack of language and inability to talk about vulvas at all make girls feel encouraged to look at their vulvas? To see what their body is all about? Nope. Is it any wonder that many girls and women feel very detached from their vulvas and have trouble talking about them, whether in a medical context or a sexual one?
3. If we don’t have a correct (and universal) language for our bodies, how is it possible to talk about what we want sexually? What feels good? What doesn’t feel good?
4. How are doctors suppose to diagnose or treat us if the term we use to talk about a body part isn’t the actual term?
5. How can we possibly teach children to identify good touch from bad touch when we don’t have a universal and correct language?
6. And what’s the big deal with the word “vulva?” That is its name.
Perhaps it’s because we have trouble discussing anything that has to do with female sexuality. We have a long history of undermining, belittling, or ignoring girls’ sexuality.
Consider, for example the recent decision by the Obama Administration and Health and Human Service’s Kathleen Sebelius to overturn the FDA’s scientifically based decision to provide OTC access of Plan B (emergency contraception) to all girls, not just those over seventeen. Seems to me like the message is loud and clear: Girls, you are incapable of making good decisions when it comes to sex. You are also so indiscriminate and thoughtless about how you have sex that you would use Plan B in a matter for which it was not intended. You should keep your legs shut and hide that nonexistent unlabeled body part, and that’s it. Don’t look, don’t touch, don’t label it. It doesn’t — it shouldn’t — exist.
Except of course, when it comes to the medicalization of female sexuality. Then all bets are off. We have a cosmetic industry devoted to “pretty-ing up” the vulva. Because apparently there is only one type of vulva that people find attractive. Because we all look at ours regularly, right? Thankfully people are challenging this practice but there’s a lot left to do. So let’s start at the beginning by acknowledging that the vulva exists. And by telling little girls that they should feel good about their vulvas. Because body image isn’t limited to what we weigh on the scale. It also means articulating, acknowledging, and appreciating all of our body parts, even - especially - those “down there.”
warning for cissexism.