Language is quite literally the voice of reality. This reality is socially constructed, unique to our own language, vocabulary, and experiences. The words we use (or don’t use) to describe our world affects the way we understand the world, shaping our perceptions, our place in the world, and our interactions and relationships with one another.
Words have several layers of meaning; beyond the straightforward, dictionary definition, words also have implied meanings, or connotations that suggest an attitude, feeling, or emotion. These connotations can be positive, negative, or both, depending on the context.
We try to be mindful about the language we use to be as inclusive, empathetic, and understanding as possible—we’re talking about a private-not-personal topic that everyone with a vagina deals with and we recognize that everyone is different. When you read, or say vagina what comes to mind? Why do you think you feel that way?
We’ve always had vaginas, but, like many subjects sexually related, they remain to s̶o̶m̶e̶ most extent taboo. Its historical context is rife with myth, misunderstanding, and mistreatment, despite it being something we’ve always had, and the bedrock of our survival.
By examining the meanings (both literal and figurative) of vaginas and their surprisingly brief recorded history, we may begin to understand why the word for a body part remains—to this day—enshrouded in stigma and shame.
The vagina's historical context is rife with myth, misunderstanding, and mistreatment, despite it being something we’ve always had, and the bedrock of our survival.
Despite efforts to normalize the word, vagina is often (and incorrectly) used interchangeably for the vulva. While the vulva includes all of the external genital anatomy like your pubic mound, labia, and clitoris, as opposed to the internal structures that no one but your gynecologist can see, the vagina is the muscular canal that leads from the uterus to the external orifice of the genital area. Think of your vagina as a tunnel connecting your uterus to your vulva, just like your throat connects your mouth to your stomach.
While we understand that the vagina is simply another body organ like your stomach, liver, or brain, there wasn’t a modern medical term for it until the 1680s. To put that into perspective, the brain and liver were identified before the 12th century and the stomach was termed in the 14th century.
It will surprise absolutely no one, then, that in the medical realm (and let’s be honest, social, too) our vagina may be defined, yet its myriad connotations continue to complicate our conversations with alliterations and analogy.
The Historical Connotation(s) of Vagina
Prior to its modern definition, the basic meaning of the Latin word vagina was sheath, or scabbard for a sword. (By association, gladius, or sword was a common term for the penis.)
The very origin of these words infers that the penis (or sword) is for doing or filling, while the vagina (or sheath) connotes an absence, loss, and void to be filled—a sheath would not exist without its sword.
You might think this is a stretch, but these archaic ideas continue to dominate social assumptions about heteronormative gender roles and can be traced back to the origins of healthcare. Please bear with us as we share a brief history lesson.
The Brief History Lesson
During the Roman Empire, Galen, who was considered the medical researcher of the time, viewed the vagina as literally an inside-out penis. He wrote that the vagina (which had not yet been named) was a “man’s [genitals] turned in and extending inward between the rectum and the bladder. If this should happen, the scrotum would necessarily take the place of the uteri, with the testes lying outside, next to it on either side.”
This was not an analogy; it was the common belief that people with penises and people with vaginas literally shared the same sexual organs — it was just that those with a vagina were an “imperfect form,” or “deformity.” This assumption that the cisgender male form was the standard remained persistent for centuries and its residue remains obvious today. In fact, it wasn’t until 1994 that the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) mandated that clinical trials include people with vaginas. Prior to these revised guidelines, most drugs were never tested on vulva owners on the assumption that they would work the same on both sexes.
It wasn’t until the 1500s that anatomists were able to examine inside the body and begin to publish anatomical drawings of organs and genitalia. Keep in mind this was during the Renaissance, and images of the reproductive system were considered lewd by the church, so kept out of view from most lay people. The unknown fosters fear, and the vagina was—if not a dirty word—certainly misunderstood.
During the Enlightenment Period (1685—1815), the sciences flourished and the vagina was finally given its name we know today. Thanks to the advent of the printing press, literature on sexual advice, midwifery manuals, and medical treatises written in the vernacular became widely available, and more and more people were able to at least identify their anatomical parts, if not begin to understand how they worked.
In 1840, the invention of the vaginal speculum (an instrument gynecologists still use to open and see inside the vagina) furthered our understanding of how the vagina worked, but it was not until the sexual revolution of the 1960s that vaginal healthcare came into its own with the publication of Our Bodies, Our Selves. It was the first book of its kind to discuss everything from vaginal health to gender identity, birth control and abortion to pregnancy and childbirth, and menstruation to menopause.
We’re now in the age of internet as conversation, not content, and it’s become increasingly difficult to detect misinformation disguised as education.
It wasn’t until 1994 that the NIH mandated that clinical trials include people with vaginas in their medical trials under the assumption that they would work the same on both sexes.
We still talk about our vulvas and vaginas in inaccurate and misleading ways. As a culture, we continue to overvalue penetrative penis-in-vagina sex. We’ve been shamed into thinking that our vaginas should be free from discharge and scent. We’ve been indirectly told that there’s something wrong with us. Some of us are still working through the negative, embarrassing, and uncomfortable relationships with our bodies, partners, and health-care professionals.
This isn’t just a topic. It’s the theme. We need to disrupt the narrative. Vagina is not a dirty word.
By using anatomical language instead of diminutive nicknames or phrases, like “down there” or “you know where,” we acknowledge that vaginal wellness is an important and respected part of our sexual and reproductive health and education. Feelings, scent, and discomfort aren’t things to be covered up; rather, they're to be discussed and dealt with in a realistic and straightforward way.
Our vaginas require attention and self care just like any other body part. Knowing your vulva and vagina—their terms, functions, and history—is empowering in giving you ultimate agency and control over your body and creating a new reality where these conversations are normal. The only way to normalize these conversations is by having these conversations.
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