words by Elle Stanger (She/Her)
Vagina. Vulva. Cunt, pussy, snatch. Front-hole.
What do you call your genitals?
Clitoris. Outer labia. Inner labia. Perineum. Mons pubis.
Can you name your parts? Your partner’s parts? Can they name yours? Why does it matter what we call the spaces between our legs?
The words we use for our genitals can bring up all kinds of feelings—from god to bad to ugly. Some adults still use the euphemisms we were taught when younger and avoid using anatomical terms for body parts altogether out of shame, or simply because they were never taught the proper terms.
Studies show that if parents or caregivers insinuate that genitals and sex are shameful or “dirty,” people are more likely to grow up with internalized discomfort and shame around their bodies and sexuality.
As adults, this anxiety and lack of information about sexuality can lead to some real miscommunications and issues with our bodies and sexuality. Adults who feel shame or lack information about sexual health are less likely to use barrier protection or other contraception. They are more likely to engage in risky sex when intoxicated, and they are less likely to talk to their doctors about their sexual concerns. Even many so-called healthcare professionals are afraid to ask about their patient’s sexual health as part of their whole-body health. It can be tough living in a sex-negative society!
Adults who feel shame or lack information about their sexual health are less likely to use barrier protection or other contraception and more likely to engage in risky sex.
America’s sex-negativity runs deep regardless of gender, but Female bodies have been under-served by medicine and science for centuries. “Hysteria” was the Ancient Greek notion that a wandering uterus led to mental illness in people with vaginas. This medical theory remained prevalent for nearly two thousand years, and in the Victorian era, a few women died after undergoing procedures designed to literally screw their uterus in place. (Today’s doctors are now learning that trauma is often a main reason behind mental health instability.)
Today, general practitioner physicians in America rarely inquire about the sexual health and function of their patients and reportedly receive little sexuality training. Perhaps this is why some surgeons have disfigured the vulvas of patients undergoing labiaplasty. Could it be in part because they didn’t know the correct names for the parts of a vulva (and because they ignored consent of the patient)?
As more schools in America refuse sexuality education to their kids, conservative politicians and voters close sexual health clinics across the country, and as social inequality and poverty continues to rise despite our efforts, less people have the ability to protect themselves with condoms, screenings, and antibiotics. Having an STI isn’t the worst thing in the world and can be managed, but an untreated STI can lead to infertility or even death!
The more we know about our genitals and how to care for genitals, the safer we all are. And it begins with being able to talk about our bodies and all bodies without shame or stigma.
Sex-positivity can begin with potty training of little ones by teaching them the proper names for their parts simply and clearly: “Wipe your vulva! Wipe your anus!”
Most of us weren’t taught these terms, but we can begin to break the cycle. It’s never too late to learn about our bodies. Comprehensive and inclusive sexuality information will revolutionize the fight for sexual and civil rights for all people and this begins by being able to name our concerns and treat them with respect.
The more we know about our genitals and how to care for genitals, the safer we all are.
Vagina. Vulva. Labia, mons pubis. If these words are awkward to say, practice them to the tune of your favorite song. Knowing your body’s parts will improve your ability to ask for and give pleasure. “Can you press on my perineum? Tap my clitoris? Tickle my testicles?” Being able to discuss your body with your doctor gives you power in addressing any issues you may be dealing with.
All genitals look, smell, and taste different, and it’s normal for them to change with aging, overall health, childbirth, surgery, hormones, and care. There is no normal vulva, even though many of us grew up viewing photoshopped porn in magazines made by-and-for straight males. In fact, researchers in the UK just recently stated that there’s no such thing as a “standard-looking” vulva, which should seem obvious because there’s also no such thing as a “standard-looking” face, and cultural variations and trends highlight different desired attributes with time.
Vulvovaginal anatomy is still so misunderstood and historically under-studied that scientists don’t (and can’t) offer good arousal prescriptions for bodies with vaginas. Scientists don’t yet know exactly what the G-spot is, or why some folks have them and others don’t.
Sexual rights are civil rights, and language is a powerful tool for sharing information and attitudes that do impact people. So speak truth to your body, know your parts. You’ll have better sex, and you’ll be part of the fight against shame and stigma surrounding our sexuality. Your body and your genitals are not dirty, and vagina is not a dirty word.
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A percentage of all proceeds from #NotADirtyWord sales will go directly to the Women's Prison Association (WPA).
WPA works with people at all stages of criminal justice involvement. They promote alternatives to incarceration and help people living in the community to avoid arrest or incarceration. Inside prison and jail, they are a source of support to people and a resource to them as they plan for release. After incarceration, people come to WPA for help to build the lives they want for themselves and their families in the community.
WPA helps people achieve what is most important to them.
• Safe and affordable housing
• Preparation for job interviews and obtaining employment
• Reunify people with their children
• Comply with criminal justice mandates and live safe and law-abiding lives
• Access addiction, health, and mental health services
• Gain peer support from other people
• Learn household budgeting and skills for daily life