What’s in a Name: Vaginas, Clitorises, and Bravery

Maria Pawlowska asks how we can seriously discuss sex, gender, or equality when we can’t even say “vagina” aloud.

My mom recently attended a conference about the results of a new study on Polish sexuality. She was a panellist, along with a number of preeminent Polish names in gender studies and sexology. If you don’t mind my banging my own (genetic/family) drum, my Mom really is one kickass feminist and talking about sex in front of a large audience is just something she would do on a cold Wednesday in November. So my mom was talking about the science of sex and using context-appropriate words like “vibrator” and “clitoris” to do so. No big deal, right? These people were there specifically to discuss sex.

Well, apparently it was a big deal. My mom was the only person there (out of about ten speakers, some of whom were professional sexologists) who used any nouns directly pertaining to sex which weren’t ”penis” or “ejaculate.” One of the sexologists actually came up to my Mom after the event and congratulated her on her “bravery.” Yes, ladies and gentlemen, using words which relate to female sexuality in public is no less than an act of bravery (in Poland at least). Her first thought (and mine upon hearing the story) was that the guy must be a pretty crappy sexologist if he’s never said “clitoris” in public.

Why is it that saying “penis” is commonplace and saying “clitoris” is brave? Why do we call the female reproductive organs “down there” and “vajayjay” instead of using the proper terms? Let me give you an example. I was particularly disappointed after visiting Make Love Not Porn after watching a TEDTalk given by its creator. The website was set up with the honorable goal of straightening out some of the sexual myths perpetrated in porn. It’s very literal. Still, the author will not call the female reproductive organs by their designated names, instead reverting to classifications such as “down there,” although she has no problem swearing and saying “penis” all over the place. After all, the site is for 18+ viewers.

(OK, I admit “down there” is a pet peeve of mine. But use the proper word, please! My feet are down there, not my vagina! I also wonder – is it a coincidence that a lot of the terms used to describe female reproductive organs are either non-descript “de-emphasizers” (“down there” being a prime example) or somewhat infantilizing?)

If we can’t talk about female reproductive organs properly, we can’t really talk about female sexual experience properly. And that’s definitely not a good thing. If we’re not able to have an open conversation, with correct terminology, about the female side of things, the likelihood is we’re not having a good, constructive conversation at all.

I’m a big believer in communication of all kinds. I think life is made easier if people just say things instead of assuming someone will know what they want/think/hope for/dream of/hate by simply looking into our eyes (or some other more or less melodramatic act). I think communication is particularly important when it comes to sex. From asking for consent, through learning and navigating our partners’ tendencies and preferences, to sharing our own needs, communication is essential. Not only does it make sex easier, it makes it waaaaaay more enjoyable.

Unfortunately, a society that doesn’t take women seriously isn’t likely to take their sex seriously— and therefore call it by an appropriate name. There’s a female secretary of state in America, a woman is heading the World Bank, and there are two new female presidents in South America. Women are really moving up in the world—maybe it’s about time we give female reproductive organs the credit they deserve and start using their proper names.

Please, just do us all a favour and say “vagina” next time.

—Photo moaksey/Flickr

About Maria Pawlowska

Maria Pawlowska is a healthcare analyst with a passion for reproductive health. She spends her free time trying to stop herself from compulsively buying new books about women, sexuality, gender and sometimes the odd primate study. Maria currently lives in London with her husband and you can reach her at m.pawlowska [@] gatesscholar.org. You can follow her on Twitter @MariaPawlowska.


  1. Julie said
    “I think it would have been funny to see the ad with a bunch of CG giant vulvas sitting on thrones watching the men fight, judging, deciding. ”

    There you have it.
    Women DO want men to fight for access to the vagina.

    In that context, is it wrong to refer to it as “pussy” since we’re being manipulated into fighting for it.
    (like a commodity)

    • Julie Gillis says:

      You misunderstand. the reason it would be funny is because it is a ridiculous notion. The reason it’s comedic is because there would be disembodied body parts which men would be battling for (something I think most men would find horrific to actual do), and where are the actual women? Are they in a room somewhere waiting for their vagina to return? Are they reading?

      It’s a commentary on how completely stupid the ad is, saying men will fight for vagina, but leaving the woman out if it all together. The women in the ad are beautiful and powerful, but the text of the ad says that men fought for “it” meaning the pussy, not the person to whom the pussy belongs. That’s what’s hilarious and horrible about the ad.

      Funny because it’s horrifying, not because I’d want it to happen. If I thought it would be a good idea I’d have said,
      Wow, what a great idea to have men fight for vagina. Nothing funny about that, that’s serious business.

  2. If it’s something formal/scientific: male genitals & female genitals. Easy equality, no ickyness with how it (the word) feels in your mouth.

    It seems obvious that anything remotely trying to maintain sexiness should avoid clinical terms, and likewise obvious that partners have backup terms to better flatter each others parts.

  3. Runs_with_Scissors says:

    Yeah, I remember this non-sense when I was a boy. It used to embarrass the cr*p out of me when people sometimes referred to the genders as “has a penis” and “doesn’t have a penis” -or otherwise, avoided any reference to lady bits with liberal sprinkling of man bits instead. I thought, “what the hell! why are we dragging my most embarrassing likeness up on stage!?” If you can believe it, at the time I thought this was done to preserve the sensibilities and modesty of girls while respecting the mystique and power of female sexuality, that if openly discussed, would presumably haven driven us boys into uncontrollable fits. Conversely, I somehow got the message, that if we boys were embarrassed by the point of reference we had better get over it -we had nothing worth hiding anyhow.

    Thankfully, I eventually matured and learned that all such differences in attitude toward the genders are a function of patriarchy, and therefore my privilege at her expense. Whew! Glad I got that sorted out.

  4. Oh, the power of words…
    I’ve been in the UK this summer, and someone told me that “tits” was a gross word 😮 and people would be startled if I said it out loud.
    WHAT?!? I mean, you can see them everywhere, but you can’t name them? C’mon!!! 😀
    Maybe it’s because here in Italy nobody is touchy if you talk about tits… but I thought British were more open.

    Personally, I always like using the right words, and that’s true for body parts as well. I think there’s nothing wrong in our bodies, so there’s no reason to be ashamed about the words describing them.
    I believe that using the appropriate vocabulary is a positive message for people more shy and ashamed: if we can do it, then they will feel they can do it as well. 🙂

    Oh, BTW… Thank God for VAGINAS! 😉

    • I wouldn’t say that “tits” is the “right” word for breasts. It’s kind of vulgar. I once dated a guy who always referred to my breasts as my “tits” (even though I asked him not too) and it drove me crazy. I absolutely hate that term! “Tits” is essentially the same word as “teats”, like on a cow’s udder. Nice.

      • Yeah, I find the word “tits” rather disrespectful of my breasts too.

        • It varies depending upon situation and person. I like the word “tits” when in the throes of passion, as I like the courser words during sex or talking passionately.

          But generally people should stick to the word “breasts” if they aren’t intimate enough with a woman to know her preferences.

          • Haha, I’m torn on this word too. I like it during sex or when a partner says that I have hot tit-tays :). Yet, when in the outside world, it makes me a bit uncomfortable and sounds cheap for whatever reason. Yet, again, I had a male friend who referred to breasts as ‘tits,’ and it didn’t bug me because I knew that it was just the language he used. He wasn’t trying to be offensive, and while he had a rich sex life, he never showed a pattern of objectification. Like Joanna says–it’s all about the situation and person. It is a word with which you should be careful, though.

  5. I remember my sex ed classes in high school quite clearly even though it was decades ago. The ancient black and white films were pretty accurate in a clinical, cross-sectional way about reproduction, but there was nothing at all to indicate that people ever experienced pleasure when having sex or that anyone ever had sex for fun. The clitoris may have been labeled in the various diagrams, but it was definitely not described or talked about – since you don’t need a clitoris to get pregnant, it didn’t show up in sex ed, which was really reproduction ed. I doubt my school district had the courage to talk about an organ whose sole physiological function is pleasure. That fact is just hard to fit into stodgy old sex education curricula. Someone might have to admit that women might have sex for reasons other than getting pregnant, and they ain’t just doing it because of peer pressure….

    I read a somewhat radical feminist book recently that was quite unimpressed with the growing popularity of The Vagina Monologues. She argues that it would be more revolutionary to have The Clitoris Monologues.

  6. @Julie: I’m sure you’ve seen this but….

    Maria–Your mom sounds awesome. I’m also Eastern European, but for me, even saying ‘penis’ was awkward and not really accepted. My mother, as brilliant and wonderful as she is, told me never to say the word that that rhymes with ‘menace’ that starts with a ‘P’ (keep in mind the accent). I’m going to re-post a comment I made on the semen thread to show how awkward a lack of sexual education can be:

    “I was 18 and a half when I first did ANYTHING sexual, and I didn’t even know what semen or orgasms were. I thought “sleeping with someone” actually meant spending the night together in bed for the longest time, because that’s the phrase I heard in movies. I thought losing your virginity meant kissing until I was at least 14. (Yes, I was extremely sheltered or completely blocked that kind of stuff out of my mind).

    I remember my first serious boyfriend asking for a blow job. I gave a very poor one, not even knowing that semen was going to come out. When he finished, I instinctively spit it out, surprised. He told me that that is what was supposed to happen, and that I’m supposed to swallow. I’ve loved the taste ever since, but I always laugh back at that first extremely awkward and eye-opening experience.”

  7. My vagina (et al) has a dual identity. In a medical/anatomical context, it’s a vagina and a vulva and a clitoris. In a sexual context, it’s a pussy and a clit. Maybe even “down there” depending on the level of intimacy I have with the person I’m talking to. My own personal feeling is that vagina and clitoris are not sexy words, so if the topic of conversation is sexy, they end up being buzzkills.

    To play devil’s advocate, what makes these words the “right” words for these parts anyway? Because they’re Latin? Vagina literally translates to “sheath.” So can I just call it a sheath? Can I ditch penis in favor of phallus?

    This does bring to mind a recent trip to the zoo. My group, all in our early 20s, stopped by a bonobo exhibit that had a female, a male and a very young baby. The female had very obviously recently given birth to the baby, and her labia were still quite inflamed and swollen. When she was sitting down, there was nothing to see, but when she got up to walk around, they were pointed directly at the spectators – many of whom were very small children, under the age of ten. They went from “awwwing” over the baby bonobo to “Ewwwww! HER BUTT!” It made us grown-ups smile, because obviously they didn’t know any better and it wouldn’t have been appropriate to correct them. (Hey Mommy, I learned a new word at the Zoo today!!)

    When recounting the incident later, I did use the term labia. For what it’s worth.

  8. wellokaythen says:

    I was giving a lecture to a history class on the topic of Neolithic humans and all the myths that present-day people have about prehistoric humans. I pointed out that both men and women have driven human evolution, not just “Man the Hunter,” and I suggested that men are not physically stronger than women in all areas, but in some ways it is women’s muscles that are more powerful. I asked them to name the strongest muscle in the human body relative to size. (The tongue is the strongest in absolute terms, but not on a pound-for-pound basis.) I gave the answer – “the uterus” – and half the women in the class said “ewww….” I couldn’t believe it. We’re just talking about muscles here, people. Later in the course I describe how the Chinese imperial system created eunuchs by cutting off the testicels and most of the penis, and everyone thinks it’s funny and no one is offended. Kind of odd, really.

  9. Now wouldn’t it be funny if the terminology was switched? If female organs were discussed with proper medical names and men’s organs were called by “child friendly” names like pee-pee, balls, dickie, willy, winky, boy eggs, goolies… . Can just imagine a professor delivering a lecture now!

  10. I suppose I agree a bit with Andrew regarding some confusion about ladybits – but how the F do we start to clear all that up if we just continue to pretend we’re not confused, it’s all just “down there”?

    The confusion is part of the problem: That female sex when it comes down to talking about it is all secretive and closeted. We’re uncomfy talking about it in real terms – yet we’re ob-freakin-sessed with it. What does 98.9% of porn that isn’t a cumshot focused on? Vaginas are there for us to fuck, but we don’t really want to talk about them or learn about them. Because we fuck them, but they dirty and smelly and weird as all hell. It’s not just the professionals that can’t deal (even though I agree they should be the first to call it “vagina”), ask women. I bet *most* of them don’t even like their vaginas, despite the pleasure they (hopefully) get from them. What’s not to like? What’s not to love? What, just keep ‘er under wraps “down there” til a penis comes along?

    • I have to admit, I have to fight the feeling that my ladybits are “gross.” I wish I didn’t feel that way, but despite all the positive messages I tell myself, there is always kind of a visceral “ewwww” feeling involved. Maybe it’s thasocial most women, our first real awareness of what goes on “down there” is menstruation, which is pretty damn gross and smelly and scary when it starts happening, there’s no way around it. And I hit puberty in the late 1970’s surrounded by ultra positive feminist teachers, coaches and girl scout leaders. It didn’t help! I was still grossed out by maxi pads and the odor and the mess. Puberty was a shocker in many ways, with the sudden discovery of unpleasant smells and bodily substances and protruding labia and hair and all the rest in an area I had hitherto pretty much ignored. The prevalence of porn only gives us more to worry about because now we also have to contend with frickin aesthetic standards for our ladyybits.

      • Now I feel weird, because I don’t think my period is all that weird or gross… or even that it smells bad. It’s just a smell to me. Not bad, not good. Just… a body smell? I guess? The most I find it to be is somewhat annoyingly inconvenient at times. It’s just a bodily function.

  11. I agree with the ridiculousness of Vajayjay and the overly euphemistic “down there.” But I think there is some genuine confusion around the whole nomenclature… and I’m afraid to say that I think everyone talking about vaginas adds to the confusion. I’ve got a two year old daughter and she and her older brother talk (correctly, I think) about his penis and her vulva. Inside, there is the vagina, also a cervix and a uterus etc, but when she’s talking about her “bits” (sorry) shouldn’t it start with the vulva? Of course, all this is an aside, it’s frankly appalling that sex research professionals wouldn’t have the nomenclature down.

  12. Don’t get me started on the horrors of Summer’s Eve. I don’t want men to fight wars over vaginas. Or kill over vaginas. It isn’t the center of civilization. It’s a place on the body that does stuff. Some cool stuff. Some dumb stuff. Stuff.

    I mean, I watched that ad and wondered why they had women in it at all since the women were apparently only attached to the thing that was the powerful force.

    I think it would have been funny to see the ad with a bunch of CG giant vulvas sitting on thrones watching the men fight, judging, deciding.

    THE VAGINA!!!!!!

    • LOL! I was too lazy to get into it all but you covered it extremely well! And yes, that would have been a great ending. But what would have been even greater is if Summer’s Eve had had the good judgment not to have conceived such an absurd campaign to begin with. Shall we now discuss the racist talking hands that Summer’s Eve also used, and the messages they sent that made women feel like their vaginas were dirty and smelly?? Stop me now!! 🙂

      • We three need to write something about the Hail to the V campaign because I was completely fascinated by it. I couldn’t figure out if I loved it or hated it! I still don’t know, honestly I do not know.

        But I must say to Maria, I am completely on your side on this proper-terms argument. On our blog, we use all sorts of goofy words for penis, vagina, clitoris, testicles, perineum… I’m sure there are more… but we also use penis, vagina, clitoris, testicles, and perineum. Mostly because it gets boring to read penis penis penis and sometimes you just have to say “dick” or “weener” because they’re funny, and to mix it up.

        But I make everyone cringe saying vagina and vulva and whatnot. Thing that bugs me as a mother is that there are these high-and-mighty moms who get mad at other moms for saying anything other than “vagina” but they don’t seem to understand that a girl’s labia, clitoris, or even pubic mound are not all VAGINAS! I’m like, “umm, that’s not a vagina, that’s the vulva” and the mom says, “that’s such a gross word, I prefer ‘vagina'” and I’m like, “then don’t say you’re using the accurate term.” That’s how I get ghetto on reproductive terminology, apparently.

        Anyway – Julie, Lori, let’s get on this Hail to the V business.

        • The “Hail to the V” campaign was an abomination. First of all, it’s bad enough that the marketplace continues to make a space for such products. Do you see men washing their bits with vinegar solutions? Of course not. But the worst part of the campaign was the way it treated “vagina” like “piece of ass.” Men fought wars to do what with vaginas? If you think about it at all, how can you think it’s about anything but rape and the subjugation of women? And this is why women need to use a douche? It’s genocidal and misogynistic. (Yes, genocidal: think of the place of rape in the genocidal wars of all human history. And it ties right into all of that miraculous “stuff” that vaginas do.)

  13. And can the marketers please knock it off as well? Who remembers the recent and RIDICULOUS Summer’s Eve campaign?? There were soooo many things wrong with it, but let’s just focus on the title for the purposes of this comment and responding to this article…”Hail to the V.” Oh for God’s sake.

  14. Those people who can’t say vagina when that’s half of their field of study should be embarrassed. Your Mom sounds great. My Mom worked as a nurse in an OBGYN office so I often heard the proper names of all the parts at the supper table.
    But I think the big reason people have such a hard time with it is because they want to keep the vagina as “the sexy place” at all times. God forbid society actually recognize the magnitude of what the vagina can do and has done.


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