The Most Offensive Word in Michigan: Vagina

Eric Henney examines what’s truly behind the barring of a Michigan legislator for using the word “vagina” on the legislature floor. 

On Wednesday of last week, Michigan State Representative Lisa Brown, an otherwise minor figure in the American political landscape, used the word “vagina,” a rather unremarkable term, when arguing against a set of draconian abortion regulation bills being pushed through the state legislature.

Of course, if you were one of Ms. Brown’s Republican peers, you would have a slightly different view. You would feel her clinical diction to be gutter-mouthed and obscene. You would feel that Ms. Brown no longer deserves the privilege of speaking, that she instead deserves punishment for her lack of decorum. Also, you would have successfully barred her from speaking on the legislature floor.

Considering “vagina” obscene is manifestly asinine. “Vagina” carries none of the carnality of “snatch” or “pussy.” It belies none of the misogyny of “cunt” or “twat” and none of the puerility of “bajingo” or “hoo-ha.” In fact, it is the only word in the layman’s parlance that manages to refer simply to the area between the vulva and uterus. So if one were to refer to that space at all, it would seem that the most neutral way in which one could do it would be to use “vagina.”

So Michigan Republicans involved have acted in such a way as to epitomize the worst, most Victorian aspect of American sexuality: we love to talk about sex, but only in mind-numbingly connotative code. They have also betrayed in themselves a disturbing squeamishness about the facts of femininity. But I daresay very little of this is news.

What I find so dumbfounding, so stupefying, though, is what Michigan Republican Mike Callton had to say in support of the silencing: “It was so offensive, I don’t even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company.”

Let’s try to parse this comment a bit. Callton finds “vagina,” a direct and unadorned term, to be offensive, which is to say that certain parts of the female anatomy make him uncomfortable, at least when referred to publicly. And he also seems duty-bound to protect women from obscenity, which by itself is a kind of chauvinism. But that’s really beside the point, because the word about which he is being chauvinistic is a word that references women. So Mike Callton seems to think that women ought not hear words which reference their own gender if they have not been sanitized for the evidently delicate and hysteria-prone female sensibility. Women must be therefore be protected from thinking too much about themselves, because women are both fragile and gross.

Unless Mr. Callton suffered some brief cerebral short-circuit at the time of his speaking, he seems to be able to sincerely hold these antique beliefs together. And for that he deserves a perverse kind of applause. I suspect, though, that it will be drowned out by all the boos he and his cronies deserve for everything else.

Image of the anatomy of the female reproductive system courtesy of Shutterstock

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About Eric Henney

Eric Henney is a freelance writer. He writes about the things he thinks about, which focus a lot on some things and not very much on other things. He has written about film, TV, books, festivals, and food for publications like Philadelphia City Paper. Follow Eric on Twitter @EHerbertHenney, and visit his website at erichenney.wordpress.com.

Comments

  1. It is stupid. In fact the behavior is so stupid that I don’t believe it. She was scoring. He had to shut her up and with limited imagination he used the only thing he could think of -that talking about women’s reproductive organs in clinical terms is offensive. Now the political machinery has to back fill to attach some level of plausibility to the unbelievable and incredible position they have taken. I mean if they say it enough it becomes true. Vagina is a dirty word, after all, isn’t it? See, that didn’t take long.

  2. You’re misrepresenting what was found offensive. Here’s exactly what she said:

    “Finally, Mr. Speaker, I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina, but ‘no’ means ‘no,'” Brown said Wednesday.

    She not only implies that the Republican legislators have some sort of sexual motivation in outlawing abortion, but also that that motivation is akin to rape. Her rhetoric was puerile, inflammatory, and worded solely to offend.

    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      Or perhaps worded to draw attention to the issue.

    • Eric Henney says:

      I’ve thought about the context, matera, but I don’t think I’m misrepresenting the issue. Michigan Republicans weren’t offended by the fact that Lisa Brown made a joke. Sardonic comments are rather common in American politics. The issue was that part of her joke included the word “vagina” and that such a word was found to be just too crass for the legislature’s floor. That’s what legislators have focused on, so that’s what I’m focusing on; I stand by my argument. But even if that weren’t the issue, Mike Callton’s comments would still be bizarre, chauvinistic, and arguably indicative of persistent gender chauvinism.

      • If there’s another article that further clarifies what specifically Mike Callton found offensive, please provide it, because based on this article is just as possible that he was offended by Brown’s entire article rather than a single word.

        In either case, her comment WAS extremely crass because she’s implying people have a prurient interest in her genitals and that they are essentially committing rape.

        • *entire comment*

        • Eric Henney says:

          Yeah, I get that, but I think that talking on about rape here is beside the point. Speaker Bolger’s press secretary mentioned that “vagina” was contextually inappropriate, meaning that using “vagina” in that comment was a problem. If it wasn’t, if “vagina” was no more inappropriate a word to use in that comment than “flattered,” as I feel it is, then the press secretary probably should have made that clear. But he didn’t, which is to say that “vagina” was being construed as a dirty word. I still think that indicates an unhealthy and backwards relationship with the word, and that’s the problem that critics have, too.

          If you’d prefer, though, we can try to drive a wedge between that debate and Mr. Callton’s comments, on which he thus far hasn’t elaborated. And in that case, I think I should again note that Callton’s feeling uncomfortable repeating a comment made by a woman about women’s issues in front of women continues to represent a unique and bizarre sense of chauvinism. And that is unacceptable.

          • “Speaker Bolger’s press secretary mentioned that ‘vagina’ was contextually inappropriate, meaning that using “vagina” in that comment was a problem.”

            I did a google search to find Ari Adler’s, Bolger’s press secretary’s, response. All that was mentioned was maintaining the decorum of the house; there was no singling out of “vagina” as being the sole point of offense. Here’s a link to what appears to be the full official response:

            http://www.mlive.com/politics/index.ssf/2012/06/house_democrat_women_lawmakers.html

            If you can find a statement that actually states that “vagina” was the sole point of offense, please link to it.

            “And that is unacceptable.”

            Far more unacceptable is implying that someone you disagree with is a rapist in order to mock them.

            • Eric Henney says:

              “Ari Adler, press secretary for House Speaker James Bolger, told CBS affiliate WWJ-TV in Detroit that the problem wasn’t the word itself.

              ‘It was the context in which it was used and the way it was used, that was the problem,’ said Adler.”
              (http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-201_162-57454431/mich-lawmaker-barred-for-vagina-comment-in-abortion-debate/)

              Matera, do you think I’m just making these quotes up to bother you?

            • Eric, those quotes prove Matera’s point: the issue is not the word, but the context of how it was used. Let us flip the situation around. Do you think it is appropriate for a male representative opposing legislation that limits vasectomies to say to a female Speaker, “Finally, Ms. Speaker, I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my testicles, but ‘no’ means ‘no'”?

              Better yet, if Speaker Stamas had said, “”Finally, Ms. Brown, I’m flattered that you think we’re all so interested in your vagina, but ‘no’ means ‘no'” in response to Brown’s objection to the proposal, would you have found that offensive?

              Let us not play this game. Brown’s comment was a clear ad hominem and red herring. It was inappropriate and deliberately offensive. You can tell that by the smirk on Brown’s face when she made the comment. She thought it was a clever phrase, but now she is paying for using clearly offensive language that no one would tolerate if it was used against her or any woman.

            • Eric Henney says:

              I’m not sure why everyone seems to think critics of men like Bolger would suddenly change their tunes if this comment referred to testicles. No, “testicles” wouldn’t make the first joke offensive, nor would “vagina” make the second joke offensive, as “vagina” didn’t make Lisa Brown’s offensive. This is again something with which Michigan Republicans would disagree. And that’s still the point.

            • “Matera, do you think I’m just making these quotes up to bother you?”

              Why would I think you would make up quotes that 100% prove my point? That wouldn’t make sense from a debate point of view, but thank you for none-the-less confirming what I had previously only suspected: that it was Brown’s entire comment, not the word “vagina” was what was found offensive.

              And it was found offensive, because it IS offensive. She implied the opposition were rapists in a flippant and snarky manner. She was crass and childish.

              End of argument.

    • HelixLuco says:

      Heterosexual sex and the balance of power between the sexes outside the bedroom are inextricably linked, and access to birth control is probably the most powerful tool for altering inequality between the sexes in existence, so it’s pretty much inevitable that the abortion debate and any other discussion of birth control will be all tied up in lawmakers’ attitudes towards sexual relationships.

  3. Try as you might to turn this around, this entirely ludicrous debate about the use of a proper term, vagina, can only be laid at Carlton’s door. Outmoded. Non sequitur of an argument. Nothing can take back the stupidity of the position that “vagina” is a dirty or offensive word. Her mild bit of sarcasm doesn’t make his position less stupid.

    • I completely disagree.

      The difference between saying “that looks like a penis” and “that looks like my penis” could easily be the grounds for a sexual harassment suit if uttered in the workplace.

      I find it highly unlikely that a male lawmaker could utter the phrase “I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my penis…” during floor debate without drawing ire.

      • Mike L., very interesting point. In fact, I frequently use this type of “switch the subject” argument when demonstrating to students why some things are just more offensive to one group than another. But leaving aside the fact that I might not get angry if a man refers to his penis if I say something derogatory about his reproductive rights, does my anger mean that “penis” is a dirty word that I would never use around a man? That’s the stupid part. Nor should the congresswoman’s sarcasm, mild as it was, cause her to lose her elected right to speak. Going with your argument, do you believe that a congresswoman would have the right or power to officially prohibit a man from speaking on the floor?

  4. Valter Viglietti says:

    “Unless Mr. Callton suffered some brief cerebral short-circuit at the time of his speaking…”

    I think Mr. Callton “cerebral short-circuit” has long been permanent. ;)

    Honestly, when I read such news, I weep for American politics.
    Then I remember I’m Italian, I think about our own politics, and I weep again. :|

  5. wellokaythen says:

    Let’s apply the goose/gander “gender switch” test and see what happens.

    Imagine there’s a debate in a legislature about funding for men’s health issues. Imagine some female legislators expressed some concerns about such funding. In response, a male legislator said that his women colleagues seemed much too interested in his penis. What would your response to this be?

    I’m guessing a lot of people would say he should be roundly vilified, or even that he’s guilty of some sort of sexual harassment. A lot of people would agree wholeheartedly that he should be censured in some way.

    That response looks like a double standard to me, unless someone can explain how the two situations are so fundamentally different that they warrant different outcomes.

    • If the debate was about men’s private parts then yes, I’m pretty sure that no-one would blink an eye at any comment about a Congresswoman being “too interested in my penis”. The genitals are the subject of the debate, after all.

      Contraception is about women’s body parts. It’s about their uterui, their fallopian tubes, and yes, it’s about their VAGINAS. Grow up and get over it.

  6. Peter Houlihan says:

    That’s hilarious, vagina is a purely scientific term. There is no less offensive term that could have been used.

  7. I would agree with everything above except for 1 thing; what she said was slightly offensive. Not offensive enough to cause any type of an uproar, but slightly offensive. She said vagina, yes, no big deal, but she also alluded to a colleague being sexually interested in her. It’s a little bit childish and crass. She then kind of compared anti-abortion sentiments to rape. And while I may be against both anti-abortionists and rape, that is a terrible comparison and muddies both issues. Her comments should be thoughtful, not just divisive sound bites. What Mike Callton said in response was extremely offensive as it views women as fragile, but I felt that while Ms. Brown’s statement was only mildly offensive, it was lame and a bit childish. When in god’s name are we going to start an intelligent conversation in this country about abortion from either side?

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