Joanna Schroeder teaches her sons about sex, and ponders the merit of words like “vajayjay” and “hoo-hah.”
Maria Pawlowska’s What’s in a Name: Vaginas, Clitorises and Bravery got me wondering just that: What is in a name? Does the word vagina hold special power, more power than words like noni, coochie or vajayjay?
While I agree that children should learn the proper names for their body parts, I don’t believe there is any magic to vagina, vulva, penis, clitoris or testicles aside from their accuracy. Sure, the world is more comfortable discussing penises than vaginas, but is expecting people to use a certain set of terms going to solve the problem? Different communities and families have varying lexicons, and if there is a particular “vagina patois” to a community, say vajayjay for example, our emphasis should be more about how the word is said than what the word is.
As the mother of two inquisitive and expressive sons, ages 4 and 6, and also the female voice behind She Said He Said, a sex and dating-advice blog, I am in the thick of body-part-naming. If you read something I’ve written about the clitoris, for example, I call it by its name, or maybe “clit” for short. I try to approach sexuality with unflinching honesty, but not go so far into the facts that I turn into your stodgy old Health teacher. I’m like your best girl-friend, your pal, your bro. Sometimes I say “vagina”, sometimes I say something like “hoo-hah” just to mix it up.
There is something to be said for accuracy, however. I know one mom of a preschooler who tells all the other moms, “You shouldn’t call it a wee wee, it is a vagina!” She wasn’t too pleased when I pointed out that she’s being just as damaging by teaching her daughter that her vulva (labia, clitoris, urethra, and vagina) are all one thing. Marcus Williams, in his piece The Unnamed Genitals Have a Name: Vulva, agrees. And while scientific terms are useful and specific, the way I believe our children learn to love and accept their bodies is through the attitude of the person teaching them.
I thought long and hard about how I would teach my children about sex and anatomy. As a kid, I learned about sex through the books that would magically appear at the end of my bed in brown paper bags. The first one was Where Did I Come From? by Peter Mayle. I remember sitting in my room, alone, staring at a cartoony drawing of the mushy peach-colored mom and dad in a heap on a marital bed and trying to figure out exactly what was happening in that pile of flesh.
During puberty, I got What’s Happening to Me? by the same author, in the same brown paper bag. At age seventeen, the sort-of political book Girls And Sex appeared at the end of my bed. I never actually read that one because I was already deep in a literary love affair with William Faulkner and a physical one with a boy named Chris who was teaching me much more—and not through words—so I was sorta busy.
My mother, a feminist in all ways aside from sex, tried her best, but her own repressed, conservative upbringing probably made even the covert delivery of those books challenging. So I called my vulva my “privates” and had no real understanding of the clitoris until my college boyfriend, in a narrow single bed at the University of Michigan, taught me that the joyous little button he so deftly navigated was not, as I called it, “my pee area.”
With my own sons I am so open that I often make my friends cringe. But I want these boys to feel okay with their bodies and with those of females. This began before they were born, when we decided against circumcising them. My Eastern European-American husband and I believe that their penises are their own business and we have no right to choose whether or not they keep their foreskin.
But, we also knew that their intact bodies might be considered “different.” (It’s odd if you think about it, the natural body is the one that’s different?) so we wanted to instill a sense of pride at how they were gloriously made. That isn’t to say that circumcised boys aren’t gloriously made as well, but right now the circumcised penis is normative in America and so we feel we have an extra duty to instill pride in their bodies.
My oldest, when he was around three, was in the shower with me when he gaped, “MAMA!?! What happened to your nuts?!” I somehow resisted the very powerful impulse to laugh and said, “Dude, Mama doesn’t have testicles!”
“You don’t even have a penis!” Why he hadn’t noticed this before is still a mystery. We’d never been shy about our bodies. To tell the truth, he was slightly horrified. I think he was imagining that I had once had all the dangly business and somehow lost it in a freak accident. It must have been quite scary, so I explained how ladies are born baby girls, and baby girls have a different set of parts that are just as cool, called the vulva.
As soon as he was reassured that nothing horrible had happened to my nuts and willy, he didn’t care about the rest. But, it must have sunk in to some degree, because the next time we got into his grandparents’ Volvo my son repeated the name three times as a question, until I figured out what exactly he was asking. “Volvo, Mama? Volvo? PopPop’s car is a Volvo?”
Now my boys want to know every single thing about childbirth, in advanced detail. I learned from one of my favorite sex doctors, Dr. Laura Berman (the same woman who saved my own sex life, but that’s another story), that when teaching small children about reproduction, you offer them scientific facts as simply as possible and elaborate more as they inquire more.
My oldest is a total science nerd who wants to get to the root of all problems immediately with a lot of “why” questions. I will never forget driving through our canyon and having “the talk” with him when he was five.
“Mama? Where do babies come from?”
“Well, Izz,” I said, super prepared for this, “mothers grow babies in a special snuggly spot in their bodies called the uterus.”
“And how does the baby get out of the uterus?”
Legit question. “The baby comes out of the birth canal.”
“What’s the birth canal?”
“It’s an opening where the mama pushes the baby out of the uterus when the baby is big enough to be born.”
“Did you push me out of your uterus?”
“Did it hurt?”
“Yes, but I was happy to do it.”
“Was it like pushing out poop?”
“Sort of, but much bigger.” Again, trying not to laugh.
“Did you cry?” he asked with heartbreaking earnestness.
“No.” That was a total lie, but I defend it in that I did not actually cry while pushing him out.
“Was there a lot of blood?”
“Yes, there was, but I didn’t mind, Daddy and I were just happy to have you.”
“Okay.” And that was that. Easy peasy, I’ve got this wired, I thought.
It wasn’t until a year or so later that the same child asked me how exactly the baby got in there and I told him that Dad gave me a special seed called sperm and that it carried Dad’s genetic code over to the egg in my uterus and that, in turn, made a new genetic code unique only to him. He liked that, he likes facts. I waited a moment to see if he would ask exactly how Daddy got his genetic code into Mama’s body, but Praise God and Hallelujah he didn’t ask that. I’m still giving that answer some thought.
Then another day, just recently, while driving along Pacific Coast Highway, Izz and Bo were staring out their windows—Izz at the mountains and Bo at the glimmering ocean smashing against the rocks. Bo said, “Mama, I have a question.”
I expected it to be something about how dolphins fight off sharks or how an octopus pulls oysters from shells. The fighting, eating, and defense behaviors of marine life are big topics around our house these days. Animals killing each other and the different varieties of Legos (there are tons) are pretty much the only conversations I have some days. Well, that is, until my blog-writing partner Eli and I get on our late-night weekly calls and talk about blow jobs and infidelity and the perineum, which Eli calls the “grundle” and I call the “taint”. A wonderful life of extremes.
Instead, Bo said, “Mama? Where do babies come from?” and I got ready to launch into my speech about the snuggly nest called the uterus.
But Izz was on this one.
“Well, see, there’s this place in the mama that’s like a nest and that’s where the egg grows into a baby and then Mama pushed you out. There was a lot of blood. And Mama pooped, I think,” his big brother explained.
“Oh,” said three year-old Bo.
“And the dad does something. But I don’t know what.”
“Okay,” said Bo, satisfied.
I looked back at them and made a mental image of the perfect innocence of childhood. I know the next few years are going to fly by and soon I’m going to have to be as unflinching with them about the nitty-gritty aspects of sex as I am with the readers of my blog. But for now I get to dish out the truth parcel by parcel, so I try to treasure this time. Even when, in the Whole Foods bathroom, Izz asked me what the tampons in the dispenser were for.
I’ll tell you what I told them, because I know you’re wondering! I said, “you know how the mama has the uterus, where the babies grow? Well, the body makes a special soft cushion for the baby inside the uterus. If the lady isn’t going to grow a baby that month, that special lining comes out and those tampons catch that stuff so it doesn’t make a mess.”
Once again, the boys were fine with all this and the next topic was probably something about Harry Potter or how the other kids in their class get to eat cookies before dinner and how it wasn’t fair that they have to eat actual meals. Should I have used the term “menstrual blood” in order for them to be comfortable with menstruation? Nah. At least not yet. The words matter, but the attitude matters much more.
I just hope they don’t grow to associate female sexuality with Swedish automotive engineering.
—Photo D H Wright/Flickr