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.