Monday, 15 February 2016

Using 'vagina' and 'penis'

Dear Reader,

How do you refer to your genitalia?

What do you think that says about you?


I was listening to Radio 4 today and, when exploring Botticelli's 'The Birth of Venus', the presenter described her 'other hand clasping her long tresses to her vagina'.

My first reaction was pleasure.  She didn't use it emphatically, forcefully, with any trace of embarrassment, or in a self-aware way; she simply stated it because it was true.



This has been my life's work with the word 'vagina', and its (seemingly slightly more palatable counterpart, 'penis'.  No, I'm not suggesting I find penises more palatable.  You have drawn very much your own conclusions there.)

Yes, it's an ugly word and we don't want to uglify our genitals.  Yes, it's grating at times.  However, if we ever want children to learn about their genitals in a way that doesn't trivialise them or render them ludicrous, we must use simple, biological terminology and we must use it because it is true.

As anyone who teaches Biology or Sex Education or PSHCE will know, the terminology is the first battle.  Many teachers that I know start by simply repeating this words, over and over, until they lose any meaning and hopefully start to shed their gravitas.

They're just words.

They're just genitals.

However, hang around in any public place for long enough and you'll hear plenty of parents and children using 'willy', 'winky', 'front bottom' or 'foof', giggling or blushing or shushing appropriately.

Don't get me wrong - call yours what you like, as an adult.  Refer to it as the Pink Palace of Party or your mighty pork sword or even 'little Terry' if you wish (although not, as in the case of someone I knew, if your son is also similarly named).  But for children, adolescents, teenagers, learning about their bodies and learning to bear the ridiculous burden of shame and taboo we pass on to them, please stick to the most neutral terms possible.  Open the door to, at the very least, the possibility of having the right conversations using the right words, even if you can't bear to have them and need to delegate it to your children's teachers or aunts or older brothers.

I still meet 16-year-olds who don't know how to use a tampon or that their urethra is a different tube/hole to the entrance to their vagina; that think they can have instant anal sex without lubrication or that liking anal stimulation makes you gay.  I know this because I talk to them about these issues, and the more you do this the more you realise how pent-up their questions are, how desperate they are to come to terms with sexual attraction and interested in pleasure but how deeply ashamed and worried they are about that fact.  This has to stop.

Let's start, very simply, by calling it a 'vagina'.

(Although, technically of course, it's a 'vulva'. One battle at a time).


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