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Vagina vs. vulva: There's a big difference, people

A little more than a month ago we here at¬†EMandLO.com (that’d be me, i.e. Lo, and Em) conducted¬†a poll called “Vulva or Vagina?” Readers had two¬†options to choose from (natch):

  • Vulva: If we’re talking about female external genitalia, this is the anatomically correct and accurate term. (Plus, it sounds nicer.)
  • Vagina: That’s what everyone calls it. It’s common practice, common knowledge. Nobody calls it vulva. To do so is¬†pretentious.

I (Lo) knew it would be a close race, but I had faith that the forward-thinking, sexually enlightened (or at least sexually curious) readers we are lucky enough to attract would do the right thing, make the right choice.

I was wrong. [Melodramatic pause.]

“Vagina” received 60% of the votes, “vulva” only 40%.

What happened? In trying to avoid leading the witnesses by making the vulva option too appealing (thereby revealing our preference), did I overcompensate and accidentally make the vagina option too convincing, relatively speaking? Did I inadvertently suggest to readers that if they voted for¬†”vulva,” that meant they were automatically pretentious, thereby ensuring that a majority of hip, down-to-earth, unstuffy readers would choose “vagina”? Or did they just genuinely feel this way?

Coincidentally, a week or so after we launched our poll,¬†Jezebel — whose editorial perspective I usually adore and admire –¬†ran an article called “I Don’t Care About Your Stupid Vulva, It’s All Vagina to Me,” in which the author, Lindy West, says “all of our [lady] parts deserve¬†attention, respect, and care — our vaginas, our vulvas, our clitorises, our labia… But that doesn’t mean it’s disrespectful to use a catch-all¬†shortcut when I need to refer to all of those beautiful miracles at once.” And then in the same article she disrespects all the gentle defenders of correct terminology with a bunch of name-calling. To paraphrase Pee-wee, that’s so fucking funny I forgot to laugh.

West’s argument — which I assume some of our 60% percent would agree with — is threefold:

  1. “Vagina” is funnier, more confrontational and more exciting than “vulva” — key for an entertainment writer who is¬†not an anatomy-textbook¬†writer.
  2. “Vagina” has linguistically evolved to mean¬†all lady parts.
  3. Whooo caaares?!

[Deep breath.]¬†Who cares? Really? Well, if the outpouring of emails she complains about receiving over her incorrect use of the word “vagina” is any indication, then the answer is¬†a whole hell of a lot. (Kinda answered your own question there, didn’t you?)

If West¬†were arguing in favor of using a fun, funny, catch-all nickname for the general female genital area (both inside and out), I’d be all for it. In¬†fact, Jezebel recently ran another article, an excerpt from the new book “How to Be a Woman” by British writer Caitlin Moran, on¬†the tricky business of nicknaming one’s vagina. Moran — who, ironically but not surprisingly, conflates the two things,¬†using “vagina” for both the birth canal¬†and the external vulva — prefers the term “cunt.” Now¬†there’s a word that’s truly confrontational! She¬†writes:

If I tell you what I’ve got down there, old ladies and clerics might faint. I like how shocked people are when you say “cunt.” It’s like I have a¬†nuclear bomb in my underpants or a mad tiger, or a gun.

Even though Moran kicks off the piece hating on the word “vagina” and therefore inadvertently kind of¬†self-hating, she takes what’s often considered the grandmammy of female slurs, flips it around and uses it for her own personal and sexual empowerment! And because it’s slang — unlike the clinical, anatomically correct word “vagina” — “cunt” has the fluidity to encompass¬†all lady parts, much like many other fun nicknames could.

West might not be writing for anatomy textbooks, but she can’t escape the fact that vagina¬†is an anatomical term, with a specific definition — one that is not going to change any time soon. And it shouldn’t change: It is what it is. Nobody would consider trying to change the meaning of “penis” to encompass the testicles because 1) everybody is well-educated (and unconflicted) about the anatomy of dudes, and 2) they mean two distinctly different things!

Nor should West underestimate the power she has as an entertainment writer for the Gawker Media empire to influence people’s — especially young people’s — ideas about the world, ideas that can shape the way we all treat one another, ideas that can affect the way we think of our bodies, ourselves.

To better explain why getting it wrong matters, I turn to¬†Joyce McFadden, psychologist, researcher and author of the book¬†Your Daughter’s Bedroom: Insights for Raising Confident Women, who wrote an article called “How Do We Influence the Women Our Daughters Become?“:

If our little girls are raised to believe that boys have a penis but girls have a “down there,” we need to understand these girls will¬†likely¬†grow into women who, even in the new millennium, confuse their vulvas with their vaginas. Along the way, they’ll be at risk¬†of seeing their¬†bodies as the property of boys because they haven’t been supported in developing a sense of ownership over their¬†own bodies, and this¬†will put them at risk of unintended pregnancy as well as make them more susceptible to not knowing how to¬†advocate for their safety in¬†potentially dangerous situations. And ultimately, they’re more likely to end up in long-term¬†relationships or marriages in which they’re¬†sexually unhappy.

McFadden interviewed hundreds of women for her project, and she was shocked to discover how so many adult women didn’t even¬†know the word “vulva,” let alone what it meant. And in her studies, she found that this kind of ignorance led to feeling uncomfortable about female sexual issues, which meant their kids grew up feeling uncomfortable about them, too.

A professor of sexology (I can’t remember who) once said in an interview: “Imagine how the world would be different if people were told, starting from a very young age, that the female equivalent of the penis was the clitoris.” (And it’s true:¬†anatomically speaking, the penis is just an overgrown clit.) Chances are, women would be more fully accepted as active, sexual creatures with their own physical desires, rather than widely thought of as passive objects of desire for hetero men.

My 4-year-old daughter has a nose, not a honker. She has eyes, not peepers. When she goes to the bathroom, she wipes her vulva. The hole her poop comes out of is an anus. She knows that I get a period, that all grown women do, and that it’s natural and normal. When she asked what that little nubbin of hers was, I told her: It’s a clitoris. (I was horrified to learn that when Em’s daughter first asked her the same question, Em initially panicked and called it a “twinkle.” I’m happy to report that, after seeing McFadden speak in person, she’s come over to the anatomically correct camp.) Our daughters may eventually be ashamed of us, but if we have anything to do with it, they will not be ashamed of their bodies — vulvas, vaginas and all!

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Photo credit: It’s called a Vulva Puppet for a reason