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Stop Calling It a 'Vagina'

For years, people – feminists included – have been using the wrong word to refer to female genitalia.

Mary Katharine Tramontana

Drawing courtesy of the artist, Betty Dodson

The other day I was sitting in an MA-level class on Gender and Queer Blah Blah and my young professor said, "The penis and the... [cautionary pause] the female genitals." My classmate immediately responded, "There's a name for that," although he didn't dare say it. Later, in a private conversation, my professor, a man with a Ph.D. who's teaching graduate courses on feminism and sexuality, did the thing that most people do. He used the misnomer "vagina" instead of "vulva."

But a vagina does not a vulva make.

The vaginal opening is just one part of the vulva. The vulva makes up everything you see on the outside: the visible part of the clitoris (this is only the tip of the clitoris iceberg, the much larger part of the clitoris is found inside the body), the labia (inner and outer lips), the urethral opening (for urination or ejaculation), and the entry/exit point of the vagina.

"Vagina" is used incorrectly so often that it should come as no surprise that my highly educated professor used the wrong term. Even feminist texts and artworks, like The Vagina Monologues and The Great Wall of Vagina, fall into the same trap. Pretty much every time you see "vagina" in the media, it's misplaced for vulva.

Female sexual anatomy, something considered a natural fact, is actually socially constructed. Studies have shown the way the clitoris has gone in and out of medical anatomies throughout Western history. Danish anatomist Casper Bartholin's illustrations of the female "lust organs" from the 17th century showed the clitoral erectile tissue and the crura similar to the way they're depicted today. In the 1840s, German anatomist Georg Ludwig Kobelt drew an enlargement of the shaft of the clitoris similar to a penis, as it's known today. In the 1901 edition of Gray's Anatomy, the clitoris is labeled and somewhat prominently featured. Then, in the 1948 edition: POOF! The clit disappears in both label and graphic illustration. The primary organ of sexual arousal and orgasm for females was deleted from the staple textbook on human anatomy. Because the clitoris and the female orgasm aren't necessary for reproduction, they've been exceedingly ignored by science, in stark contrast to the penis.

Photo via Flickr user jmawork

When we say vagina, we're collectively ignoring the visual aspect of female anatomy, the clitoris and the labia, with language. The vagina is the way that guys who have sex with girls come. Since Kinsey's 1953 landmark book Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, we've known that most women need direct clitoral stimulation (by a hand, a mouth, or some other object) to have an orgasm. And yet, how many times do we still see, in movies or television, the depiction of a woman's orgasm as a result of cock-penetration alone? That we call the female gentials "the vagina" speaks volumes about the politics of sex. "Vagina" keeps the focus on straight male pleasure.

Dr. Mithu Sanyal, author of VULVA, a cultural history of the vulva, believes ideas about the body are marshaled through words. "Language is connected to our perception of the world. What we can't name, we can't talk about, and ultimately, can't think about," she writes. Clinical psychologist Dr. Harriet Lerner calls this phenomenon of disregarding the clitoris and the labia "psychic genital mutilation." According to her, "Language can be as powerful and swift as the surgeon's knife. What is not named does not exist."

Today, many women, and even girls as young as 16, are taking this idea a step further and making their genitals invisible for real. Labiaplasty (slicing off part of the labia minora to make them smaller) is one of the fastest growing cosmetic surgeries in the UK and the US. Female genital mutilation is the ritual act of removing part or all of the external female genitals. It's performed in many African countries and is usually framed as incomparable to Western cosmetic genital surgery. Interestingly, the World Health Organization defines FGM as "all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons." Both vaginal rejuvenation and labiaplasty fall under the definitions provided by the United Nations for mutilation.

Photo via Flickr user Philippa Willitts

In Berlin, a city famous for its progressive sexual values and history of gay rights campaigning, people are trying to counter this trend. Dr. Laura Méritt, owner of Sexclusivitäten, the German capital's longest running feminist sex shop, is currently collecting "pussy profiles" to demonstrate the diversity of vulvas and show that there is no general norm. You can contribute by filling out her survey online or in person. "Any university would be jealous! We have over 2,000 participants and what we found is incredible," Méritt said.

The results will be published in March as part of Mösenmonat ("Cunt Month"), an annual celebration where the vulva is honored in art exhibitions, performances, films, and workshops at Sexclusivitäten. This year's theme is "The Clitoral Truth." Méritt also edited the German version of the classic feminist anatomy text, A New View of a Woman's Body. The photographs in this book make clear that vulvas vary dramatically in shape, color, texture, and size.

Maybe, at the end of the day, the word "vulva" is too clinical for you. No problem. How about "pussy," "yoni," or a list of other words? Personally, I've always gone the reclaiming route. I say "cunt." The word "cunt" shares an etymological root with queen, kin, and country. Cunt shouldn't be the most offensive word in the English language. Cunts are great! They should be celebrated, not denigrated. Don't use the word "vagina" unless you're talking about a vagina. Using the word "vagina" incorrectly obscures women's sexual pleasure and continues the myth of The Mystery of Female Sexuality. Mysticism should not be confused with ignorance or censorship. Viva la vulva!

More stuff about female genitals:

The Strangely Uplifting Tale of the Cam-Girl with No Vagina

Pussy Profiles and The Clitoral Truth: Meet the Woman Behind 'Cunt Month'

The Man Behind the World's Most Famous Fake Vagina