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Wipe Your Shame-Cave, Honey

March 30, 2009

My daughter hasn’t got the hang of the potty yet, but she’s learning. And after she urinates, she wipes her vulva. Because that’s what it’s called.

Over at Feministe, Jill posted an Onion piece that is laugh-out-loud funny about the shame and embarassment people display over female genitals.

Being one of those humorless feminists, though, I can’t help pointing out that there is a lot to take seriously about whether we call girls’ genitals what they are or some cute nickname: this is where it starts. We either teach our kids that their bodies are normal and natural, or we teach them that we can’t talk about them without stammering and blushing. And in this, so many people fail their girls.

I know lots of parents who can call a boy’s penis a penis without stiffling a snicker. Boy parts are ordinary body parts with names. Ear, elbow, penis. Many of these same folks can’t use proper terms for their daughters’ genitals. Girl parts are unmentionable. They have cute names and euphemisms. That’s how it starts.

We teach girls they cannot deal openly and forthrightly with the bodies the way boys can, and then later we teach them they can’t deal openly and forthrightly with their sexuality, even if boys can. Boys have penises, boys have desire, boys have sex. Girls … the adults would rather not talk about. And so we fail. First, we can’t call a vulva a vulva. Then we can’t call a vagina a vagina, even when it’s an award-winning play. Then we can’t have these conversations, because we never laid the groundwork; never built the foundation to allow us to parent our children from kids to adults — whole, sexual adults.

We need to get over it, the only way that works: a little at a time, starting with baby step. It’s called a vulva.

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23 Comments leave one →
  1. perrybc permalink
    April 1, 2009 12:19 am

    I couldn’t agree more. There’s a great healthy sexuality promotion / sexual violence prevention initiative called Care For Kids that stresses the ideas you’re talking about.

  2. Aileen Wuornos permalink
    April 1, 2009 11:10 pm

    I’m so glad that from a young age I was taught I have a vagina, vulva, labia and a clitoris.
    I don’t get what’s so “dirty” about these words.

  3. April 3, 2009 11:17 pm

    I would prefer the clinical terms, I would think, than having to say hoo hoo. Good call.

  4. Cheryl permalink
    April 4, 2009 12:45 am

    Holy Smokes! I thought it was my little peach!

  5. Valroy permalink
    April 4, 2009 6:24 am

    I hope that when I beocme as a father, my wife and I shall have the strength to have such an open mind. Thank You!

  6. SaveOurSkyline permalink
    April 4, 2009 8:51 am

    Good point, but it’s not exactly a gendered issue – I think it’s more of a Puritanical social issue about people in general being ashamed of their bodies. Especially in the US.

  7. Ilana permalink
    April 4, 2009 11:03 am

    I was taught from a young age all the correct terms. But I was little, and my mum had a garden, so I used to confuse “clitoris” with “clematis” (a climbing, flowering vine). My parents thought it was hilarious ; )

  8. April 4, 2009 3:21 pm

    Excellent post, that really needs to be said to everyone — often, and loud!

    I love Vagina Monologues because now not only will I talk about vaginas anytime anywhere, I also have three or four shirts that say VAGINA on them. And I’m proud.

  9. tommy lee permalink
    April 4, 2009 4:30 pm

    whats wrong with calling a pussy a pussy?

  10. jeroboam bramblejam permalink
    April 4, 2009 4:39 pm

    As someone who is sensitive to the variously harsh or mellifluous sound combinations comprising English words, I find many of the clinical names of the minor organs to be rather ugly. ‘Penis’, for example, is not only tinny sounding; it gives the impression of smallness. ‘Clitoris’ is a sterile, sharp sound, and nearly impossible to spell. And don’t get me started on ‘anus’. Not that many of the familiar names are any better, but ‘hoo-hoo’, ‘cunny’, and the aforementioned “little peach” are much more poetic and nicer sounding than ‘labia’, ‘scrotum’ and ‘glans’.

  11. Anonymous permalink
    April 4, 2009 7:23 pm

    I don’t think this is exclusive to parents with girls. If I had a dime every time I’ve heard a boy’s penis referred to as a “pee-pee” and his scrotum a “coin purse”, I’d be a rich, rich man.

  12. April 4, 2009 10:19 pm

    thats brilliant. i never thought of it that way. glad i stumbled upon this article, and cant wait to teach my son that its called a penis. thank you.

  13. April 4, 2009 10:24 pm

    i just read the reply about the clematis and im laughing my ass off!!! my dad, a 50 year old man, asked my mom how her clitoris was doing. of course he was referring to her clematis. she said its rather neglected but thanks for asking. 🙂

  14. Jacob permalink
    April 5, 2009 11:05 am

    I can’t think this is just an issue with girl’s genitals. PeePee is an extremely common replacement for penis by every parent I know. Heck, my extended family insisted on calling any and every type of meat chicken (well, to be precise, ‘chickee’) when I was young.

    I agree that using fake words hurts our children, but it isn’t just directed at little girls or their genitals.

  15. Lena permalink
    April 5, 2009 2:52 pm

    Hmm from your comments it seems as if it is different in the USA but here in Germany, it is the other way round (at least in my family) that we would call a boys penis with nicknames (it would be stupid to translate them 😉 ) and a girls vulva just well the word is probably vulva in English… And I know that I always found that mean when I was young^^ because it made me feel that there was nothing wrong with a boy’s penis and that it was cute and bla bla but that a vulva was something that wasn’t “normal” because it had some stupid technical term that didn’t fit into the everyday language, in comparison to the “cute words” for boys..
    Hmm :S I guess you should just use the same kind of names for both boys and girls, to make it fair at least

  16. admin permalink
    April 8, 2009 6:40 pm

    Great post. Cheers to you for encouraging your daughter to see herself as a valuable person.

    It’s just a body part. There’s so much unnecessary hubbub.

    Did you perhaps notice you have both Tommy Lee and Aileen Wuornos on your blog? You’re famous.


  17. Cactus Wren permalink
    November 5, 2009 1:58 am

    But “pee-pee” can at least be regarded as a diminutive or baby-talk rendering of “penis”. “Hoo-hoo”, or “down there”, or (my own family’s word when I was a child) “between”, aren’t remotely connected to *any* correct word.

  18. Wendy permalink
    August 20, 2012 7:13 pm

    I wish I felt comfortable teaching my daughter the terms vulva and vagina, but I don’t. So far, the whole general area is her “bottom” and will probably continue to be so for a while (she just turned four). It’s not that I mind hearing or saying the term, but I’m concerned about otherwise innocent comments being misinterpreted. “My daddy touched my vagina” will turn heads while “my daddy touched my bottom” won’t – and until my daughter is old enough to distinguish touching-while-helping-her-on-the-potty from touching-with-intent-to-molest, I don’t want to invite more people freaking out about her vulva than necessary.

  19. December 27, 2013 10:51 pm

    Well, this comment is late, but I hope people do that more. At the very least, have some nicknames that are somewhat specific. When I was growing up, there just wasn’t a name for a vulva or vagina or anything. It was just “the place that you pee out of” and it bothered me to no end, because I thought there had to be a name for it, and no one would tell me. Then when people finally did start saying vagina, they never clarified how it related to peeing, and I had no clue for the longest time if they were two separate areas or the same thing or not. On the other hand, everyone knew what a penis was and what balls were. I feel like I sound rather clueless, but, hey, the sex ed in my school left a friend with the impression that cis women grew chest hair like men, so I’m fairly sure it wasn’t just me.

  20. Rossweise permalink
    December 29, 2013 11:53 am

    I agree with Cactus Wren: “pee-pee” can absolutely be seen as a dimunitive of “penis”. And when the boy grows old enough, they can substitute the baby-talk version “pee-pee” for the clinical term.

    There was someone else commenting several years ago about how this was a form of sexual puritanism – fuck that! I live in a country considered to be one of the most sexually liberated in the world, and in my family there have been no shame surrounding sex. Even so, I had no proper name for my genitals until i became adult and could comfortably use a more vulgar word. That’s 20 years of my life.

    There were words, but there were no universal word. So if I needed to bring female genitals up in a discussion, I always had to worry about what word the other person would use. Was it (translated from Swedish) the mouse? The rose? The front-bottom? The completely babytalk sounding “kissimurra”? The muff? Birgitta, a womans name that rhymed with the vulgar word for female genitals, “fitta”?
    I felt at a very early age too embarrased to use any of those words. And when any of those words were used in their other functions, I was usually embarrased by the possible double meaning.
    So, if you englishspeakers call the genitals of your daughters “little peach”, will they always be comfortable eating the fruit peach? Will they have an undefined feeling of shame if someone offers them to pet a cute little pussy cat?

    It lead to a lot of shame, not having a proper, neutral word without other meanings, to describe my own parts.
    After I left my childhood a feminized version (“snippa”) of the completely neutral word for male genitals (“snopp”) was introduced and have since had a big breaktrough. At first I was sceptical of a word I saw as diminutive of the male word, but having a proper word is so valuable, and today I can see both words as an equal pair. I am happy for my younger sisters, but angry that I was denied something so natural, and that girls in other countries are still denied a proper word.


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