"The muscle is very elastic."
February 18, 2015 3:14 PM   Subscribe



 
Thanks for posting this. It's nice to read such a frank, honest article on the topic -- and it's good to see it debunk Gwyneth Paltrow's idiotic vaginal steam cleaning nonsense with basic biology facts.
posted by zarq at 3:24 PM on February 18, 2015 [6 favorites]


I don't even own a vagina and I knew Gwyneth was spouting Hollywood nonsense.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 3:28 PM on February 18, 2015 [6 favorites]


I swear, one day we're going to come full circle and see an A-List celebrity fire up that pair of working brain cells and endorse douching with Lysol as the hot new birth control.
posted by zarq at 3:34 PM on February 18, 2015


My friend was surprised to read that most peoples' don't smell like what they just ate.
posted by bleep at 3:44 PM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


My mom instilled some unfortunate ideas in me about "that area" and how bad it smelled so I thought this was a very good article!
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 3:45 PM on February 18, 2015 [6 favorites]


My friend was surprised to read that most peoples' don't smell like what they just ate.

Most people don't eat like that.
posted by Sys Rq at 3:47 PM on February 18, 2015 [56 favorites]


(To be clear, it’s not a direct connection; you won’t end up with latte-scented genitals if you hit up Starbucks too many times.)

...I am sad now.

The most ridiculous aspect of this is that more women I know have had issues with stanky dicks than size. I don't precisely want men developing the same ridiculous complexes about scent but 'lick my stanky ballsac that's been marinading in sweat all day while I wear polyester suit pants on a pleather chair' is probably closer to a fetish than 'normal'.

But yeah, most women I know have complexes about this. I don't like it, but I do, and it does absolutely affect my sex life in a negative fashion.
posted by geek anachronism at 3:48 PM on February 18, 2015 [8 favorites]


I swear, one day we're going to come full circle and see an A-List celebrity fire up that pair of working brain cells and endorse douching with Lysol as the hot new birth control.

Dr Bronner endorsed douching with lemon juice as the perfect birth control.

But he also lived in California. So there's that.
posted by clarknova at 4:04 PM on February 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


I feel like John Oliver, how is this a thing? What qualifications does Gwyneth Paltrow have as an expert on vaginal steam cleansing, or as an expert on anything other than peddling over priced rich people crap with her face stamped on it? I guess she's not Jenny McCarthy, in that her brand of "medical" whatever the hell this is doesn't actively kill people as far as I'm aware, not having a vagina or ever having steam-cleaned one, but they're equally qualified to offer advice on, well, anything, but much less things that you consider putting on or in your body.
posted by T.D. Strange at 4:06 PM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


I can still steam my bait-and-tackle, right? Because that actually feels pretty good on a winter's evening.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 4:09 PM on February 18, 2015 [6 favorites]


I think it's actually pretty amazing that a lot of second wave feminism work was done on "getting to know" your genitals and also actively working against horrible stuff you grew up with, and it's 40 years later and women still feel anxious and concerned/self-conscious about how they smell. It's like - does *every* generation have to reinvent the wheel?
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 4:11 PM on February 18, 2015 [24 favorites]


Years ago, at a party or something, a young woman I was chatting with said that she was taking an informal survey of the women she met: if a guy was about to go down on you, what is the thought that runs through your mind?

In her experience, she said, she'd found that nearly everyone she'd asked had at least a momentary concern about either "how do I smell" or "how do I taste". I was very proud to be her one outlier, because I reported that usually the thought that runs through my mind in that moment is something like "YEAH, baby!"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:12 PM on February 18, 2015 [45 favorites]


Most people—those who don’t default to “hoo-ha” or “va-jay-jay,” anyway—tend to use “vagina” to refer to female genitalia as a whole

An unfortunate choice of words.
posted by billiebee at 4:16 PM on February 18, 2015 [15 favorites]


In her experience, she said, she'd found that nearly everyone she'd asked had at least a momentary concern about either "how do I smell" or "how do I taste".

Metafilter has already answered the latter: A 9v battery.
posted by srboisvert at 4:17 PM on February 18, 2015 [10 favorites]


It's like - does *every* generation have to reinvent the wheel?

Some wheels I kinda think so, yeah, unless they've been maintained in a friendly environment. Cultural reproduction yo.
posted by PMdixon at 4:23 PM on February 18, 2015 [3 favorites]


I feel like crying with joy. I've had adult women tell me that "vagina" has come to mean "vulva" (apparently in the same way that "literally" has come to mean "figuratively") and refuse to teach their daughters the names of their body parts. I believe that language is meaningful. And I believe that referring to the vulva as "vagina" is akin to referring to the penis as, say, "testicles" -- confusing by ignoring everything they can see, demeaning by insinuating it isn't important enough to have a name, and directly teaching girls that they don't -- or shouldn't -- have visible sex characteristics. This leads (in my view) directly to mainstream men's magazine that show women displaying their genitals in an unaroused state (lubed but not swollen) and we wonder why women are ashamed or critical of their vulvas?

I thought I was alone in this fight and god DAMN it feels good to read an article that sensibly and in plain English says that vulva is the word we should be using.
posted by janey47 at 4:26 PM on February 18, 2015 [44 favorites]


By the way, in case you were wondering, I taste like cake.
posted by janey47 at 4:29 PM on February 18, 2015 [28 favorites]


Dr Bronner endorsed douching with lemon juice as the perfect birth control.

I believe you mean "insert teaspoon juicy lemon pulp, pH2, God's Law prevents conception 100% below pH3".
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 4:31 PM on February 18, 2015 [31 favorites]


Isn't "Do Not Steam Clean" printed on a tag somewhere?
posted by QuietDesperation at 4:32 PM on February 18, 2015 [5 favorites]


Just out of interest, what makes this nsfw? Would some workplace screening, uh, things (sorry, computer ignoramus here) censor it because it contains the word vagina or vulva? Or is it in case someone reads it over your shoulder? That a factual article about a body part is considered nsfw says a lot.
posted by billiebee at 4:36 PM on February 18, 2015 [8 favorites]


I've had adult women tell me that "vagina" has come to mean "vulva" (apparently in the same way that "literally" has come to mean "figuratively") and refuse to teach their daughters the names of their body parts. I believe that language is meaningful. And I believe that referring to the vulva as "vagina" is akin to referring to the penis as, say, "testicles" -- confusing by ignoring everything they can see, demeaning by insinuating it isn't important enough to have a name, and directly teaching girls that they don't -- or shouldn't -- have visible sex characteristics. This leads (in my view) directly to mainstream men's magazine that show women displaying their genitals in an unaroused state (lubed but not swollen) and we wonder why women are ashamed or critical of their vulvas?

I feel like the lady in those anti-GEICO ads. "That not how it works! That's not how any of this works!!!". Men who disrespect women and find vulvas and vaginas icky aren't going to start respecting women because some people prissily insist on precise, clinical language against a correct casual usage that isn't even necessarily misogynist, they're just going to laugh at the prissiness and either brush it off or double down. Language is not a fucking thought virus, it doesn't have magical powers, and misogyny persists because of culture and the ideas expressed by that language, not the language itself. It's not created by language, so can we please be done with Sapir-Whorf and all it's mad sad bad variants now please? Also, holy fuck, not every woman is a goddamn baboon. Some women show visible signs of arousal aside from getting wet, plenty don't, and no fucking "mainstream" men's magazine shows bare splayed genitals anyway, because if it did that would make it fucking porn.

By the way, in case you were wondering, I taste like cake.

If this is true you have a yeast infection or diabetes and really need to get that checked out.
posted by The Master and Margarita Mix at 4:37 PM on February 18, 2015 [21 favorites]


I think people would get on board with "vulva" if it wasn't such an unpleasant experience to say.
posted by bleep at 4:37 PM on February 18, 2015 [3 favorites]


billiebee - I thought it best to give a warning and let people decide what they want to do. I generally err on the side of caution.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 4:39 PM on February 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


Is "vulva" less pleasant than, say, "volvo"?
posted by allthinky at 4:39 PM on February 18, 2015 [8 favorites]


we'll keep relearning this as long as playground bullying includes jokes about fish, beef curtains, axe wounds, etc etc etc just as soon as a girl starts to develop. the messaging i received from friends and eventually those i thought i might like to show my vulva to came way earlier and was much more intense than second wave feminism. i feel lucky to be queer because i eventually got to evaluate my own genitals on what i found arousing and pleasing - most anxiety about smell/taste flittered away when i realized i could just check (and since i know what i like women to smell/taste like i can get a pretty good idea about how my stuffs are doing).
posted by nadawi at 4:40 PM on February 18, 2015 [19 favorites]


Oh yeah I get that, wasn't a criticism or anything. Was genuinely wondering if it was the sort of thing that would get flagged up by the IT people if you were looking at it in work.
posted by billiebee at 4:41 PM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


nadawi -ew. Some of those I'd never heard of and would rather didn't appear in the thread.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 4:41 PM on February 18, 2015


I think the second wave stuff is pretty radical and is largely forgotten, or conveniently erased from memory. People had classes where they sat in a circle with hand-held mirrors and looked at and examined their own and other's genitals - I believe I read about this in Sisterhood is Powerful, but it may have been a different feminist anthology.

I think Germaine Greer did a very famous piece? And there's loads of stuff in the women's movement in the U.K. but of course I don't have that conveniently - ahem - to hand.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 4:44 PM on February 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


some people prissily insist on precise, clinical language against a correct casual usage

It's not correct, though. If someone called their tongue their "mouth" and you said "no actually that specific part is your tongue" is that you being prissy and insisting on clinical language? It's just what it's called.
posted by billiebee at 4:46 PM on February 18, 2015 [38 favorites]


(I say 'people' as if it were co-ed, but really it was women-only education classes.)
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 4:49 PM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


nadawi -ew. Some of those I'd never heard of and would rather didn't appear in the thread.

while i understand that preference, i don't think we can frankly talk about our genitals unless we also talk about why we have such a negative view of them - and a lot of that is wrapped up in the sorts of things people, often boys who learn it from men, say to and about women's bodies.
posted by nadawi at 4:50 PM on February 18, 2015 [24 favorites]


wait - vulva is unpleasant to say? is this a widely held opinion? i think it's way better than most of the euphemisms and i prefer the sound of it to vagina as well. and is penis pleasing to say? what about scrotum? or testicles?
posted by nadawi at 4:53 PM on February 18, 2015 [9 favorites]


i really wish that every thread that even remotely touches on it could avoid turning in to the whole vulva/vagina debate.

i'm reminded of stop trying to make vulva happen.
posted by emptythought at 4:55 PM on February 18, 2015 [9 favorites]


the only human body part that has no other function than pleasure
Male nipples.
posted by plinth at 4:57 PM on February 18, 2015 [9 favorites]


I actually like the word "vulva", it's "lesbian" I dislike.

(it's the zed sound what does the word in.)
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 4:59 PM on February 18, 2015


I find it mildly amusing that the directions for vulva maintenance are very similar to the directions for that very similarly misunderstood male body part: The foreskin.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 5:00 PM on February 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


i really wish that every thread that even remotely touches on it could avoid turning in to the whole vulva/vagina debate.

It's part of the article which is about, like, vaginas and vulvas. We didn't start talking about something unrelated and randomly end up here.
posted by billiebee at 5:03 PM on February 18, 2015 [5 favorites]


the vagina/vulva topic in this thread it isn't a derail, it's a pretty significant part of the fpp.
posted by nadawi at 5:03 PM on February 18, 2015 [5 favorites]


the whole vulva/vagina debate

"Tach the controversy!" There is no debate. Vulva and vagina mean different things. This has been settled for five hundred years. This is not a case of, I don't know, some sort of PC language cabal forcing some weird new label on the world; it's people who know things teaching them to you. It's entirely your choice to either improve your vocabulary or continue calling your fingernail an elbow.

Is "vulva" less pleasant than, say, "volvo"?

"It's so boxy."
posted by Sys Rq at 5:09 PM on February 18, 2015 [54 favorites]


bleep: "I think people would get on board with "vulva" if it wasn't such an unpleasant experience to say."

I don't get this at all. Vulva sounds so soft and cuddly.
posted by Mitheral at 5:09 PM on February 18, 2015 [16 favorites]


Well if you want to be pedantic about it is it necessarily wrong to refer to the inside parts if you're discussing the origin of a smell? Uh, or taste for that matter?
posted by atoxyl at 5:10 PM on February 18, 2015


like a 9v battery. i'm serious. not quite so shocking, though.
posted by TonyRobots at 8:26 PM on December 1, 2006


Um.
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:12 PM on February 18, 2015 [7 favorites]


i'm reminded of stop trying to make vulva happen.

Hey, that's my wisecrack! (Of course, there are even earlier citations.)
posted by The Tensor at 5:12 PM on February 18, 2015


More seriously there was a part 1 to this article that talked about men and penis size - here. I didn't include a pointer to it in the fpp because I thought penis talk would completely cast a large shadow (way-hey!) over vulva discussion. so.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 5:14 PM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's quite an old article ('91) but this is an interesting piece about the sociology of smell. It talks a little about the meeting of patriarchy and capitalism which brought us the beloved feminine hygiene industry.
posted by billiebee at 5:27 PM on February 18, 2015 [4 favorites]


One part of the (really amazing!!!) documentary She's Beautiful When She's Angry interviewed the women behind Our Bodies, Ourselves - which I'd guess was one of the biggest pieces of that second wave feminist movement towards understanding womens' bodies. After the screening I saw ended, someone asked how many of the people in the audience had had a copy (interestingly, the audience was literally all women, but ranging in age from early 20s to probably late 70s). I would guess that at least 3/4 of the folks in the crowd raised their hand. I didn't have a copy of it, but I had the 90s American Girl version, The Care and Keeping of You. Plus Scarlet Teen.
posted by ChuraChura at 5:35 PM on February 18, 2015 [3 favorites]


To me "vagina" sounds happy and upbeat. It floats out of your mouth like a butterfly. "Vulva" makes your voice drop an octave, falls heavily out of your mouth and falls on the floor.
posted by bleep at 5:41 PM on February 18, 2015 [6 favorites]


I'd just add my $.02 that the real, subversive derail happening here is between atoxyl's use of "Uh" and Halloween Jack's employment of "Um". After correcting for regional, socio-economic, and other influences, which REALLY is the correct term to use when discussing vaginas? Vulvas? Foreskins?
posted by riverlife at 5:43 PM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


Is "vulva" less pleasant than, say, "volvo"?

SO. My family was driving from one point to another in Scarborough many years ago. The light turned red when we reached Eglinton and Warden, and as we waited for the light to change, my mother pointed at the ovoid, intricately stacked building at the corner, the one that used to be the headquarters for a Euro car manufacturer, and asked "That's the Vulva building, isn't it?" We never let the poor woman forget that one. Never.
posted by maudlin at 5:47 PM on February 18, 2015 [10 favorites]


(Not all that boxy, really.)
posted by maudlin at 5:51 PM on February 18, 2015


In fact, Stephens-Davidowitz reports that the most frequent search attributed to men on this subject is about how to tell a woman that she doesn’t smell all that good. (My answer to that, by the way, would be: “Don’t.”)

Ancillary advice might be: this may not be the woman for you. "Smell", while not the only thing is a key reason why people decide to pair up in the first place. If you don't like how someone smells (or tastes - this is why we as a species kiss) then there isn't much chance of a meaningful connection.
posted by Nevin at 5:59 PM on February 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


That's the Vulva building, isn't it?

My mother and father was visiting Monterey County, where my sister lives. I was going back to Oakland and needed to get to the local Amtrak station. My mom and dad offered to drop me off.

"Ah, it's in Salinas," she said, pronouncing it suh-line-ass.

"No, mom, it rhymes with 'penis'" I said, helpfully.

She was shocked, but to the end of her days she never mispronounced it again.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 6:01 PM on February 18, 2015 [6 favorites]


It's not correct, though. If someone called their tongue their "mouth" and you said "no actually that specific part is your tongue" is that you being prissy and insisting on clinical language? It's just what it's called.

Yeah, this. It's really strange to see this presented like some kind of huge battle. We have a 3 year old daughter and teach her the accurate words for things. It's really not some crazy plan, it's just correct.
posted by odinsdream at 6:01 PM on February 18, 2015 [22 favorites]


That's the Vulva building, isn't it?

When I was about 12, my brother & sister in law moved to Placentia, California. I had to always say it softly in my head before saying it aloud for fear I would accidentally say "Placenta."
posted by janey47 at 6:18 PM on February 18, 2015 [4 favorites]


Ancillary advice might be: this may not be the woman for you. "Smell", while not the only thing is a key reason why people decide to pair up in the first place. If you don't like how someone smells (or tastes - this is why we as a species kiss) then there isn't much chance of a meaningful connection.

Can you cite a reference for this? I'm not being a smartass, I've seen it mentioned here before (on the green I think) and I'd be interested to read more about it.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 6:29 PM on February 18, 2015


If you don't like how someone smells[...]then there isn't much chance of a meaningful connection.

Yeah, but if you think they're supposed to smell like candy and taste like pie because you're dumb because you've never had any sex education that wasn't abstinence-based or porn, that's a long lonely life without a meaningful connection.

Or, no, I meant: that's a long life of wounding women to the core, leaving some of them permanently traumatized, because they can't live up to your pie standards.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:31 PM on February 18, 2015 [12 favorites]


This is all a good discussion to have, but I think it is important to differentiate between the 'junk', 'junkal area' and the 'heathen region'.

I think it is totally appropriate to very gently remind an intimate partner that you enjoy more or less washing before sex of various kinds. This article is good because it gives you a good guide on how much washing is apropos.
posted by poe at 6:33 PM on February 18, 2015 [8 favorites]


Saying vagina when you mean vulva is only very slightly less nails-on-a-chalkboard cringe inducing for me as saying nipple when you mean areola.

You call things by specific words because that's what they are.

I watched several dudes once get into a huge argument about what the word scrotum meant because one guy was insisting "scrotum" was the term for the entire dickballs package. See how ridiculous that sounds? It sounds ridiculous because scrotum is a word that means a thing and that specficially means NOTpenis.

I don't know why wanting people to call the specific parts of the ladybits they're talking about by the actual ladybit names is somehow SO PEDANTIC in comparison.

It's not like hysterical uppity feminists are swooping in to rules lawyer you to not call it a hoohah, it's saying if you want to specifically talk about your elbow, don't call it an arm.
posted by phunniemee at 6:33 PM on February 18, 2015 [23 favorites]


It's not correct, though. If someone called their tongue their "mouth" and you said "no actually that specific part is your tongue" is that you being prissy and insisting on clinical language? It's just what it's called.

This disengenuous. You know enough to realize that "vagina" has become slang for vulva, that's what this entire argument is about. If someone says "vagina" where they could just as easily say "coochie" or "hooha" or "ladybits" or "crotch", and it's very obviously the slang usage and not in the context of a medical exam, correcting them is a dick move, especially since you don't know if they're aware of the correct usage or not. They might just be better at switching contexts and using slang with comfort than your prissy, condescending self. That probably goes double if you're doing it because you are a crazy hippie who believes words have magical powers to shape thoughts.

Unless you're a person's gynecologist, clinical accuracy about what precise part of the anatomy is meant is just not that important. Vagina-as-slang-for-vulva has happened, roll with it and don't be a jerk. By all means use whatever you want yourself, but correcting people is jerky. Do you correct people who say "my butt itches" with "actually you mean the epidermis over your gluteus maximus itches"? No, you do not, because you fucking know that would be weird and rude. Same thing.
posted by The Master and Margarita Mix at 6:34 PM on February 18, 2015 [16 favorites]


That's the Vulva building, isn't it?


There's a similar story about a cousin of mine. When she was 5 or 6, her dad (my uncle) took her on a train trip to visit her mother. She was at an age where she'd been learning the proper names for various body parts, and was very enthusiastic about using them. At one point this involved dancing up and down the aisle of the train car she was on, singing, "Vagina! Vagina! Vagina!"

A lady who was sitting nearby asked my uncle if they were traveling to Regina, and he said that, yes, they were.


They were traveling to Winnipeg.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 6:40 PM on February 18, 2015 [26 favorites]


It floats out of your mouth like a butterfly.

I'll, er, BRB.
posted by datawrangler at 6:51 PM on February 18, 2015


I believe that language is meaningful. And I believe that referring to the vulva as "vagina" is akin to referring to the penis as, say, "testicles" -- confusing by ignoring everything they can see, demeaning by insinuating it isn't important enough to have a name, and directly teaching girls that they don't -- or shouldn't -- have visible sex characteristics.

Yeah, speaking from experience during the supposedly sexy 70s, when the word "clitoris" was really taboo (you couldn't say it on television, for example), this is very true. The names we give things affects the ways we conceptualize them. For example, from the article: "Though some think of it as an eternally open tunnel, most of the time, the walls of the vagina are touching." This is something that I've found crazy irritating for years-- when was the last time you saw a diagram or drawing of the female reproductive tract? Were the walls of the vagina closed, flat up against each other as they are in nature, or are they represented as this great open kind of cave in a woman's body? A women's anatomy is depicted as eternally open.

I may be another "crazy hippie who believes words have magical powers to shape thoughts", but calling a vulva a vagina makes the vagina the most important part of the anatomy. Why is it important? Because it's the part where the penis goes (and look up the origin of the term, for extra interest). The rest-- clitoris, labia, the parts that are visible and the parts that are pleasurable-- are subsumed into a word for the part that is invisible. Metaphors, you know? Words have meanings.

Also I do wonder about people who act like jerks when telling other people not to act like jerks.
posted by jokeefe at 6:58 PM on February 18, 2015 [81 favorites]


EmpressCallipygos, my first thought would have been (and not that responses were invited here, but...) bits of toilet paper. The first thought would be "hope there's none to be found."

Go ahead and shriek, folks, but you know you check and check, regardless of your body fruit configuration. Gah.
posted by datawrangler at 6:59 PM on February 18, 2015 [4 favorites]


You call things by specific words because that's what they are.

But there isn't some holy book of language in a temple somewhere with all of the words and their meanings written down. What a word means is entirely based on convention, which changes over time. You may prefer people to use "vulva," but those who don't aren't disobeying the holy book; they're following a different, colloquial convention.

And it's understandable why they do. They use "vagina" as a term that encompasses both (what is clinically called) the vulva and the vagina, a kind of synecdoche. This is an extremely common form of semantic change, and in this case it's probably driven by a lack of a need to differentiate them in many contexts--even the need not to differentiate them. This may seem counter-intuitive (isn't more specific always better and more informed?), but sometimes you just want to refer to to the the leg, and not the thigh and shin separately. "Vagina" in the colloquial sense is serving a useful function; it's not just a "mistake."

(Along those lines -- many languages don't lexically distinguish feet and legs, or arms and hands!)

There are really better things to focus on and be angry about -- like, hey, those awful derogatory terms -- than the fact that some people speak a slightly different version of English that you do, that does not use a term the way you believe is best. And to add to that, it's really alienating to many of the young people you might want to reach, who follow this definition.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 7:03 PM on February 18, 2015 [15 favorites]


It's simple politeness to wonder if you've bathed recently enough that everything is pleasant for the person putting their mouth on you. But if they don't draw back or appear unhappy, you can stop worrying and pay attention to the proceedings. I wasn't raised with ladybits hatred, because there was no talk of anything sex related, ever, in my household, and if a nasty dude at school said something I assumed it was because he was a nasty dude. (My vast ignorance meant that much of the time, I didn't even know why some jokes were dirty). Nobody ever told me what a douche was for, and once I knew, I still didn't assume I needed one, because they seemed so bizarre. I certainly couldn't ask my mom.

Guess being raised a fundie is good for some things?
posted by emjaybee at 7:07 PM on February 18, 2015 [8 favorites]


it might not matter to other people and slang that intersects with technical terms is always a weird area - but for me, when i stopped thinking of my vulva as my vagina it was hand and hand with realizing that my parts were there for me and not a vessel for my future husband and the children i was expected to birth.
posted by nadawi at 7:09 PM on February 18, 2015 [9 favorites]


This disengenuous. You know enough to realize that "vagina" has become slang for vulva, that's what this entire argument is about. If someone says "vagina" where they could just as easily say "coochie" or "hooha" or "ladybits" or "crotch", and it's very obviously the slang usage and not in the context of a medical exam, correcting them is a dick move, especially since you don't know if they're aware of the correct usage or not. They might just be better at switching contexts and using slang with comfort than your prissy, condescending self. That probably goes double if you're doing it because you are a crazy hippie who believes words have magical powers to shape thoughts.

Unless you're a person's gynecologist, clinical accuracy about what precise part of the anatomy is meant is just not that important. Vagina-as-slang-for-vulva has happened, roll with it and don't be a jerk. By all means use whatever you want yourself, but correcting people is jerky. Do you correct people who say "my butt itches" with "actually you mean the epidermis over your gluteus maximus itches"? No, you do not, because you fucking know that would be weird and rude. Same thing.


Do you notice that you manage to inferentially call other people in the thread "dick," "prissy," "condescending," "crazy," "jerk," "jerky," "weird," and "rude" in these few sentences? Can you step off the aggro-bonanza train here and come back down to the world of non-name-calling conversation?

Asking why so many men and women are unaware of the terms for women's external genitalia is not some heretical exercise in crazy hippieism--it's just a question, like any other--and people with, I would wager, much more expertise--like, a lifetime of work as a sex educator's more expertise--than you on the issue have investigated it. My old teacher, Debbie Roffman, is one of them; maybe you could pick up one of her books.
posted by holympus at 7:25 PM on February 18, 2015 [22 favorites]


but calling a vulva a vagina makes the vagina the most important part of the anatomy. Why is it important? Because it's the part where the penis goes

i think this is stretching it pretty damn far, even if i see what you're saying. It seems like you, and others here, seem to feel that referring to the vulva as the vagina are somehow denigrating or erasing the existence of the vulva as a thing. In reality, when most people say vagina, they mean vulva.

You can debate academically all you want the greater metaphorical and social meaning of that, which seems to be what you're saying, but you also seem to be implying that everyone who says that is either consciously or not reinforcing "penis hole is the only important part, meh, the other stuff doesn't need a name" which really feels like a bit of an eye roll to me.

Asking why so many men and women are unaware of the terms for women's external genitalia is not some heretical exercise in crazy hippieism

And i think this gets to the root of why the "say vulva!" thing bugs me. I would argue for the assumption that the vast majority, if not nearly all of the people who refer to the vulva as the vagina know that word and know what it means, they're just choosing not to say it because no one else does.

People aren't saying vagina because they don't know any better, or don't care. They're saying it because it's generally accepted slang. This isn't some groan at the ignorance scuse me while i kiss this guy situation.


And by the way, i don't want to crap on the experiences of people like nadawi for whom using this phrase was a major ephiphany, or makes them feel empowered and generally good. I just think a fairly common thing in this sort of discussion is happening here where it's trending dangerously close to, if not falling in to "anyone doing this thing must be an actual moron who doesn't know any better".
posted by emptythought at 7:31 PM on February 18, 2015 [4 favorites]


They use "vagina" as a term that encompasses both (what is clinically called) the vulva and the vagina, a kind of synecdoche. This is an extremely common form of semantic change, and in this case it's probably driven by a lack of a need to differentiate them in many contexts--even the need not to differentiate them.

No. As nadawi points out above, in this case the terminology is political; women's genitalia are not just ordinary body parts. Our value is conflated with them, our social status revolves around them, we are taught to believe they are smelly and nasty, and their actual names are elided. The clitoris is not the vagina; any girl who is taught this is going to have to unlearn it at some point. And why should she have to?

We all know what semantic change is, as well. Sometimes is reduces, sometimes is expands. There's no reason, aside from social squeamishness, for the term "vagina" to stand in for the far more complicated structures it is connected to.
posted by jokeefe at 7:34 PM on February 18, 2015 [23 favorites]


And i think this gets to the root of why the "say vulva!" thing bugs me. I would argue for the assumption that the vast majority, if not nearly all of the people who refer to the vulva as the vagina know that word and know what it means, they're just choosing not to say it because no one else does.

That's exactly why I linked to the pages that I did in my old teacher's book, emptythought. If you sit in classrooms with children and adults for four decades and ask them about their genitals, they will quickly disavow you of this naive notion.
posted by holympus at 7:38 PM on February 18, 2015 [8 favorites]


The nipple/areola comparison is apt. I've never called the tips of my breasts anything but nipples. I know the word areola, but, like, I just can't imagine using that word in casual conversation. Nothing wrong with it, I just . . . wouldn't. Probably because I've never heard anyone else do it either. But I don't see it as an attempt to other or diminish any parts of my breasts.
posted by chainsofreedom at 7:38 PM on February 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


Metafilter has already answered the latter: A 9v battery.

If that was the case people would spend a lot more time licking batteries.

There's no reason, aside from social squeamishness, for the term "vagina" to stand in for the far more complicated structures it is connected to.

I disagree. As with the leg analogy above, it's useful to have a term to refer to the whole set of structures and parts, and "genitals" is more than a bit clinical. In the last few years people seem to use "girl parts" increasingly often, but far more common is the use of "vagina" as a term for the entire area. That's something that is useful even if people are educated about and comfortable with sexual anatomy; the problem of ignorance isn't going to be solved by resisting this one piece of language change.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:44 PM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


9v battery isn't the perfect description but yeah, it kinda makes sense. Neither sweet nor sour, never bitter or foul, but there is a nice tang to what my dad used to call the make of my brother's car. Usually when dad talked about that car it made my wife bite her knuckles, sister-in-law would would gnaw on her lower lip. Mom, she just pretended not to notice. Dad was utterly clueless.
posted by Ber at 7:50 PM on February 18, 2015


It's completely political which word stands in for the whole, though - 'clitoris' is all about female pleasure, but it's ignored (gasp!) for ... oh I've just scrolled up and I see I'm repeating here. WHAT JOKEEFE SAID.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 7:54 PM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


We all know what semantic change is, as well.

Touching vagina is doubleplus unfun, Party members. Also do not use deprecated words.
posted by localroger at 7:55 PM on February 18, 2015


> "That's the Vulva building, isn't it?"

A friend who did a residency at a Baltimore city hospital still cracks up over an announcement on the PA system concerning a double-parked car: "Will the lady with the green Vulva please move it?"
posted by Quietgal at 7:57 PM on February 18, 2015 [5 favorites]


There are a lot of assumptions flying around this conversation. Some women actually do not know what the word "vulva" means. And some doctors say "vagina" for vulva. These are problems, IMO. Is there data on how many people actually use vagina for vulva?

There's also a weird assumption in TFA that people googling about vagina odors actually meant vulva odors, which doesn't make any sense to me especially for women searchers. I would imagine the women already tried soap and ruled out the idea that the odor source was external.
posted by zennie at 8:07 PM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


The word "vagina" is itself like a vagina. Complicated, misunderstood, holds a lot or holds a little, doesn't need cleaning..
posted by bleep at 8:15 PM on February 18, 2015 [6 favorites]


Both funny and serious.
posted by bleep at 8:15 PM on February 18, 2015


You say vagina, and I say vulva, but let's call the whole steam off .
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:21 PM on February 18, 2015 [11 favorites]


While we're at it, can we shoehorn some "stop trying to make the Weather Channel's stupid winter storm names happen" rage in here as well? It would be just as relevant and it might be nice to have the same arguments in the same place. TIA.

Vagina. That's what everyone says, and what everyone means. And it's a snow storm, not a Greek god.
posted by yhbc at 8:28 PM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


And some doctors say "vagina" for vulva.

I had a gynecologist once tell me that she didn't know until med school that you don't pee out of your clitoris, and then she poked her head around from between my legs with a total Cher Horowitz I know right? look on her face, like obviously this was sacred mystic knowledge no one could possibly know or discover on their own.

So yeah. I 100% believe that a lot of (maybe/maybe not most?) people who call a vulva a vagina actually do not know.
posted by phunniemee at 8:30 PM on February 18, 2015 [16 favorites]


This seems like another area of women's health where classes providing full and accurate information to early teens about anatomy and the range of normal with respect to odours would go a long way towards reducing both the ignorance and purported skeeviness factors during adulthood. And by early teens I mean teaching BOYS.
posted by peacay at 8:42 PM on February 18, 2015 [9 favorites]


My Mom used to talk about a PTA -washing pussy, tits, ass/armpits(?) - and it always embarrassed me until I learned that those are the main places we have sweat/ scent glands with a strong smell. It's no accident that we have scent glands.
posted by theora55 at 8:45 PM on February 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


Yeah, but if you think they're supposed to smell like candy and taste like pie because you're dumb because you've never had any sex education that wasn't abstinence-based or porn, that's a long lonely life without a meaningful connection.

Or, no, I meant: that's a long life of wounding women to the core, leaving some of them permanently traumatized, because they can't live up to your pie standards.


I think you'll just have to assume that I'm arguing in good faith here (and that I'm not suggesting that all women should smell like confectionery sweets).

It is possible to be an ally and still have an opinion that may seem unorthodox. This is why friends in a community have conversations - to learn things from other points of view.

Anyway, people, men and women, smell. It's a fact of life.

Speaking as a married person, if you really have a problem with how someone smells at the end of the day before a shower, they are not the right person for you.

That's all I'm saying.

As for the scientific basis behind the assumption that odor = personal comparability, well there is this.
posted by Nevin at 8:51 PM on February 18, 2015


My frustration is not specifically with you, but with how misleading "but but pheromones" is when that is some graduate-level woo in a culture where we do not teach young humans or young adults that those parts should smell like body.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:12 PM on February 18, 2015 [4 favorites]


Is "vulva" less pleasant than, say, "volvo"?

"It's so boxy."


...but they're good.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:21 PM on February 18, 2015 [4 favorites]


At one point this involved dancing up and down the aisle of the train car she was on, singing, "Vagina! Vagina! Vagina!"


Heh.

I grew up in a family that loved musicals. LOVE LOVE LOVE. My parents would put on Original Broadway Cast recordings and we kids would dance and sing along. Camelot, My Fair Lady, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, all sorts.

One of our favorites was an obscure one by Yip Harburg: The Happiest Girl in the World. It was based on Lysistrata, and the music was adapted from Offenbach.

My eldest sister was sent home from elementary school because she would sing out her favorite song from the musical: "Never Trust a Virgin." Have a listen.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 9:33 PM on February 18, 2015


PTA=Pits, Tits and Ass.
posted by brujita at 9:34 PM on February 18, 2015


Huh, I learned that "things to wash *for sure*" mnemonic as "Pits, tits, and bits" when I was a kid at summer camp.
posted by janell at 9:56 PM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


I might start showing up at PTA meetings now. Thanks!
posted by dr_dank at 10:03 PM on February 18, 2015 [3 favorites]


It's just what it's called.

However many threads it's dismissed in, everyone has some bit of language on which they become flagrantly perscriptivist.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 10:10 PM on February 18, 2015 [3 favorites]


It's so weird on a personal level for that askme of mine to keep being referenced. Not terrible, just... such a lot of vagina juice under the bridge in 9 years. I'm in my early 30s now, not my early 20s, and I'm 34 weeks pregnant. But I still have a million questions about vaginas, things that aren't publicly discussed, and which I think should be, though these recent days I'm more interested in the truths about birth injuries, preparations and recoveries, than taste notes. But, overall, how are they still so shrouded in unknowns? Skenes, Bartholins, the G-spot, ejaculation, etc. etc. Aren't we all fascinated enough to study them and get these facts out? Don't we want to obsessively read the manual? I do!
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 10:23 PM on February 18, 2015 [8 favorites]


I've always disliked the term "va-jay-jay". It sounds like a 70's Motown Band Name.
posted by luckynerd at 11:01 PM on February 18, 2015 [5 favorites]


So,I'm not going to argue that vagina is used to mean the whole box and dice (oh bugger, wel. I'm on my iPad, I'm not changing that) but if we're talking about the cervix (I remember seeing photos of one here on metafilter with a NSFW tag because ...um... But cool pics). So sure, I'm okay if you refer to my sexual organs from vulva to cervix as vagina, I'll figure it out. But if the scent is produced in the vulva, and not the magic tunnel, I want to know that. Hell, I have a very high favourited comment (here) from years ago, explaining something lacking in my understanding of "down there" and if the scent is produced in the vulva (not entirely certain) and not the vagina, let's stick to specifics.

And I'm going to give you two reasons why. My best mate is a bloke (guy, man) and our current relationships with our significant others having been running weirdly parallel. My best mate, let's call him Michael, because that's his name, and I often discuss sex, but not in a - God, what are the words - not in a flirty way. (No, really, we tried, it was a bit weird, we are not attracted to each other, tho we love each other, okay?)And one of the interesting issues that came up with his girlfriend, at the same time it happened in my relationship, was both women, when offered oral sex, were reticent. Both women (me & Michael's girlfriend) are experienced, sex positive, expert blowjobbers (that's a word?) but when it came to a very natural part of sex with our loving, interested, aroused, desiring partners, both of us avoided it. And it turns out that Michael's girlfriend and I both have been told that we don't smell or taste good, by people who have enjoyed blowjobs (before & after intercourse). Not only did we know what we tasted like, we were expected/encouraged to "tolerate" our own flavour which was so revolting that we learned not only to not expect oral sex performed on us, but to feel nervous about it, guilty, bad. Have I made my point here?

The other interesting thing is about two years ago, I had a magnificent, fun lover who caused me to squirt - on our first night together even. (I don't believe recent research that says its just urine - I'll explain some other time), and I read it is produced by the bartholomew and another gland, located in/on (?) the vulva (now if I said vagina here, you'd think it was up the tunnel eh?) , and I've noticed that if I'm seriously masturbating with a tampon inserted, my vulva (yeah, I really don't mean vagina) becomes slippery. So where is that coming from? Don't tell me vagina - it's sealed off. So maybe the smell (good or bad) is created in the vulva with Bartholomew and the other one.

And this is why people like me like to know the right bits. Is it my clitoris that's getting all juicy? Sweat? Imagination? And if that juiciness has a delightful (it does) scent, where did it come from? (By the way, my awesome vaginitis - oh you ipad, you autocorrected vagina with vaginitis and I doubt I've ever typed that word - my awesome vagina also produces lubrication in great quantities).

I think I need to be using the TMI warning with NSFW, yeah, because the reproctive biology of a woman is inherently icky, right?
posted by b33j at 12:23 AM on February 19, 2015 [7 favorites]


Do most women know the names for the various parts of the penis? I ask because I think there's an awful lot of guys who don't know the names for the various parts of their own penis, so I'm not sure the fact that they may not know the names for various parts of women's genitals is all that significant when they don't even know the names for various parts of their own.
posted by Justinian at 1:14 AM on February 19, 2015


I feel like people here are arguing across purposes in the great genital nomenclature debate. On the one hand, yes, language is fluid and is defined in the public domain, so if everyone agrees on a certain word to use to refer to something, then that is its name. However, it's perfectly legitimate to ask why a certain word is used, and whether its usage carries any associations with it, or reflects any viewpoints we don't want to propagate. I don't have any particularly strong feelings on this issue, but the argument that it's 'just semantics' (my paraphrasing) does a disservice to the richness of language, and ignores the interplay between thought and word. After all, words mean things.
posted by Ned G at 1:28 AM on February 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


My issue in these particular circumstances is when vagina means vulva + vagina (common usage, that I don't fret over) and the thing is just about the vulva and definitely not the vagina (internal muscle) is that it is misinformation.
posted by b33j at 1:44 AM on February 19, 2015


Well, if we use "vagina" to refer to the external genitalia, what are we going to call the vagina, to avoid confusion?

I am always slightly offended when people just use 'vagina' as some kind of lazy, catch all term, might as well just say, 'who cares what I'm talking about?' with a careless grin, because that's what it always sounds like to me. I had an ex, a million years ago, who would say, entirely straight faced, "I have never understood the mysteries of the female orgasm," as if it had no bearing and no interest to him. When a person says "vagina" to refer to...I don't know, what exactly: the vulva? the labia? clitoris?, what I hear is "I am not enough interested in this part of a woman's body to even know what it is called." And if you are a potential sexual partner, you have just black balled yourself; and if you aren't, I'm going to think you're a bit ignorant, and maybe call penises "wee-wee"s or something equally stupid.
posted by mythical anthropomorphic amphibian at 1:46 AM on February 19, 2015 [10 favorites]


Do most women know the names for the various parts of the penis? I ask because I think there's an awful lot of guys who don't know the names for the various parts of their own penis, so I'm not sure the fact that they may not know the names for various parts of women's genitals is all that significant when they don't even know the names for various parts of their own.

I think that's a valid question, but also that this issue runs a lot deeper than that because there's some history of disinterest in the particulars of the female body. I feel compelled to mention something I learned from this site, that no one knew the shape of the clitoris until the 1990's because no one bothered to study that.

I have only heard comedians use 'vagina' to mean 'vulva,' or other people who are trying to at once be funny and judgy about some visual depiction of women. I like comedy, but the world being what it is, I don't trust it to be the dictator of nomenclature.
posted by heatvision at 4:26 AM on February 19, 2015 [14 favorites]


Sometimes the vulva smells/tastes a bit more than other times, but if you give it a couple of licks, the extra is superficial: the new flow you'll engender and your own saliva will take it off quickly like salt off the edge of your margarita glass. Get on with it.
posted by alasdair at 5:50 AM on February 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


Speaking as a married person, if you really have a problem with how someone smells at the end of the day before a shower, they are not the right person for you.

I don't think the specific genital smell is the same thing as pheromones. Or maybe it is, but to equate the two means denying/ignoring how women get a very strong cultural messaging that their genitals are dirty and smell bad from when they are very, very young girls. A cultural messaging which I do know has absolutely no connection with pheromones and the science around human attraction and everything to do with shaming girls about their natural bodies. I don't think you specifically are intending to do this but by equating the two you are reinforcing it whether you intend to or not. I say this as an adult woman who internalized these very damaging messages as a very young girl and will spend a lifetime trying to counter-program myself.

Pretty much my only deal-breaker in the dating game is a man who, for whatever reason - it doesn't matter why - will not go down on a woman. I've spent enough time feeling bad about my body to have a partner who reinforces that.
posted by triggerfinger at 6:23 AM on February 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


Um, my Gershwin tribute wasn't clear enough, so lemme be clear:

Can we maybe table the nomenclature discussion just for a little while, so people who wanted to discuss some of the other elements of the article can have a turn?

Like the special-cleaning thing; particular the special wipes that come in scents like "basil grapefruit". Okay, I know that the slang term is "eating [a woman] out", but I don't want a guy to be tempted into actaully biting anything down there, you know?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:26 AM on February 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


Do most women know the names for the various parts of the penis? I ask because I think there's an awful lot of guys who don't know the names for the various parts of their own penis, so I'm not sure the fact that they may not know the names for various parts of women's genitals is all that significant when they don't even know the names for various parts of their own.
Part of this is that women's external genitalia don't generally get taught in sex ed classes. I vividly remember looking at the diagrams on anatomy we had to fill in for sex ed in high school: the male one included both internal and external anatomy (for example, both labeling the vas deferens and the head of the penis). It also had some discussion about the male urinary system--for example, the bladder was labeled. The female one started at the vagina and just went internal from there--no explanation as to where the bladder terminated, for example, no mention of the clitoris at any point, no discussion of the labia or the mons pubis. I was in college before I got any of that, and that only because I happened to sign up for Human Sexuality.

There is a real difference in how people are educated about genitalia in even basic sex ed classes. Is it any wonder that a lot of people have pretty horrifying misconceptions about how vulvas work?

(All of that is pretty separate, IMO, from the language stuff. I don't actually care what terms people use to refer to their genitals, but I'd like it if we all got a basic run-down on how EVERYONE'S external genitals work and not just dicks in sex ed. Especially if that's going to be pretty much all the sex ed, plus a list of diseases and how fertilization works, that some of us mandatorily get.)
posted by sciatrix at 7:03 AM on February 19, 2015 [6 favorites]


Also, am I the only person who prefers the actual smell of human body to all those artificial odors?

Like. What the fuck, mugwort? Why on earth would I want to smell like mugwort? Or fake-basil-and-lemon (aka Lysol) or shitty fake perfume? Yeasty clean human body is way more preferable than almost any fake scent I've had access to. Especially the flowery bullshit that most of the scented "feminine hygiene" products (or deoderants aimed at women, for that matter) all seem to come in. None of this shit actually smells good, at least not to me.

This may be my hatred for artificial smells speaking, though.
posted by sciatrix at 7:11 AM on February 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


Do most women know the names for the various parts of the penis?

Open any mass-conumption women's magazine to the sex tips section, and you'll see dozens helpful pointers on how to give a blowjob, complete with terms like glans and frenulum and reminders not to neglect the prostate.

Open up a mass-consumption men's magazine to the sex tips section, and wow you can't make this shit up but the top story on Men's Health right now is "Butt Motorboating: Yes, Real People Are Doing It." I was planning to link to one of the ubiquitous articles about how to get her to give you a better blowjob, but there's no way to top butt motorboating.
posted by phunniemee at 7:34 AM on February 19, 2015 [19 favorites]


Jokeefe, I wish everyone in the world could read your comments. I never before thought about medical illustrations of the vaginal walls. But now I'm pissed off about it. Language is also important and its always been obvious to me how women's bodies don't matter the same way men's do - language ignoring vulva and clitoris is part of that.
posted by agregoli at 7:44 AM on February 19, 2015 [10 favorites]


Am I permitted to refer to it as my vag? Because 'vulv' is just... vulgar.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:35 AM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Oh God, "vag" makes me boke! That's not a criticism of your choice, just one of those personal things where some words make you hurt inside your head. See also "parse". No real reason.
posted by billiebee at 9:44 AM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's cool. I feel the same way about 'nasty.' Shudder. If that word has a flavor it would be earwax.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:56 AM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Which leads me to wonder what "vag" tastes like. I feel we've come full circle...
posted by billiebee at 9:59 AM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Jokeefe, I wish everyone in the world could read your comments. I never before thought about medical illustrations of the vaginal walls. But now I'm pissed off about it. Language is also important and its always been obvious to me how women's bodies don't matter the same way men's do - language ignoring vulva and clitoris is part of that.

Cheers agregoli-- thank you for the kind words. It's as if every diagram of the penis showed an erection... And I can share another thing which has angered me for years, which was being taught in sex ed that the vagina is an "entrance" to the body. No, it's primarily an exit, thanks.

And just as a further note on the power of names and metaphors-- I was reading an article recently where a group of teenagers were asked where they believed the "cloud" was situated, and that a majority of them actually looked to the sky. The way we imagine and name things affects how we react to them.
posted by jokeefe at 11:20 AM on February 19, 2015 [9 favorites]


and a lot of that is wrapped up in the sorts of things people, often boys who learn it from men, say to and about women's bodies

I got to a point some years ago that whenever I hear some ignorant bloody gay man go on about fish, he gets a tongue lashing. It's rank misogyny.

I'm fun at parties.

but there's no way to top butt motorboating.

so...many...things...
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:35 AM on February 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


I can read "tongue lashing" two ways here...hope its a sharp word, haha!
posted by agregoli at 11:40 AM on February 19, 2015


Not the fun kind of tongue lashing.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:53 AM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's as if every diagram of the penis showed an erection...

DrMew's blog post about how intersex conditions are handled by the medical establishment is really interesting in this regard, wherein babies that fall on the "more of a vulva" end of the spectrum get treated using weird-ass shitty line diagrams, babies on the "more of a phallus" end get these super-detailed erect man-dick diagrams. All in the service of, as DrMew so eloquently puts it:
Parents (and doctors!) must be reassured by looking at the erect, large, ideal penises drawn in the hypospadias illustrations that the genitally intermediate flesh of the child they see is illusory, and that an excellent penis will soon be revealed by the scalpel.
It's completely insane.
posted by odinsdream at 12:05 PM on February 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


Language is important, words have meaning, and we teach ourselves and others using language. This is why gender neutral language started to become an issue when I was a teenager -- studies showed that when words like "policeman" and "mailman" were used, children understood them to refer specifically and only to men, and little girls did not believe that the professions were open to them.

In my personal experience, a relatively large percentage of people using the word "vagina" to mean the totality of women's genitalia do *not* know the word "vulva" and those who do see it as sexualized in a way that "vagina" is not. I have no problem with slang terms. No one wants to hear their partner using technical terms in intimate moments. But let's use slang then, and not use incorrect terminology and call it slang. Every person has slang words that they like and that sound hot to them. I don't think "vagina" falls into this category. Accordingly, what seems disingenuous to me is hot-headed arguments about how language is fluid and meanings shift so we shouldn't fucking care. That seems like someone, whose buttons were pushed, is lashing out defensively for a reason I don't understand.
posted by janey47 at 1:06 PM on February 19, 2015 [9 favorites]


amazing article odinsdream, thanks
posted by holympus at 1:07 PM on February 19, 2015


Yeah, it seems like there's always a few people in every discussion that need to tell us ladies that our feminism is incorrect.
posted by agregoli at 1:31 PM on February 19, 2015


And I'm in favour of having a quick wash before oral sex. It's not that I don't like how my husband smells at the end of the day (on the contrary! I find sweaty husband enchanting!) but I don't find pubic sweat and traces of urine etc particularly enticing. On the other hand, carelessly rinsed soap is not very nice, either.

I don't have a lot of issues surrounding whether my vulva smells good or bad: unless I've got thrush or some kind of upset, it smells like a vulva. I read Our Bodies and something else, maybe the Female Eunuch at an impressionable age, so I did a lot of looking at my vulva in the mirror and tasting my own discharges at different times of the month, to see for myself what it was like. It's fine. I don't always like the taste of other people's genitals or even semen all the time, and I think it's ok to avoid things you don't want in your mouth for whatever reason, without it being hateful, so I'm not particularly bothered if a partner isn't into my vulva! But I don't have any patience for rudeness about it, either.
posted by mythical anthropomorphic amphibian at 2:05 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Vag" short for "vagina" is like "frig" short for "refrigerator." The "g" is soft in the long form, but in the nickname you must add a "d" and an "e" on either side of it to soften it. "Vag" rhymes with "bag" and "frig" rhymes with "twig" and neither is tolerable. The one is spelled "fridge" and the other isn't spelled. It is neither spelled nor pronounced because it's too sad. It's a sad attempt to rehabilitate a parent/teacher/doctor-word that should have been shed from the vocabulary around the age of 9 or 10. "Vagina" isn't slang any more than "penis" is slang. It's what parents teach children to say so they're not yelling about their "teetee" in public, with the result that the poor children go around sounding like assholes for most of their childhoods until they meet some friends with some sense who can teach them how real people talk. As soon as you get into double digits, you must offload all those parent-taught terms so that you're not saying things like, "Wait a sec, I have to urinate." If you want to talk about a vulva in a serious way, call it what it is for all the excellent reasons already said above by b33j et al. If you want a slang word for vagina + vulva, there is a perfectly good one already that's been in use for hundreds of years. If you don't like that slang word because of all the abusive freight it's had to carry over the centuries and you want a new slang word, then pick any likely word in any human language and inflect it well and if you do it right, everyone will know exactly what you mean. I could teach you, but I'd have to charge.
posted by Don Pepino at 2:20 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Accordingly, what seems disingenuous to me is hot-headed arguments about how language is fluid and meanings shift so we shouldn't fucking care. That seems like someone, whose buttons were pushed, is lashing out defensively for a reason I don't understand."

They're responding to wrongheaded statements like this one:

"But let's use slang then, and not use incorrect terminology and call it slang."

I'm in very strong agreement with both sides of this argument and, correspondingly, I find that (some examples from) both sides also really piss me off.

When you can't imagine why someone would correct you when you cloak your prescriptivist peeving in authoritative statements about what words really mean and how other people are using words wrong, then you don't know how widespread such arguments are, how they're essentially wrong about how language works (Kutsuwamushi is a linguist, by the way), and that this position isn't on the side you should want to associate with given how such arguments normally play out with regard to who gets to decide in a culture which words are "correct" and which people are corrected for their obviously "incorrect" usages.

Similarly, when someone heatedly defends the "vagina" usage as just being a normal usage that no one ought to object to, then they don't know about the cultural forces that basically erase all the aspects of women's sexuality that isn't procreative -- it's no accident that people in our culture are using the medical Latin vagina as a synecdoche for vulva+vagina because our culture, and medicine in particular, thinks of women as baby machines and male pleasure utilities and that clitorises are irrelevant. Women in our culture are getting elective labiaplasties, and FGM is what it is not by accident. There are very good reasons to prefer vulva over vagina.

I think that the majority in this thread are neither choosing to promulgate vulva opportunistically so as to indulge in being language scolds nor choosing to defend vagina because they prefer thinking in patriarchal terms. All of us in this majority can probably agree that words mean what people think they mean and those meanings change -- and also that some usages are more or less politically objectionable. Probably most of this group haven't really thought about either or both of these issues very carefully and, on reflection, will be more sensitive to the stuff that's problematic. And those folk who truly are insufferable prescriptive peevers and those who truly are sexist jerks can be voted off the island. I'm cool with that.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 2:34 PM on February 19, 2015 [9 favorites]


These two comments--

Accordingly, what seems disingenuous to me is hot-headed arguments about how language is fluid and meanings shift so we shouldn't fucking care. That seems like someone, whose buttons were pushed, is lashing out defensively for a reason I don't understand.

Yeah, it seems like there's always a few people in every discussion that need to tell us ladies that our feminism is incorrect.

--bother me a lot, probably more than they should, because you've assumed that people in this thread who disagree with you about the acceptability of the colloquial meaning of "vagina" are insufficiently feminist--that they'd agree with you if they weren't "lashing out defensively" or feeling the need to "tell [you] ladies that [your] feminism is wrong."

I'm a woman and an involved feminist, in addition to being a linguist. We have the same goals, but we have different experiences, and we can look at a complicated like language use and disagree without either of us being insufficiently feminist or "doing feminism wrong." It's vital for feminists to be able to disagree and still talk to each other charitably.

I'm not going to argue any more about the meaning of "vagina," but I just wanted to say this. And with that I'm out.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 2:45 PM on February 19, 2015 [9 favorites]


Don't be nasty about your disagreement and it wouldn't rankle so much. There's room for disagreements, but don't tell me there's better things to be angry about - a frequent critcism lobbed towards feminists. I don't find that helpful.
posted by agregoli at 3:14 PM on February 19, 2015


Also, like, it wasn't like I was singling you out. There was worse in this thread. Just tired of hearing the sentiment that women are feeling or handling something wrongly.
posted by agregoli at 3:26 PM on February 19, 2015


Before i even start, i want to be clear i'm not telling anyone that they're doing it wrong. I just think it's bs to mis-attribute motives to people who don't agree with you that make them some terrible enemy worthy of damnation.

I have only heard comedians use 'vagina' to mean 'vulva,' or other people who are trying to at once be funny and judgy about some visual depiction of women. I like comedy, but the world being what it is, I don't trust it to be the dictator of nomenclature.

This, in addition to any number of comments already quoted and replied to directly above me, are exactly what i'm talking about.

The basic premise seems to be a choose your own adventure of:
* People who say this Don't Know Any Better/Most people who say this don't know any better
* People who say this are joking in some shitty tiresome way
* People who say this are intentionally disrespectful dudes who are announcing they don't care

Etc.

This makes me pissed off and defensive because it's like a crash course in "people who don't agree with me are wrong and bad people" style arguing. There's a discussion to be had about the greater political meaning of this being the slang term, but having it like this is really shitty and disrespectful to the people who aren't any of those things and regularly use that term. It's almost a bullying tactic when you approach someone in an aggressive way about how they're totally completely wrong and then go "oh woah, why are you being so defensive?" when they are.

I reflected on it after replying to this thread last night, and realized that every single person i know has used Vag or Vagina that way when it came up in conversation(looking through texts/ims, reflecting on recent conversations, asking people), and that my sample pool was mostly women. And it seems like this thread is trying to paint the default person who uses the phrase that way as some ignorant knuckle dragging dude who doesn't care about women. What? I've had a very similar conversation to this thread offline more than once, and what always got brought up was "I hate all the other disgusting, demeaning, and sexual terms for lady bits. This one is fine, without being too clinical, and everyone else seems to be fine with it and say it". The first time this came up, i was maybe 15. And i knew full well what the correct names for the bits were.

But anyways, yea, This is already a discussion i was hesitant to get involved in. but there's such flagrant assholing going on here that my jaw dropped.

I learned some interesting stuff with regards to realizations people like Nadawi came to with regards to using vagina in this way, but mostly just found out that this might be the most freighted phrase in the english language. Holy shit.

but don't tell me there's better things to be angry about

Unless you were replying to Ivan's comment, nowhere do i see that in Kutsuwamushi's post.
posted by emptythought at 3:28 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


I need to apologize and clarify in case my last comment is being misread. When I say that some folks seem to be telling us we shouldn't fucking care, and that seems to be a big leap into anger that I don't understand, I mean that as a reference to a comment quoting something I posted and, using the word "fucking" four times, arguing that it doesn't matter, not as vehemence or anger on my part.
posted by janey47 at 3:46 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


On the bright side, I have via this thread received the wonderful news that mine is not a lone voice in the wilderness. Thank you, Metafilter, for having enough people with awareness of the issue to even have this discussion.
posted by janey47 at 4:17 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


I use the synecdoche from habit, and I'm happy with it and I clearly see the problems it reflects, but what are the good, colloquially appropriate alternatives? If I want to tell my mom, or friend, or partner, "I love my vagina," or "I hope I don't get vaginal tearing with childbirth" both of which remarks refer inclusively to the components of the vulva and to the vagina itself, without perpetuating the invisibility of female sexual pleasure, I don't see here what the handy and non-cutesy thing to say is. "I love my ...female sexual parts?" Is the argument that the synecdoche should be flipped, so that referring to the whole shebang is done by using "vulva?"
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 4:42 PM on February 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


It's kinda just that it's absolutely true a lot of people never seem to learn this stuff and that's crazy and it's not wrong to be mad about it, but those of us who do know, were taught as kids even, don't love being lectured about our informal language use. And yes if you really want to be pedantic a lot of this talk is about the vulva and vagina.

That's probably all I should say, not being a woman myself, but - a lot of things are represented unrealistically in medical textbooks because they want you to know that passages are passages and organs are distinct shapes and there's more order than is immediately apparent in the goo and collapsed baggy layers you'd see at first if you cut us open. But a sex ed text certainly should not be afraid to explain exactly how a vagina works. Um, or vulva.
posted by atoxyl at 3:12 AM on February 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


A lot of medical drawings are based on cadaver dissections or fresh organ samples that have been split open and pinned to a dissection pan. There's not always intent behind distortions in medical drawings. But there is a lot of ignorance and a lack of motivation to fix it, because down there is such a mystical mystery.
posted by zennie at 7:09 AM on February 20, 2015


I use the synecdoche from habit, and I'm happy with it and I clearly see the problems it reflects, but what are the good, colloquially appropriate alternatives? If I want to tell my mom, or friend, or partner, "I love my vagina," or "I hope I don't get vaginal tearing with childbirth" both of which remarks refer inclusively to the components of the vulva and to the vagina itself, without perpetuating the invisibility of female sexual pleasure, I don't see here what the handy and non-cutesy thing to say is. "I love my ...female sexual parts?" Is the argument that the synecdoche should be flipped, so that referring to the whole shebang is done by using "vulva?"

n. Genitals
v. Genital
posted by Sys Rq at 7:41 AM on February 20, 2015


What if you want to express love not just for your genitalia but also your anus and you want a word that doesn't leave it out? You're screwed, that's what. What about men? What are they supposed to do when they want to talk about their penises and their testicles using one word? They. Are. Screwed. What if they want to talk about their prostates, but they want to use a slang word and want to avoid 'tate because it's reductive and insulting and plus it doesn't yet exist in the language? Screwed! Totally screwed! The hell kind of draconian nightmare mess have we made with this language? We've hobbled ourselves with genital hatespeech and now there's no way for us to verbalize our appreciation for collections of our various assparts!
posted by Don Pepino at 8:20 AM on February 20, 2015


IOW, why do we need to shebang them at all, other than "because it's a crazy mess, who can pay attention?" Languages with strategies for differentiating feet from legs make it easier for speakers to discuss feet and legs. Languages with umpty words for kinds of snow are better for talking about kinds of snow. The vagina and the vulva are two separate things. They're close together and intimately linked and closely related, they frequently perform their functions at the same time, but there's no more reason to shebang them than there is to shebang the mouth and the throat. In any case, English DOES differentiate feet from legs, mouths from throats, and vulvas from vaginas. A movement to mandate substituting "leg" for "foot" would necessarily fail, and the "vagina" mandate should fail for the same reason. Eve Ensler wanted to make it easier, not harder, for women to talk about ourselves and our experiences. She was objecting to derogatory words, not useful words. Forcing a new connotation on "vagina" renders the word less meaningful. It erases an important distinction. Eve Ensler's intent when she wrote The Vagina Monologues was to give people good words, not to take good words away.
posted by Don Pepino at 9:27 AM on February 20, 2015 [5 favorites]


The Vagina Monologues is chock full of instances of "vagina" used as synecdoche. Are you saying you think the people who are ok with synecdoche usage are "forcing" a new meaning on vagina? It's there, it evolved socially, in an unforced, even if entirely sex-negative, sexist, way. Forcing the cessation of that practice is what I'm seeing discussed here.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 3:13 PM on February 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


There is a difference between force and encouragement.
posted by Sys Rq at 4:49 PM on February 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


It was forced. Eve Ensler forced it. Or, right, she encouraged it. It didn't just naturally evolve. Eve Ensler needed a title for her play, the purpose of which was to vanquish all the derogatory terms and make people lose the shame so they'd quit saying "down there" while blushing. It worked: now people say "vadge" or "va-jay-jay" instead of "hoo-haw" or "peepee." She changed the language: it's amazing and cool. But it did have this unfortunate side effect of oversimplifying everything and erasing important features and details. Like how is Gwyneth seriously going to steam her vagina? Does the special seat you sit in for the treatment come with a speculum? If not, sorry, but Gwyneth is fixing to be steaming her vulva. It's superhandy to be able to distinguish. In all kinds of situations, not just at the spa! Not only that, we need words for all the parts OF the vulva and the vagina--which was Eve Ensler's original point (she didn't learn labia or clitoris or any of that, just "down there"). Anybody who will be having any truck with vaginas and vulvas needs a working knowledge of them and their components and needs to be able to talk about them. So we need all the words Eve Ensler wished she'd learned, not just the one she succeeded in making the accepted term of art. There's no forcing that change: we needn't worry that freedom-hating prescriptivists will take away our beloved va-jay-jay. But Eve Ensler has proven that it's possible to encourage a new usage into the language.
posted by Don Pepino at 5:23 PM on February 20, 2015 [4 favorites]


The steaming thing talks about 'cleansing the uterus' so accuracy is absolutely being sacrificed for woo notions of purity. There are crossovers with nomenclature and biological understandings but in this case it's not specifically about 'how do genitals work' (see: gall stone cleanses).
posted by geek anachronism at 5:27 PM on February 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


http://www.tikkunspa.com/treatments/specialty-treatments/#sthash.vSSi8Owt.dpuf

"Medicinal Properties of the V-Steam:

Stimulates the production of hormones to maintain uterine health
Protects the uterus from ulcers and tumors
Soothes while strengthening the nervous system
Stimulates menstrual discharges and the production of milk
Aids in restarting regular menstrual cycles
Eases fatigue, headaches, abdominal discomfort and nausea
Lessens the effects of renal calculi, rheumatism, arthritis and gout
Helps fight infections
Kills intestinal worms
Helps correct digestive disorders
Warms the body"

"Warms the body," yeah, I don't know about any of the rest of the stuff, but that last one is probably a safe bet. It's the main reason I'd avoid the V-Steam chair, actually. Hey! It says here that men can get an "A-Steam!" It soothes hemorrhoids and assists in anal cleansing.
posted by Don Pepino at 5:43 PM on February 20, 2015


I can assure you that the Vagina Monologues had approximately zero influence on people in general referring to vulvas as vaginas. This is not something new, the usage did not originate in any way whatsoever from political activism in any form, and its ubiquity long predates the play.

It is political, though, because it reflects a politically-relevant cultural bias. I agree that the usage should be avoided and discouraged.

But certainly not on the basis of technical correctness or the utility of fine distinctions of meaning or any of the other similar boneheaded arguments that people typically offer as justification for their language scolding. "Correctness" is a category error and as languages change they somehow always continue to find ways to express fine distinctions. Those are all really dumb reasons to prefer vulva.

There's simply no reason to defend the preference on such a basis when the politics are both more important and more supportable. If your primary motivation is the politics, then at best the prescriptivist peeving is gilding the lilly and, at worst, it undermines the argument because prescriptivist peeving is more typically the province of people who oppose usages such as singular they or flight attendant in place of stewardess and other things which work against your desired political outcome.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:04 PM on February 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


Who's preferring vulva? Nobody. What's boneheaded about wanting to be able to use both the words so as to preserve the distinction between the two radically different parts of the body? And how is that a "fine distinction?" If somebody says "please insert your penis in my vagina" and you attempt to comply but miss the vagina and hit the vulva with sufficient force, you can fracture your penis. It has happened to real human persons in reality warning do not google! The distinction is not fine. There is no preference as I have said without stuttering. If all the parents had elected to teach "vulva" instead of "vagina" and if the play had been The Vulva Monologues and if "vagina" were today being called a persnickety snobword for use by hifalutins and if, instead of "I went to the spa and had them tear all the hair off my vagina" people were saying, "I put the tampon into my vulva," we'd be having this same argument. There is no "prefer." We need both words because we need to be able to talk about both things. I don't understand the demand for a single word for these separate anatomical structures; nobody's asking for a one-word for penis-and-testicles, there is no single word for these separate structures, and it is not a problem. Why do we need a one-word for vagina and vulva? Because we've always just used "gash" or "delta of mystery" or some other reductive, undescriptive, useless word for women's genitals because we've never looked carefully or tried to understand because it's just "fine distinctions" who cares? That will not do.
posted by Don Pepino at 6:45 PM on February 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


"I don't understand the demand for a single word for these separate anatomical structures..."

That's okay because no one is actually demanding this. We're back to Ambrosia Voyeur's response to your comment that, in fact, people just end up using vagina to mean vulva and they're not demanding that anyone else do so, they're not even advocating that anyone else do so. At most, there's been a few people in this thread who have defended their own choice to do so. In contrast, the vulva position has explicitly opposed the general usage of vagina this way. You have the facts about where the "demands" are being made precisely backward.

Not that I object to the "demands" that this usage of vagina be avoided, because I agree with them. The functionally prescriptivist position in this debate is that of those of us who prefer vulva, not of those who prefer vagina. You seem to be fighting a phantom politically prescriptivist position favoring vagina with your politically and language-peeving prescriptivist position on vulva. Are you Don Pepino or Don Quixote?

As for this:

"We need both words because we need to be able to talk about both things."

The people who prefer vagina are quite able to distinguish both things and talk about both things. Yours is a problem that doesn't exist. This is always the case when prescriptivist peevers advocate for some usage on the basis of preserving distinctions in meaning. I myself refuse to use jealousy when I mean envy, or epicenter when I mean true center or even decimate when I mean completely destroy because I'm a highly educated person who is just as vulnerable to Bourdiean cultural capitalistic snobbery as anyone else. The difference, though, is that I don't imagine that my preference is a reflection of the platonic ideal of how English should always be, for Reasons (pick one or three) and I certainly do not believe that other people are unable to distinguish between envy and jealousy (as actual emotions) or even to talk about them distinctly if they choose to do so. Because they do and can -- a language is pretty much always as expressive as anyone needs it to be, that's how languages work and, furthermore, you don't need actual distinct words-as-units to signify distinct things for a language to be able to talk about those things distinctly. All of your functional-just-being-able-to-talk-about-it rationales for preferring vulva are simply wrong. They're wrong about how people are actually using these words and about how language itself works.

But, again, there are good sociopolitical reasons to prefer vulva and I agree with that preference.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:54 PM on February 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


I realize I'm howling in the wilderness at this point, but since all I do these days is scream about genitalia on the internet, I thought I might attempt to reanimate this argument by mentioning that I ran across a comment on the Savage Lovecast, my other favorite place to go and scream, that sheds light on why we as a species really do need two terms and why it makes no more sense to "prefer" one (necessarily imprecise) word-for-a-thing over another (necessarily imprecise) word-for-a-thing than it would make sense to prefer one actual thing over the other actual thing--which I will strenuously insist that real women absolutely do not. People use vagina to mean vulva-and-vagina, they use it to mean vulva, and they use it to mean vagina. Do you somehow imagine that women don't need or want to talk about their vaginas, just their vulvas, so there's no reason to preserve the distinction in the language? I don't myself distinguish between envy and jealousy or feel any need to. I am not interested in the argument and don't mind seeing it called peevish. I resent very much the implication that wanting to keep words that let me talk about the distinct parts of myself is me "peeving." I don't prefer vulva, as I have said many many many times now, stuttering not one of the times, and you simply refuse to hear me. I prefer no part of me to any other part of me. I like all my various parts very much. I find it handy to have words for them so that I am able to talk about them. I am not talking about and do not care about rectitude. If you like, we can call the vulva the vagina and the vagina the vulva. Or we can call them "north frontbutt" and "south frontbutt" or "flower" and "chute" or "Linda" and "Karen" or "Bob" and "Frank" or we can assign one of the derogatory terms to one and another of the derogatory terms to the other. I don't care. I just want two words to talk about two things. This is not important to you: you don't need this limberness in the language. That's fine, go with God. I do need two separate terms. So does this woman:

"What I'd like to know is why everyone is allowed to own what they need to orgasm, even if it's 'a goat & a canoe', except for those women who say they can come from vaginal stimulation only. As a woman who can come fairly easily from penetration and has a hard time coming from only clitoral stimulation, I believe that the 'myth of the vaginal orgasm' is itself a myth, and I get tired of being told how my body ought to work. If other peoples' work differently, that's fine too.

The woman caller with vaginal pain says she needs both vaginal and clitoral stimulation to come, and Dan goes into a long spiel and lecture about how all orgasms are clitoral, and vaginal stimulation just stimulates the back of the clitoris. Why don't we tell gay men that all orgasms are penile, and receptive anal sex just stimulates the 'back of the penis, the roots'. Does it matter how it works if the penetration gives pleasure? Are folks like us the last people not allowed to define our own sexuality?"
posted by Don Pepino at 9:27 AM on February 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


While I agree on the "2 words > 1 word" issue, and while I think Dan Savage is a jerk for a bunch of reasons, it's worth noting -- if only as another symptom of society's woeful lack of attention to the specifics of the female anatomy -- that he's not altogether wrong there.

It's also worth pointing out, of course, that he is pretty wrong, since "clitoris" and its analogue "penis" are themselves not particularly specific terms, as both consist of several distinct parts that do several distinct things in several distinct ways, and like anything else vary from one person to the next in size, exact position, sensitivity, etc. And besides, even if they were all perfectly anatomically identical and produced the exact same sensations in every person, preference is still a thing that exists; just because Person A finds enjoyment in the way Structure Q reacts to Stimulus J doesn't mean Person B necessarily does too.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:02 AM on February 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


The historical context about this is that Freud argued that clitoral orgasms and vaginal orgasms were distinct, and that clitoral orgasms were inferior and immature. For most of the twentieth century, this distinction was accepted and was used to stigmatize women's desire for clitoral stimulation and delegitimize their complaints of anorgasmia in its absence. Beginning with Masters & Johnson, by the 70s there was a body of evidence that physiologically Freud's claims were without merit and, given the context that Freud's paradigm was culturally denying women their sexuality, feminists for a long time championed the view that an orgasm is an orgasm and that making this distinction was invalid.

Of course, women do, in fact, attest to different subjective experiences. So now that culturally we pretty much don't stigmatize orgasms that result from clitoral stimulation, enforcing the illegitimacy of this distinction -- which in the 70s and 80s empowered women -- ends up, ironically, now bringing things full circle back to the sort of thing that Freud was doing and in today's context is disempowering. Dan Savage in many respects is basically writing from 1985, and it's fucking annoying.

"Do you somehow imagine that women don't need or want to talk about their vaginas, just their vulvas, so there's no reason to preserve the distinction in the language?"

Having a distinct word available is not a requirement for women to be able to make this distinction, or to talk about it. An earlier commenter, a woman, emphatically made this clear. She was pretty annoyed that other women would make that argument. And, in any event, those who prefer or are defending this inclusive vagina are not proposing that vulva or any other such term be eliminated from the language.

I'd estimate that the majority of anglophone men refer to anatomically distinct areas of their penises as inclusive penis and are not familiar with, say, the words glans or frenulum. The lack of these terms does not, however, prevent these men from being able to think about or talk about these aspects of their sexual anatomy as distinct -- which, by the way, are functionally distinct and with regard to the subjective experience of sex, quite important.

Language doesn't work the way that you think it works and you're making a normative argument about how everyone, including other women, should use language on the basis of a causal relationship that isn't real.

Yes, it is convenient to have available a nifty word like schadenfreude, but that English lacks it (outside of this borrowing) absolutely doesn't mean that anglophones cannot distinguish between pleasure at eating a banana and pleasure at seeing an enemy slip on a banana peel, and it doesn't mean that we can't talk about the latter feeling -- we do. Most anglophones don't have schadenfreude in their vocabulary but have no trouble talking about this feeling when they choose to do so. They'll use different combinations of words but, also, the funny thing about German is it builds "words" out of other words like this all the time, it's notorious for doing so, and this common lay notion that there's a vast categorical distinction between an individual word for something and a few words doing the same work is mistaken.

To invoke the old trope, it's the case that aside from the fact that, actually, English does have a whole bunch of words for snow (snow, sleet, slush, powder, flurry, drift, etc.), we also have a wide variety of adjective+noun descriptions of snow that are commonly available, like "blowing snow", "wet snow", and the like.

There is some elasticity of "availability" in languages with regard to talking about different kinds of things, languages do differ about the edges in this way and every multilingual person is quite aware of this. But the strong notion of Sapir-Whorf, of linguistic relativity, that you're implicitly basing your reasoning upon, is simply false. There's something attractive to folk about the idea that without a specific word available for something that we simply can't think or talk about that thing, but this is not true, and while personally preferring a usage that makes some distinction is fine and useful, and while preferring a usage because it has diffused sociopolitical consequences is also fine and useful, it's not the case that we should go to the barricades to defend a usage because, lacking it, suddenly people won't be able to think about or talk about different aspects of their own anatomy and experience.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 2:33 PM on February 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


To bounce off Ivan's excellent comment, I am a biologist. I study sexual selection, which means that I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about assorted animal genitalia. I know the difference between a hemipenes and a penis and an intromittent organ and a ovipositor and a pseudophallus. I can articulate it, too, if anyone wants me to.

This does not prevent me from referring (semantically incorrectly) to, say, features of a mosquitofish penis on occasion, and it doesn't prevent people--including other biologists!--from immediately understanding me when I say "Wow, am I glad not to belong to a species with a fishhook for a penis." And if (when) I'm corrected on that point, or when I correct other people, it's generally understood that whoever is correcting someone is being a nitpicker, not someone with a substantive criticism of what I'm saying or someone with genuine problems understanding me.

Thus with my own genitalia.
posted by sciatrix at 3:01 PM on February 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Yeah -- but I would like to emphasize that I totally agree with others here about the negative cultural implications of the inclusive usage of vagina because, historically and presently, there's a lot of evidence for a sort of systematic cultural erasure of the aspects of women's sexual anatomy that aren't procreative. It's just no accident that the catch-all usage became the medical latin term signifying the procreative passage and not, instead, any of the medical latin terms signifying the external anatomy. And I think it's a good thing to prefer usages that aren't vagina.

I'm certainly not arguing the opposing extreme to the linguistic relativist position -- I think that patterns of language usage reveal a great deal about how a society is structured and, while limited, it's possible to alter the prevalence of some usages such that it has some effects on the forces that differences in usages represent. I think the causal relationship mostly works in the other direction, but there's still some utility in attempting to promulgate preferred usages. And, even if that's not the case, it's completely valid to prefer specific usages for one's own idiosyncratic reasons, which may or may not include things such as usages which better reflect one's beliefs and politics.

What I object to is an explicit justification of such a preferred usage on the basis of a strongly relativistic claim about linguistics such that there's a claim that people can't even think or talk about such distinctions lacking a word or usage. I think this is problematic in two ways that intersect.

First, it leverages a misunderstanding about language and a widespread tendency towards a prescriptivist policing of other people's usage that is far more commonly used to increase injustice, not reduce it. In this case, this argument is being leveraged in service of a good cause, a feminist goal. But, more typically, it works exactly in the other direction. Thus my examples of how people will defend traditional sexist language on the basis of preserving important distinctions and that we shouldn't impoverish the language, and the like. And I think some of TM&MM's intense irritation in her response earlier in the thread is that this particular insistence on vulva has class implications (so very typically where prescriptivist language policing appears) and some complicated second-wave versus third-wave feminist stuff where there are some big problems with this second-wave tendency to tell other women that they're doing it wrong. I don't feel comfortable weighing in on that, but I think it's important to note that aspect of this in passing and how there's a relationship in that with an approach that people tend to have toward language prescriptivism, whether it's the kind I oppose and the kind that I support. This is always a problem.

Second, we just don't need to appeal to these false notions about how language works and these false fears that somehow women will be stripped of their awareness of the distinction between a vulva and a vagina or the ability to talk about them. There's no reason to make such extreme claims because the more general sociopolitical arguments for favoring vulva are sufficient. Indeed, personally I'm suspicious of anchoring the support for this usage like this because I wonder if it's just not an opportunistic language peeve and not really about the issues involved, at all. I am nearly certain that this isn't the case with Don Pepino, but I'm less certain when other people get all snippy and, especially, condescending about the distinction between these terms. More generally, if you base your argument for the distinguishing usages on this basis, then the argument will be seen as succeeding or failing on that basis. When TM&MM rightly and angrily points out that, no, she and people she knows have no trouble thinking and talking about these different parts of their anatomy, even though they prefer inclusive vagina, the effect is a rebuttal of the whole argument favoring the use of vulva. Because that argument was built upon a foundation of assumptions that aren't true.

But I think in other respects the preference is very justifiable and I'd like to see it based upon grounds that are actually defensible.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 3:44 PM on February 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'd estimate that the majority of anglophone men refer to anatomically distinct areas of their penises as inclusive penis and are not familiar with, say, the words glans or frenulum. The lack of these terms does not, however, prevent these men from being able to think about or talk about these aspects of their sexual anatomy as distinct -- which, by the way, are functionally distinct and with regard to the subjective experience of sex, quite important.

And which are all, actually, by every definition, parts of the penis. The vulva is not part of the vagina.

Language doesn't work the way that you think it works and you're making a normative argument about how everyone, including other women, should use language on the basis of a causal relationship that isn't real.


Merely suggesting people should be sufficiently educated about their own anatomy and call something by its actual name (I know, I know, hang on) does not mean a person doesn't understand how language works.

Yes, of course use-the-right-word-dangit is hella prescriptive, but that's anatomy for you. All of medical science depends on that prescriptivism. You can cheer "rah rah descriptivism!" till you're blue in the face, but I for one think it's worth thinking about why and how a word with a such clear definition came to be so widely misused.

I'm just spitballing here (evidence shmevidence), but it sure seems to me that the preponderance of the use of vagina for the whole shebang must surely be a result of inadequate and/or deliberately limited education. Sex education was originally conceived (heh) as guidance for newlyweds with regard to the procreative act. While the audience has since shifted to school children, the lesson largely hasn't in many places. That's a big obvious reason why even today we casually default to "penis" and "vagina" -- because those are the only necessary terms of art in what is all too often an all too brief lecture that essentially amounts to an index finger penetrating a ring formed by the thumb and forefinger on the opposite hand.

...And now's the part where I sorta walk back my upthread assertion that this isn't just a PC thing. It totally isn't just a PC thing, but let's get one thing straight: Vagina is Latin for sheath, as in the thing whose entire purpose is accommodating a sword. Now, when referring to the specific organ, that's a purely descriptive term, since its form is indeed sheath-like. But referring to a woman's whole nonspecific underbusiness by that name reduces the entire works and its purpose to a dick receptacle. That's what you're doing, whether you mean to or not, when you use the word that way, putting all the emphasis on that part of the anatomy. You're making a woman's body nothing more than a penile accessory.

Is all this not worth considering or correcting?
posted by Sys Rq at 4:14 PM on February 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Is all this not worth considering or correcting?"

In every single one of my comments I've emphatically said "yes". And for the exact reasons you spend two paragraphs on.

But I wouldn't call it "correcting" and that's the crux of the argument. "Correctness" isn't what's at stake, here. It shouldn't even be entering into the discussion. You shouldn't be hanging your argument on it at all. Those two very good paragraphs about what you think are the sexist cultural forces at work is more than sufficient. Just let go of the whole "correctness" thing; it's wrong and it's wasting the brain space that you could be using on more of that excellent analysis about the politics involved.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 4:45 PM on February 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Ivan Fyodorovich: "Correctness" isn't what's at stake, here. It shouldn't even be entering into the discussion. You shouldn't be hanging your argument on it at all.

But I don't understand how you can have one without the other (and this isn't disingenuous, i'm really having trouble finding a way to word this out in my head) - if you're in a system that's at its base harmful (like patriarchy) and in which a lot of the basic terms are harmful as a result, isn't a necessary function of dismantling that system to first point out that it's harmful, and then correct it to something else less so?

Even (and maybe especially?) in individual instances?

I feel like i'm missing something here, can you help me understand it if I am?
posted by pseudonymph at 5:26 PM on February 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Ironically, the disconnect is just a confusion about two different meanings of correct. :)

I think we should "correct" this problem in the way that you mean -- as in "this is a social problem and this is a correction". I don't think that "correction" is an appropriate term to use in the sense of "vagina is not the correct term because [insert some appeal to authority here]".

I assumed that in his final sentence, Sys Req intended the latter usage because he wrote things like "call[ing] something by its actual name" and made appeals to the authority of scientific and medical terminology. Maybe he didn't, and really just intended in that final sentence only the meaning you had in mind.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:48 PM on February 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


Well, yes and no--in my experience, it's better to point out things that are problematic and harmful and give people the choice to change their behavior or not. Otherwise you're exchanging one set of imposed restrictions for another.

For example, the imposed demand on women to shave their legs is a harmful thing that rises out of patriarchal beauty standards, right? I know this. I know there is no good, logical reason for me to bother. And I do it anyway, because I feel anxious if I don't and ideological purity isn't worth it, and also because I get irritated by the way my jeans pull at my leg hairs when they're long. However, I can fully acknowledge that my desire to shave does come out of a problematic part of my culture and I can combat that pressure by backing up other women and people perceived as women who choose not to shave, and to be mindful of the possibility that I am imposing my choices on other people. I'd be pretty irritated if someone told me that my choice to shave my legs was holding up the patriarchy, in the same way that I would be rightfully wrathful if someone told my friend, who does not shave, that she needs to get on that.

Patriarchy is complicated. Culture is complicated. People, including women, have a variety of priorities at any given time, and generally people will act in service of as many of those priorities as they can while balancing out others.

Now, does that mean I want to take on the linguistic crusade of using vulva rather than vagina? It depends very heavily on context and whether I want to make a particular point or not. I certainly have no problem with the sexism arguments people are making as to why I and others should use vulva instead, and I also have no problem acknowledging that current usage has some problematic overtones, having to do with how women's genitalia are conceptualized. However, I find that worrying a lot about the specific words I use for things on the grounds of political reasons is something that makes me anxious and unwilling to speak lest whatever I say be 'wrong' on some fine point of interlocutory etiquette, and so I've chosen to not prioritize this issue for myself or be a stickler on it in favor of speaking out more about things that bother me. Other people get to have different priorities, and this is also fine!

(I do actually use vulva rather than vagina most of the time--I'm just deeply aggravated with the prescriptivism I'm seeing from the "it's the correct word use it because science" contingent right now. And I generally go with whatever is most common in the mouths of whoever is talking at the moment--I just choose not to prioritize it over other aspects of challenging patriarchy that are more important to me.)
posted by sciatrix at 5:50 PM on February 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


But I wouldn't call it "correcting" and that's the crux of the argument.

Then don't call it that.

"Correctness" isn't what's at stake, here.

I never said it was, I never used that word, and that isn't what I was talking about when I said "correcting." I was actually referring to the societal stuff, i.e., Are these not problems worth correcting? But, well, now that you mention it, how do you propose to correct such problems without, you know, addressing the symptoms? Shall we, here in this comment thread, effect a massive holistic upheaval of the public education system, among half a dozen other contributing factors? Or do you suppose it might be more realistic for us to treat the symptoms when they happen to arise by occasionally pointing out that a vulva isn't a vagina? Sure it's prescriptivist, sure it's broken-record repetitive, but maybe someone didn't know that, and maybe now they do, and maybe that's a little bit of the problem being kinda-sorta "corrected" right there. If you've got any better ideas, by all means, shoot.

It shouldn't even be entering into the discussion.

Well now. Hmm. If you're saying technical precision has no uses vis-à-vis physiology, I really don't know what to tell you. Maybe you shouldn't enter the conversation if you're not capable of engaging with it.

Just let go of the whole "correctness" thing; it's wrong


*snicker*

and it's wasting the brain space that you could be using on more of that excellent analysis about the politics involved.

Meh. I gots plenty of room up there. Knock, knock.
posted by Sys Rq at 5:55 PM on February 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Well, yes and no--in my experience, it's better to point out things that are problematic and harmful and give people the choice to change their behavior or not.

Good news: That's all anybody's doing.
posted by Sys Rq at 5:57 PM on February 24, 2015


"*snicker*"

No, see, that's the thing, correctness in this sense is domain specific. If you're doing medicine, then calling a vulva a vagina is incorrect. In common speech, it's not. And when I say that your argument to the contrary is wrong, by which I do mean incorrect, I am making that assertion within the very specific technical context of linguistics because you're making a linguistics argument. How scientists and doctors use these words absolutely is not the authority by which we properly decide what most people would consider is a "correct" usage in ordinary speech. The proper authority is how people use these words in ordinary speech, full stop.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:03 PM on February 24, 2015


"Vag" short for "vagina" is like "frig" short for "refrigerator." The "g" is soft in the long form, but in the nickname you must add a "d" and an "e" on either side of it to soften it. "Vag" rhymes with "bag" and "frig" rhymes with "twig" and neither is tolerable. The one is spelled "fridge" and the other isn't spelled. It is neither spelled nor pronounced because it's too sad. It's a sad attempt to rehabilitate a parent/teacher/doctor-word that should have been shed from the vocabulary around the age of 9 or 10. "Vagina" isn't slang any more than "penis" is slang. It's what parents teach children to say so they're not yelling about their "teetee" in public, with the result that the poor children go around sounding like assholes for most of their childhoods until they meet some friends with some sense who can teach them how real people talk.

With quotes like this popping up in this thread, forgive me if I'm feeling a little bit testy and cranky about my choice of vocabulary words. After all, I like to think I'm not automatically a childish asshole for the heinous crime using common slang to refer to my own genitalia.
posted by sciatrix at 6:05 PM on February 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


Ivan, I understand what you're saying. Believe it or not, I have understood the whole time. You can cool it with the condescension, seriously. The windmill you have just found yourself tilting at is what some might call a humorous observation or "joke," deployed with the intention of de-escalating the hostility in the room.

We disagree. That is what is happening here. You are saying once again that your ridiculous descriptivist dogma is the be-all and end-all, and I am saying for the last time that in this instance it is not. I have already told you why, so if you're still uncertain, go read it again.

In short: Congratulations. I give up.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:11 PM on February 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


Not only is the vulva not part of the vagina but only the introitus of the vagina is part of the vulva. The vaginal vault (sorry jokeefe, I'm so with you, but that's the term, that and "barrel", which has the same problem of implying a void) extends another several centimeters within.

This is a problem (and I have seen it in my work life) because, truly, not all women know the terminology, especially women for whom English is not a mother tongue and women who haven't had the benefit (privilege) of higher education. Some women with vaginal prolapse wind up saying "My vagina is coming out of my vagina." Women who say that their vaginas itch or hurt are going to have an uphill battle for appropriate treatment, in today's world of short visits, standardized clinical pathways, and busy primary care doctors, if what's actually hurting is the vulvar vestibule or the labia majora and their doctor doesn't carefully double-check.

Why should this terminology be specialized sciencey jargon? It's description of two pretty important parts of female anatomy. We teach children the difference between the iris, the pupil and the white of the eye even though they're all just the eye. Why are we so squeamish about teaching children about their genitals? And adults, for that matter?

It's fine to say "I love my vagina." We know what you mean and there is no important distinction to be made there - you love your genitals and more power to you, sister or vagina-having sibling who doesn't identify as female. But there honest-to-God are women who don't know the distinction, and whose power over their own health and well-being is decreased by the social convention of failing to teach the basic anatomy. I don't think that using the synecdoche in most slang situations furthers that problem, but make sure your kids understand synecdoche, please, and understand the anatomy, for their own health.
posted by gingerest at 8:47 PM on February 24, 2015 [13 favorites]



I'm sorry, sciatrix, for trying to get all Doctor Johnson on your junk. I retract all that about the spelling of the shortform and slang/notslang. It comes out of an unexamined assumption formed before I achieved the age of reason. As a whelp I got taught "vulva" and all my friends "vagina," so I got... what. Confused stares...? Corrections? I don't remember but I know there was discussion and controversy over these words, and we might even have taken it to the parents to settle--in which case, my father would have explained to my friends' parents why they were wrong, sounding exactly as much like an asshole as I sounded in the above-referenced comment. (He was a pedantic dick to my beloved friend Melissa's mom about his cast-iron pans, too, the memory of which, in contrast to this V-word dispute, is hideously clear and is the reason I happily use Dawn on those same pans.) Vulva vs vagina may have been my very first language dispute, before my friend Lisa C. pronounced "picture" like "pitcher" and caused me to lose points on a spelling quiz in second grade. So maybe part of the reason I sound like a six-year-old quoting her asshole father up there is that that's the last time I argued about this out loud. Re slang/notslang: it is true that in my own experience after about ten or so no young person of either gender ever called genitals by anatomy text names unless they were in a doctor's office, but it might have occurred to me that the language of early adolescence could have been different for different people growing up in other places, and that it almost certainly has changed in the nearly forty years since I was a native speaker of it.

I dictate to no person about what to call what. Deciding to prefer the other v-word a. won't happen, b. won't work for all the reasons Ivan has been explaining and c. wouldn't move us forward, anyway, because neither of the v-things/words is preferable to the other v-thing/word. What I'm saying we should decide to do (which probably a. won't happen and b. won't work for linguistics reasons already explained but that absolutely c. would move us forward) is name all the things. We treat male anatomy the way we treat the hand. We have multiple names for the fingers and multiple names for the parts of the penis. We treat female anatomy like we treat the foot. We're this-little-piggying it.

I've used introitus before, because in my experience, people like to hang out there. They linger in the foyer. They poke their helmets* in and peek around, and then if they're not stopped, they think they're wowing you and kick into a whole Cab Calloway routine**. Your mileage may of course vary, but I find that that shit gets irritating. What are you, a house cat? Come in or go out, make up your mind! Of course you don't need "introitus" to say what you mean, but it's fun to have it.

*not circumcisnormative
**Actually, I suspect it's partly an attempt to "wow" and partly that they are all about that frenulum. They want to get theirs on ours and get their rub on, in woman-on-back "mish" PIV sexual intercourse: this is a phenomenon that occurs, I'm saying. It's a phenomenon that is easy to describe when you have some words at your beck and not at all easy without. For instance, I knew "labium minorum" and was going to say they like to rub that frenulum on the labium minorum, but that's wrong--they don't rub it on one lip, they rub where the two lips join. What's that word, I thought? 'cause you have to know there is one! I knew just enough words to know there was probably a word I didn't know that would say precisely where, and I need to say precisely where in order to describe this so that you can recognize it. I know this because I know how language works. So I looked and found to my amazement that we have a genital frenulum, too. In fact, Wikipedia says where we have two! So this is a male thrust behavior that I bet a lot of people here will recognize because I bet it happens all the time because it appears to feel good to men. It occurs in man-on-top missionary, which puts the male penile frenulum in contact with the female frenulum--makes sense because in that position ours is stretched taut, so it's going to provide a firm bit to rub on. I've known about the male frenulum and known the word for it since... late 80s? At least. I don't know when I learned it, but I know men taught it to me, probably first in Penthouse and then in person. Men know that word and they want their sex partners to know it, too. It helps, when you are thinking about physical things in the world and interactions that occur between them, it helps you to think about these things if you have words for the things. I am able, thanks in part to precise terminology, to conceive a theory about an experience and to state that theory, here, so that I can begin to test it. Sister and fellow PIV sex-havers, do you agree with me that "just poppin' in!/oops, gotta go!" is enjoyable and therefore occurs in this position with some frequency because it feels good to rub that particular part of the peen against that particular part of the vag for the reason I described above using the "stretched taut" and "firm bit to rub on" constructions and a peevish prescriptivist anatomical term? TIA, all!
posted by Don Pepino at 6:51 AM on February 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


I think guys also do it because a lot of porn (including romance books) has scenes where the woman is driven wild by that and begs desperately to be fucked. Which is sort of what happens, with me, except I am driven wild with irritation and if my partner draws out his "teasing" I might either poke him in the eye or just call the whole thing off.
posted by gingerest at 12:54 PM on February 25, 2015


Ivan Fyodorovich, I've missed a fair amount of this conversation since my last comment, but I do want to let you know that I know quite a number of women (and men) who do NOT know the correct term for vulva. That's one reason I'm so adamant about appropriate usage. In addition, of the people I know who know the word vulva, a fair number them (in this instance, most frequently men) say that they will not teach their daughters the word because they dislike its sexual connotations.

Accordingly, I don't think it's correct to assume that everyone who uses the word "vagina" as a catch all for various physiological characteristics are doing it from choice and in the knowledge that they are using shorthand. That may be true on Metafilter. It probably is true on Metafilter. But it's not true everywhere. If it were true everywhere, I wouldn't care about incorrect usage.
posted by janey47 at 2:08 PM on February 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's darkly, painfully amusing to watch a bunch of men argue over how women should refer to their genitals.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:14 PM on February 25, 2015


The majority of the people talking about terminology are female, even the ones with funny names like "Don Pepino". I grant, the two people who really, really dug in were men. But don't erase the rest of us, please. Thank you.
posted by gingerest at 11:27 PM on February 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


I saw that callout coming, but i think it's pretty funny that a dude ended up being the one to do it. It's like eye rollingly "NO U!".

Other than ivan, and early on myself, it really was almost entirely women. I stepped out because i realized i was eventually, if i hadn't already, going to put my foot in my mouth.

Oh well.
posted by emptythought at 3:59 PM on February 26, 2015


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