V is for Vulva
I can in no way claim I am an expert when it comes to sex and intimacy.
In fact, I am an amateur… But I am on a journey of sexual knowledge and investigation, and I’m learning all the time.
Let’s take the self-formulated focus groups I cobbled together for the purpose of research for this Season… Whilst meticulously planning the sessions in my best-loved cafes in North London (where I live) and Soho (my favourite area), I thought it may be fun to see if my female contributors could label their ‘private parts’ on a diagram.
Why? Well, surely knowledge is power.
If women can’t call out the fundamental parts that make up their
vaginas vulvas, it denotes a wider avoidance of their own bodies, and perhaps a neglected appreciation of them.
If we can’t label our bits, are we really embracing our bodies, are we fully in tune with our glorious female forms, are we at one with our inner goddesses and are we truly comfortable with the very thing that externally shows that we are a woman?
And so, whilst I desperately tried to access the dusty recesses in my brain where my GCSE biology notes have been stored, I was shocked to find that I, Georgia Rose – sex-positive, sex-curious, self-defined feminist, millennial gal and sex blogger – had no idea that our vaginas are actually called vulvas.
Our exterior genital area – with the flaps and the clit and the bits you can touch… IS CALLED THE VULVA
It’s been one of the biggest revelations of 2018 for me.
So WHY THE FUCK do we call them vaginas then?!
Vagina vs Vulva
The vagina is the INTERNAL part of the genitals. The hole and the canal – ie the bit where the P goes in and a baby comes out.
A bit of panic googling allayed my fears:
Apparently, I’m not the only feminist out there incorrectly using the word ‘vagina’
The Vagina Monologues…The Great Wall of Vagina… Great, disrupting pieces of art confronting sexuality and female genitalia, both misplacing the word vulva. Journalists and sex agony aunts I follow on Twitter also say vagina when they mean vulva.
And the results from my survey and focus groups show the same trend:
Less than 1 in 5 of women surveyed use the word ‘vulva’ when referring to their genitals
We collectively bypass the word vulva.
So back to my original question… why the f*** do we call our vulvas ‘vaginas’?
It’s quite bizarre if you think about it.
If I wear a skirt, I call it a skirt.
If I break my toe, I don’t tell the X-Ray expert that I’ve smashed up my hand.
If I’m chilling with my flat-mate Emma for lunch, I don’t suddenly start calling her Eliza mid-meal (although… mid-wine? Maybe).
In the same vein, it’s called a vulva so why is it widely accepted as a vagina?
Well… it’s a potentially murky area if we investigate this through the lens of our feminist spectacles, whilst also considering the power of language.
By erasing the word vulva from the popular culture vernacular, we are linguistically deleting the real-life part of women’s bodies that are receptive to pleasure and sexual desire.
(Remember: vulva = the external part that we can touch, including the clitoris / vagina = the hole + canal)
It follows: what we don’t speak about ceases to exist. True – female sexuality and pleasure are swathed in myth and mystery, but by incorrectly using the word vagina to refer to the entirety of the female genitals, we further compromise and obscure the realities of female sexual pleasure.
The argument can be extended further:
We have erased the word vulva and replaced it with a word that solely refers to the hole where babies come out and dicks go in. It’s a hole that men benefit, and gain pleasure, from
If we accept language to be loaded with cultural and socio-political connotations, we can argue that calling vulvas ‘vaginas’ reduces female anatomy to their utility for men and bypasses their sexual function to create hot, sexy pleasure for the ladies.
‘Cos of the Patriarchy, man… It’s always the patriarchy… Bloody patriarchy getting in the way of all the fun…
Feminists argue that the lack of linguistic recognition of vulvar anatomy comes from a deep-seated fear of active female sexuality and desire.
In sum: by calling a vulva ‘a vagina’, we are victim to a ‘linguistic clitorectomy’
Phew! Are you still with me?
Female sexuality and pleasure remain in many respects taboo, and it’s fascinating to me that the language we use – perhaps in a subtle and subconscious way – perpetrates that.
On the flip side…
Taking our feminist glasses off and having a bit of a sit-down… Perhaps this is all a bit OTT. Perhaps we all need to calm the fuck down.
Is this just feminist nit-picking?
The word ‘vagina’ has come to mean a general catch-all term for the female genital area, and perhaps its pervasive use is not loaded with layer upon layer of patriarchal oppression.
Times change, contexts shift, meanings evolve and with that, the word ‘vagina’ is now used in a fluid, easy-breezy way.
No Big Deal.
Language and its Power to Empower
The one thing I can’t shake off is the idea of education and being empowered.
If we don’t use the correct terms for our body parts, how are we supposed to take full ownership of our bodies? By using incorrect language, it subtly denotes our own confusion and perhaps our latent shame of our genitalia.
To acknowledge the word ‘vulva’ is to acknowledge its existence and its proper function which is closely associated with sexual pleasure. To use correct terms ensures we possess our own bodies properly and helps us make sense of our feelings within them. It gives us the accurate language to express ourselves to our partners, to doctors, and to have proper, authentic, accurate conversations about sex and our genitals.
And so… After a lot of thought and deliberation…
This is what I think
It’s not as simple as a potato-potat-a/tomato-tomata kinda thing.
Let’s embrace personal authority over our own bodies, let’s talk real, let’s reclaim the word vulva and bring it into the fold of popular language.
Viva the Vulva.
Illustration by Bronwen Bender
www.bronwenbender.com / @brownen.bender