Okay, I admit it. This is one of my pet peeves. People everywhere use the word ‘vagina’ when they are really referring to a woman’s ‘vulva’. In fact, unless you’re reading a medical piece, you won’t hardly see the word ‘vulva’, but instead the word ‘vagina’ to be a catchall phrase for a woman’s genitals. I’ve heard all kinds of arguments as to why the word ‘vagina’ is not only appropriate, but preferred. But I disagree wholeheartedly. I am a medical doctor, so there’s that. But let me tell you why I think the overuse of the word ‘vagina’ is damaging.
Using the word ‘vagina’ when you mean ‘vulva’ is anti-feminist.
Women have fought tirelessly for their rights in every dimension of their lives. Sexual rights and freedom are an important part of our lives to be respected, honored, and nurtured. We aren’t vague when it comes to our needs and wants in other areas of life, so why should we be with our sexuality? Does it suffice to say we want fairness in the workplace; or is important that we detail what we mean by specifying wages, opportunities for advancement, a respectful workplace environment, and a humanistic approach to family leave and motherhood?
When you say the word ‘vagina’ when you really mean ‘vulva’, you are lumping all of the external anatomy together under a term that technically refers to only one, completely internal, part of a woman’s anatomy. It’s an obstacle to good communication about a woman’s sexuality because it uses the term for the part of the anatomy that primarily gives men pleasure to the exclusion of the clitoris, the labia majora, the labia minora, the clitoral hood, or the mons pubis. It forces everyone to make their own assumptions about what they think is being discussed based on their own (perhaps limited) understanding of the context. Already, a great deal of both women and men have difficulty understanding a woman’s external genital anatomy, and by using the word ‘vagina’ instead of ‘vulva’ – or its more exact constituents, like clitoris or labia – they remain further in the dark.
Using the word ‘vagina’ when you mean ‘vulva’ is cowardly,
One of the reasons I do the work I do, is because I believe everyone should be empowered in their sexuality – to be able to identify their needs and desires, and communicate these both for sexual pleasure and for sexual health. This means you can talk about your body without having to beat around the bush (pun intended). But sexuality is still an area that is a source of anxiety for many people, even for some medical professionals! Using the word ‘vagina’ instead of ‘vulva’ is really a cop-out, a shortcut to avoid being specific. True, the word ‘vulva’ is pretty boring while the word ‘vagina’ seems to have a lot more character. That’s a lame excuse, though. Would it be acceptable to start using the word armpit to mean wrist, and assume that people would know what you’re talking about?
Using the word ‘vagina’ when you mean ‘vulva’ is shaming.
Still in our society today, there are many women who grow up in households where they’re given no words, or no accurate words, for their sexual organs or genitalia. Sexual education in the United States is still woefully inconsistent. So how are women supposed to feel good about their bodies if they have no words for their body parts, or there so much negativity surrounding them that they can’t even be uttered? Popular articles like this one in Jezebel make me more sad than anything else with the admission of:
“I am in the business of entertainment. And ‘vagina’, for whatever reason, just sounds funnier than ‘vulva’.”
It’s exactly this rejection of the proper terms that continues to breed negative ideas about each and every part of a woman’s anatomy. Using the word ‘vagina’ instead of more specifically referring to a woman’s clitoris, labia, bush, or the entire area of the ‘vulva’, sends the message that a woman’s genitals are just not important enough to get right or to even talk about. Imagine a young girl trying to understand herself, her anatomy, her sexuality, without understanding the context of what’s being said. We continue to promote shame when we avoid using the correct terms, whatever the reason may be.