Skepticism

Splitting (pubic) Hairs (NSFW!)

Here goes my career

She gasped as his fingers explored the glistening anterior commisure of her labia majora. She began moaning softly as he flicked his tongue expertly over the mass of erectile tissue, ligaments and glands that comprise her clitoris. He quickly brought her to a state where her uterus, vagina, anus and pelvic muscles underwent pleasurable rhythmic contractions. Staring into each others eyes, he slowly slid his throbbing reproductive organ into her tight, wet birth canal…

The above passage (giggle) is accurate when it comes to labeling and describing reproductive organs and responses, but is it readily comprehensible? No. Is it sexy? No. It’s about as clear as Nostradamus’ quatrains, and about as hot as the sex scene in Tess of the d’Urbervilles…

For what you are about to read, you may thank/blame Julia Galef of Rationally Speaking who inspired this post by contacting me with questions about language, vaginas and vulvas (or should I say vaginae and vulvae if we are to be so prim?).

You see, a bit of a kerfuffle ensued online following the Skepchicks’ “Angry Vagina Craft Time” during a workshop at the recent Amaz!ng Meeting in Vegas. But the complaint was more over the perceived “incorrect” usage of the word vagina, rather than the fact that attendees were invited to create craft cunts.

An immediate warning – this post is going to be replete with references to female genitalia, and near-synonymous forms of  vagina.  You’ll also have to excuse my liberal use of cunt; in Australian English, the c-word is less offensive than it is in other varieties of English. (In fact, old cunt is often a term of endearment, rather than an abusive epithet.)

Anyway, back to the vagina versus vulva debate. “Angry Vagina” is already a fixed popular phrase, used in the Vagina Monologues (yes, there are those who insist it should be the “Vulva Monologues”). But the generalized usage of vagina represents a semantic broadening; vagina means what it always meant, but now, it also means more than it used to mean.

Hold on to your genitalia, I’m about to make a bold statement…I venture that the word vagina has two senses; a clinical, and a colloquial sense.

Vagina is clearly polysemous (not polyamorous, you big pervs). One sense is anatomical, referring to the genital canal leading from the uterus to the exterior of the female body, and another is a generalized term to refer to internal and/or external areas of the female genitalia.

I can correctly speak about my vulva as my “vagina”, my clitoris as part of my “vagina”, in fact, I can refer to my entire genital area as my “vagina”, and still not have the Vagina Police come to my door…

Ironically, this ‘incorrect’ sense of vagina appears to be the more salient (common or recognizable) usage. Some may not know what “vulva” means, while others may know what it means, but favor the more contemporary usage. Julia notes that people can readily differentiate the intended meaning via context. Meaning and usage are often different matters too…

Furthermore, at a TAM Sunday panel about sex and skepticism a member of the audience asked about “shaved vaginas” and was ‘corrected’ to say “shaved vulvas” instead. I did the best corpus data search I could do (Lexis Nexis isn’t the best database for this sort of thing…) and Google came up with the following results: 164,000 entries (tee hee!) for “shaved vagina”, but only 10,500 usages of “shaved vulva”. It seems vagina is winning the genital war in terms of salience and its appearance in collocations.

But hang on, couldn’t “shaved vulva” equally be “shaved mons pubis”?! Not as marketable as “Brazilian”, but correct, right?

Technical terms are most useful in technical domains. For example, at the doctor’s office, or in the anatomy or health classroom. Even then, I saw my gynecologist recently and didn’t need to use any of these words once…thank god for fingers…

It’s certainly useful to learn anatomical terms, but we shouldn’t claim these are everyday words.

If we argue this ‘technical or original is correct’ stance, perhaps, as an extreme, we should start using Felis catus instead of cat, and begin speaking Old English because it’s the ‘original’ form of English? (or is that Indo-European? But get my point… prior doesn’t mean proper).

We are witnessing the evolution of a word, over time. The original meaning isn’t the ‘true’, ‘pure’, ‘inherent’ or more correct meaning. Word meaning evolve, just like humans. We don’t see ourselves as ocean drifting comb jellies

Yes, I think it’s necessary to teach anatomy to people, and in a physiological context, vulva and vagina are certainly not interchangeable. But remember also that anatomy and anatomical terms are different things.

As our own carr2d2 pointed out to me, sex education is less than adequate in this country, as it was for me in Australia. We’re taught the basics with haste and embarrassment. We learn more from our friends (and boyfriends) than our teachers.

I also note on a linguistic level that penis and vagina make a neat dichotomy for many people. Jen pointed out this Liza Minnelli clip, and I still remember all the kids in school screaming “Penis butter and Vagina-mite!” We could all do to know our bits better.

But, no, I don’t think it’s wrong or ignorant to say vagina to refer to vulva. In fact, you’re in with the crowd if you do so.

And no, as one claimed, it’s not simplistic, sexist, degrading, or reducing to say vagina to refer to vulva. Unless you personally see it this way, and that’s your opinion. I’m not dissing my hole when I call it a hole. When I say vagina to refer to vulva I’m not rendering women as passive, or perpetuating negative attitudes towards women, I’m a speaker representing a shift in usage.

By the way, don’t we all say pussy or cunt in a generalized sense to refer to both the vagina and the vulva? Jus’ sayin…

There’s a time and a place for vulva. And it’s not the bedroom (or the kitchen table top, as the case may be). I’m not about to be a cunning linguist and ‘correct’ him if he says, “I wanna lick your pussy” and then “I’m gonna pound your pussy, baby” to mean vulva and vagina respectively. I know what he means. I’m not going to ruin the moment and quibble, “Actually, the correct word is vulva…”

I guess “My vulva aches for your hard cock” is kinky, in a kinda prudish way…

At any rate, vulva is not a “proper” term, it’s a preferred term. If we want to manipulate how someone sees our language, we can make our word choice based in its connotation. I can say “down there”, “lady parts”, “crotch” or “va-jay-jay” if I want to be euphemistic, or I can say “twat”, “snatch”, “bearded clam” or “fuckhole” if I want to be dysphemistic (i.e. crude or offensive).

Arguing that people aren’t using vagina, or indeed energy or quantum the ‘right’ way is wrong. Speakers are using these words in a different way.

Moreover, ‘teaching’ people the so-called correct usage won’t affect attitudes or influence language usage in society. You can lead people to vulva but you can’t make them drink…

By all means, embark on your project for vulva domination, but don’t be surprised if people begin rolling their eyes at this genital equivalent of  “it’s not ‘Can I?’ it’s ‘May I?'” and “Don’t use ‘impact’ as a verb!”

You’re not upholding language, or science – you’re arguing preferences or standard forms.

Nobody likes a pussy pedant.

Anyway, “Angry Vulva Time” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it…

In closing, skeptics should be skeptical about people’s beliefs about language too, and be aware of our own linguistic biases and prejudices.

Karen Stollznow

Karen Stollznow

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88 Comments

  1. July 23, 2010 at 12:10 pm —

    My penis is so pissed right now I can barely pee straight.

  2. July 23, 2010 at 12:23 pm —

    I finally have a piece of creative art made public on a massively popular skeptical web site and it an angry vagina; complete with vampire fangs, sparkles inside, and anal TP klingons. Proud doesn’t begin to describe my feelings.

    And great language discussion Karen; again, you’re at the root of the issue!

  3. July 23, 2010 at 12:27 pm —

    I laughed way too hard the first time I heard the term “hairy axe wound.”

    Just saying.

    Also; has anyone else heard people use ‘scrotum’ to refer to all of men’s junk, rather than just the testicles?

  4. July 23, 2010 at 12:30 pm —

    *cough* In the interests of honesty, I’d like to mention that depending upon the point in my cycle and recent drought conditions, encyclopedic descriptions of the reproductive act can get me pretty hot & bothered. Just saying.

    Anywhoo… When I need a quick, blanket, non-vulgar term for my collective lady-parts, “vagina” is generally the one that springs to mind. It sure beats the heck out of “groinal region”.

  5. July 23, 2010 at 12:32 pm —

    Hi there!

    Gah! Lexis Nexis isn’t the best database for ANYthing. [pouts]

    [boggle]

    Yes, the first Skepchick post containing ACTUAL porn, and I grouse about databases. What? I’m a librarian!! You should’ve used CINAHL on that shit! :(

  6. July 23, 2010 at 12:35 pm —

    Great article but your warning may be placed a tad too low. ;)

    Also, where are the vagina police located and how would one join?

    Because my WIFE needs a job, pervs.

  7. July 23, 2010 at 12:35 pm —

    It is the same thing with Kleenex vs. facial tissue. Not all facial tissues are Kleenex, but if you ask me for a Kleenex, I am not going to say “Sorry, all I have is Puffs.” I know what was meant.

    Brilliant post, BTW, as always, entertaining as well as educational. :)

  8. July 23, 2010 at 12:39 pm —

    >>Is it sexy? No.
    I don’t know. I was pretty much ready to go right there.

    Also, I need to be more angry when people mix up balls and the ballsack. “No! You weren’t kicking me on the balls. Technically, there was a ballsack on the way and you kicked it. Still hurt.”

  9. July 23, 2010 at 12:42 pm —

    @Baldpirate:

    I think this is more like when my grandmother insists that “‘gay’ is our word for ‘happy.’” She would have been correct, once upon a time, but the world has moved on.

  10. July 23, 2010 at 12:44 pm —

    @Draconius: There wasn’t any porn in this post. I acknowledge that your co-workers and anyone looking over your shoulder may not feel the same way, just want to point that out.

  11. July 23, 2010 at 12:45 pm —

    @James Fox:

    James, your angry vagina will live in infamy.

    I can honestly say, that is the first time I’ve ever said that.

    Great piece, Karen . . . err, the post, I mean. Informative, hilarious, and well-written as always.

  12. July 23, 2010 at 12:56 pm —

    God I hope my athiest self gets fired for reading this at work.

  13. July 23, 2010 at 12:59 pm —

    “I’m not about to be a cunning linguist and ‘correct’ him….”

    I’d just like to take a moment to congratulate you on this excellent pun.

  14. July 23, 2010 at 1:01 pm —

    Bravo! I could not agree more.
    Unless there is a specific need to be the literal (as in medical usage) we don’t need to debate the words used.
    I do think we need to provide more direct and visual education on what the parts of the woman’s “crotchety area” are and I think your visual of the area should be included in all sex ed classes. (although maybe it is, but it wasn’t 30 years ago)
    An extraordinary number of women have no idea what is going on down there or how things are working.
    But that is different than making an issue of the social usage of the word vagina vs vulva etc.
    I think people get those two issues intertwined – and that is why they want exactness of the words.

  15. July 23, 2010 at 1:02 pm —

    As the keeper of the prize winning ANGRY VAGINA , it was I, a grown man, who dressed James Fox’s vagina in a white hat and white cowboy boots for the party and I can honestly say, that I , and all of us in our group, especially our sensational vagina ,thank you for this discussion.

    To continue the wordsmithery, in person, this discussion would be intercourse, which is why I so love TAM.

  16. July 23, 2010 at 1:51 pm —

    A nice post. Well reasoned and I agree with you. What I really want to know is, which skepchick posed for the photo?

  17. July 23, 2010 at 1:55 pm —

    @Gabrielbrawley
    which skepchick posed for the photo?

    Sam, is that you?

  18. July 23, 2010 at 2:17 pm —

    It can’t be porn… you didn’t use the word ‘turgid.’

    Vagina Police? Hmm… that could explain a lot.

    Well written! Common usage always trumps correctness–unless you’re an English Major
    with a stick up yer–

  19. July 23, 2010 at 2:22 pm —

    I agree that language changes, and that there’s probably no changing the fact that vagina has come to mean a lot more than the technical term, but I do think that within the context of a sex education/technical discussion, precision of term matters. I also think that there are some real questions about why it is that vagina is allowed to mean the entire crotch while penis does not.

    I’m as guilty as anyone of using the term broadly, but the fact is that reducing the entire area to the name of the hole which isn’t even the most important when it comes to lady pleasure has implications and I think it’s meaningful in technical discussions to underline the fact that “hey, there’s more than a vagina down there, lets acknowledge that and not be embarrassed.”

  20. July 23, 2010 at 2:26 pm —

    There is value in getting our naughty-bit anatomy right. I had a woman bring her 9 year old son into the Emergency Room with a complaint of “Groin Pain.” Knowing that kids don’t understand fancy medical words, I asked the kid “what exactly hurts – you penis, your balls or the inside of the leg.” His mom was very offended and complained to the provider about my “vulgar language that no little boy should be subjected to.” I went in to apologize and explain myself and the mother said “we don’t use any of those words, we just call it the “groins” (sic). Also had a lot of chief complaints of it hurts “down there.” Moms and Dads, please teach your kids the proper names of their naughty bits — and while you are at it, teach them that they aren’t naughty!

  21. July 23, 2010 at 2:32 pm —

    @ashleymiller This usage appeared within a section of the talk dedicated to lighthearted discussion, and the title of that task makes use of a very common phrase. It didn’t intend to be a lesson on anatomy and anatomical terms.

    Interesting questions re. entirety, I would say it has something to do with the female genitalia being mostly internal while male genitalia is external. But that’s for another discussion.

    I’ve discussed language from a descriptive stance. That’s not up for debate. This is how people speak.

    Your arguments go well beyond the scope of my post, and would make for interesting discussion another time.

  22. July 23, 2010 at 2:41 pm —

    @LtStorm: Well, okay, you got me. the clinical photo might not have been “porn”, strictly speaking, and neither was the paragraph quoted at the beginning of this post. But between the two of them, I figured this post was the closest we’ll get to pornographic content. (which is probably a GOOD thing. I don’t ever want to hear: “You got your PORN in my skepticism! You got your SKEPTICISM in my porn!!”)

    But I thought it was funny that I decide to start nitpicking on Dr. Stollznow’s choice of database.

    And by the way, I did a search on CINAHL. (and a few others) Would you believe that there are absolutely no peer-reviewed scholarly articles anywhere in the Medical Literature on the validity of the term: “shaved vagina”? Astonishing! ;)

  23. July 23, 2010 at 2:52 pm —

    Oh my. From now on, that up-close photo is going to appear when anyone Google Image searches my full name.
    …Well, it’s all in the service of rational linguistic analysis, right?

    So, yes, the reason I’d contacted Karen in the first place was because I thought the post-TAM debate over the “right” words for female genitalia was a really interesting case study in irrational thinking about words, for two reasons:

    First, because as Karen aptly argued in her post, I don’t think it makes sense to talk about the original or official meaning of a word as being the objectively “right” one and the evolved or colloquial meaning being the objectively “wrong” one. They’re just different. The only practical reason I can see for why we should care about the meaning of a word changing over time, or being used differently in different contexts, is if it results in miscommunications. And my argument was that in this case, at least, it’s hard to imagine situations in which the meaning of the word wouldn’t be amply clear from context (e.g., no one hears “shaved vagina” and thinks that it’s referring to the internal genitalia).

    And the second aspect of this case study which I found interesting is that it betrays what I consider a kind of magical thinking about the power of words. As Karen mentioned, one argument that was put forth for why we should correct people when they use the word “vagina” to refer to the entire genital region is that such usage portrays female sexuality as passive and receptive. My problem with that claim is that the meaning of a word consists entirely in (1) the intended meaning of the speaker, and (2) the inferred meaning by the listeners. That’s all meaning is! A word has no meaning outside of what people put into it or get out of it.

    So in order to say that using the word vagina in a certain way “portrays” women as passive receptacles, it has to be the case that the speaker means it to have that connotation, or that listeners infer that connotation. And I am dubious that either of those things are true. The fact that a few listeners (the people who raised the issue in the first place) interpret this usage of “vagina” as implying a certain idea about women does not say anything about any objective meaning the word has. And their interpretation doesn’t seem all that relevant unless lots of people share it, which, again, I’m skeptical is the case.

    One caveat: I suppose you could hypothesize that the words we use unconsciously affect the way we think about the things, so that even if the speaker/listeners don’t realize it, their practice of using the word “vagina” to refer to the entire genital region actually makes them more likely to see women as passive in the sexual act. That is possible, but seems like a stretch to me. (It seems a little MORE plausible that it could be a symptom of such thinking, rather than a cause, but in that case you’re not accomplishing anything by attacking the symptom.)

    But my fundamental point here is that all these questions about meaning are empirical ones — they’re questions about what people intend to say when they use a particular word and what people infer when they hear that word. And like other empirical questions, they would need to be tested empirically.

  24. July 23, 2010 at 2:53 pm —

    @Draconius: it’s shaved mons pubis Draconius … mons pubis. :)

  25. July 23, 2010 at 3:01 pm —

    You know you’ve spent too much time in the skeptical/science communities when your answers to the questions in the second paragraph are “yes.”

  26. July 23, 2010 at 3:51 pm —

    @Julia_Galef:

    So in order to say that using the word vagina in a certain way “portrays” women as passive receptacles, it has to be the case that the speaker means it to have that connotation, or that listeners infer that connotation. And I am dubious that either of those things are true. The fact that a few listeners (the people who raised the issue in the first place) interpret this usage of “vagina” as implying a certain idea about women does not say anything about any objective meaning the word has. And their interpretation doesn’t seem all that relevant unless lots of people share it, which, again, I’m skeptical is the case.

    Well said.

    I was in another workshop at the time, so I can’t be certain, but I get the impression that those few listeners that inferred the “‘vagina’ as an umbrella term that portrays women as passive receptacles” meaning are . . . I suppose conditioned in a way to assign a single meaning to it; one that is at odds with the intent of the speaker in this case.

    I don’t think it’s a conscious reaction on their part. It’s almost a Pavlovian response, borne from the set of experiences that most informs them as women and/or feminists. It’s like a defense mechanism thrown up automatically. Only this time the speaker wasn’t on the offensive.

  27. July 23, 2010 at 4:26 pm —

    I was having a crappy day, then I found out that there is an enlightened place in this universe where cunt is not a bad word. Thank you! :)

    I love the word cunt. I hate that in many parts of the world it’s used as a pejorative. The idea that somewhere there is a culture that uses cunt as a term of endearment makes me all warm and happy. In my brain. What makes me warm and happy in my cunt is a whole ‘nother comment.

  28. July 23, 2010 at 4:54 pm —

    Karen, I LOVE it when you talk dirty to me!

    And congratulations on the excellent usage of the phrase ‘cunning linguist’.

  29. July 23, 2010 at 4:59 pm —

    Although I have limited interest in and influence on the issue, I dislike the use of the word vagina to mean the vulva. I’m not saying it’s wrong, just that it’s one of the many ambiguity-creating trends I find it worth fighting.

    And the reason there are so few hits for shaved vulva? It’s because neither vagina nor vulva is the word the intertoobers use:
    Shaved pussy: 7 630 000 hits
    Shaved cunt: 407 000 hits
    I mean, even shaved camel toe (40 500) and shaved gash (22 000 hits) beats vulva, and shaved beaver (109 000 hits) isn’t far behind vagina, but I hope no one argues we should stop using both vagina and vulva for that reason.

    We just have to increase the popularity of the word vulva.

    Oh, and before I stop searching for high ranking “shaved x” combination, where x is a term for external female genitalia. Shaved labia has 31 400 hits.

    Um… I’m not sure I should post this now…

  30. July 23, 2010 at 5:14 pm —

    Not that I am implying that what we were taught in school is always correct, but…

    I remember throughout my youth, we were taught that your should always refer to genitalia with their proper names, a penis and a vagina. That was it. If you wanted to get more specific, you needed to take an anatomy class. Is it any surprise that we now refer to that “region” as vagina? Why cry about it and start a revolution? It just seems so pointless to me. In many contexts “bad” actually means good. It is not very confusing if you pay attention to context.
    Bear in mind that I am not claiming to be innocent in the basics of this argument. I, for years, bitched about the use of the word “skeptic” as being incorrect in many situations.

    Karen has enlightened me on how language evolves and I am much more accepting of it nowadays!

  31. July 23, 2010 at 5:19 pm —

    Wow! She has great fingernails!

    HJ

  32. July 23, 2010 at 6:47 pm —

    I actually read the comments on the page on “vatoos” from the quickies the other day, and there was an angry commenter that just would not let it go that they weren’t called “vulva tattoos.” I read a few back-and-forth arguments before rolling my eyes and closing the tab. Language evolves, words acquire new colloquial meanings, get over it.

    @Bjornar: Your dedication to the art of tracking down all of the shaved mons pubis on the entire internet is quite impressive. Bravo!

  33. July 23, 2010 at 6:59 pm —

    Shifting language can cause all kinds of misunderstandings that can lead to hard feelings. I point to SpiralArchitect’s guest rant from Wednesday.
    It starts out fine and spirals into an argument about the definitions of atheist and agnostic, one person using the original definitions and the other using the broader more current definitions. Both seemed to agree on the basic points of the topic but, because of semantics, ended up in a 188-and-counting comment thread that got little of nowhere.

    The use of the broader term vagina to mean the entire organ has been interpreted as a slight by some without (I assume) the speakers intention. A good deal of skeptics are scientists (or at least scientifically minded) and therefore crave precision. Understandable, and when it comes to science commendable, but when it comes to dealing within a less formal setting we need to be aware that generalities are more the norm than is precision.

  34. July 23, 2010 at 7:12 pm —

    I am a language Nazi even tho I recognize that it is stupid and doomed to defeat. Nevertheless, I have always been a bit bothered by the use of “vagina” to include “vulva.” I, however, eschew “vulva” for the much more friendly word “snatch.”

  35. July 23, 2010 at 7:16 pm —

    @mrmisconception: I agree, and in general I do think clarity is important. Although in the instance of the vulva/vagina debate, it is pretty clear that when anyone says, “I just shaved my vagina and it kinda itches,” no one actually is confused and thinks they have taken a razor to their insides, and anyone who pretends to be confused is just being pedantic and annoying. If there is a case where confusion is possible, I think most of us would say, “wait, do you mean your vulva?”

    The atheism/agnosticism thing is still pretty vague and morphing, and seems to very widely from person to person. I have been following that thread, and I ABSOLUTELY do not want to continue it here. Maybe we should all take a little extra effort from now on when someone says they are agnostic/atheist to say, “Hey, I have noticed people mean different things by that. What does that mean to you?” It certainly seems like starting on the same page with that one will help avoid a lot of fights down the line that didn’t need to be had.

  36. July 23, 2010 at 7:20 pm —

    Oh yeah — I loved the illustration and I have downloaded if for future reference. Sorry to all who thought it was not appropriate.

  37. July 23, 2010 at 7:34 pm —

    My dick hates The Vagina Police.

    (Yes, I know I’m the only one who will get that, because I’m the only person who listens to Stop Podcasting Yourself, but I couldn’t resist.)

  38. July 23, 2010 at 8:27 pm —

    I think this applies!
    http://xkcd.com/169/

  39. July 23, 2010 at 8:55 pm —

    @Garbledina: This post made me think of the vatoos too. Did we already address vagazzling? Should we say vulgazzling?

  40. July 23, 2010 at 8:59 pm —

    @Julia_Galef: “no one hears “shaved vagina” and thinks that it’s referring to the internal genitalia.”

    Nor, thankfully, “hairy vagina.” See, now, *there’s* a disturbing mental image.

    @donjx: “I loved the illustration and I have downloaded if for future reference.”

    Me, too! In fact, I’ve “referenced” it twice already!

  41. July 23, 2010 at 9:10 pm —

    @battlestarlet: Ugh! The way it’s spelled makes me want to say it with a hard “G” sound, like in “guzzling.” Just say “vulgazzling” out loud. It’s horrible! I feel like I need to brush my teeth.

  42. July 23, 2010 at 9:25 pm —

    @Bjornar: Funny funny funny.

    Thank you for the comparative statistics!

  43. July 23, 2010 at 9:31 pm —

    Hmmm. Whilst referencing the photo a third time, I noticed the label “Labia Menora.” Karen, are you Jewish?

  44. July 23, 2010 at 9:36 pm —

    I am 100% in agreement with Karen’s point that vagina is used colloquially to describe the whole of the female genitalia. She is correct.

    As the sex educator referenced above from the Sex Workshop at TAM, I just wanted to clarify some things:

    “You see, a bit of a kerfuffle ensued online following the Skepchicks’ “Angry Vagina Craft Time” during a workshop at the recent Amaz!ng Meeting in Vegas. But the complaint was more over the perceived “incorrect” usage of the word vagina, rather than the fact that attendees were invited to create craft cunts.”

    The anger at the workshop had nothing to do with the use of the word vagina instead of vulva. I did not attend the workshop, but had friends who did and walked out during Angry Vagina Craft Time. I would have done the same. The disappointment in the workshop had nothing to do with the name of the craft, and everything to do with the activity itself. If we want to discuss that, that is an entirely different, but appropriate topic.

    At the Workshop, during the Q&A (not during a period of “lighthearted discussion”) a young man asked a question about how to change his exclusive sexual preference for women with NO pubic hair to allow him to appreciate the diversity of pubic hair presentations. He used the term “shaved vagina”, and I told him “you know it is not a shaved vagina, right? It is a shaved vulva.” He laughed, the audience laughed, and that was it.

    “Technical terms are most useful in technical domains. For example, at the doctor’s office, or in the anatomy or health classroom.”

    In the context of a workshop on sex education, when I am a sex educator by profession, I use technical terms.

    The reason Julia Galef became interested in this is due to a the following FB status I posted:
    The word vulva is not jargon. It is the external female genitalia.

    “But, no, I don’t think it’s wrong or ignorant to say vagina to refer to vulva. In fact, you’re in with the crowd if you do so.”

    I have never done things with regard to being with the crowd. I have tried to do them with regard to the message that I am trying to get across.

    The message is this: female genitalia is wonderfully complex and has amazing features.

    Much as we do not use only the word “breast” when teaching women to breastfeed (we use nipple, and areola , sex educators do not use just the word vagina when talking about sex.

    Finally, to respond to Sam:

    “I don’t think it’s a conscious reaction on their part. It’s almost a Pavlovian response, borne from the set of experiences that most informs them as women and/or feminists.”

    It is a fully conscious reaction on my part. It comes from being taught by my mother from childhood that I possessed a clitoris, inner and outer labia, a urethra, a vulva, a vagina, and an anus. In addition to her teaching menames, she taught me that all of my genitals belonged to ME, had the capacity to give pleasure to me and if I chose so, partners, and that no one had the right to touch without my permission.

    My job as a sex educator is to do the same.

  45. July 23, 2010 at 9:55 pm —

    @heidiho: That last bit seems a non-sequitur. Although I was in my teens before learning to properly identify all of the various pleasure-giving and functional parts of my own genitalia (my mother was painfully shy about those sorts of things), I can now draw you a pretty detailed and scientifically accurate map. However, like most people who are neither sex educators nor gynecologists, I usually take the social and linguistic shortcut of referring to the whole area as my vagina. Which, incidentally, does not belong any less to ME than if I were more consistently specific.

    Don’t confuse the map with the territory.

  46. July 23, 2010 at 10:21 pm —

    @Bjornar:
    We just have to increase the popularity of the word vulva.

    Are you trying to further the stereotype that all us elite atheist liberal types are granola-eating Vulva-driving hippies?

    Oh, wait… Never mind.

  47. July 23, 2010 at 10:43 pm —

    @Garbledina: Re: “Don’t confuse the map with the territory”… Is there a form of “friending” on the Skepchick blog? If so, I want to friend you on the basis of that quote alone!

  48. July 24, 2010 at 12:40 am —

    I love this post. I used to be someone who had arguments over people not using the “Queen’s English” but I have really changed my thinking on this over the years.

    The reality is that if a word or phrase is more commonly used across the general population, it is far easier to simply adopt that phrase or word to be able to get your general ideas communicated than to try to change the fundamentals behind how the phrase came into use in the first place.

    Yay vaginas and vulvas! :)

  49. July 24, 2010 at 12:41 am —

    @mrmisconception: Also, ‘Vulva-driving hippies”? COTW.

  50. July 24, 2010 at 12:48 am —

    @heidiho:

    The disappointment in the workshop had nothing to do with the name of the craft, and everything to do with the activity itself. If we want to discuss that, that is an entirely different, but appropriate topic

    But how could you participate in that discussion, since you didn’t go to the workshop at all, and your friends left at the beginning of Angry Vagina Craft Time?

    Karen, great post. Next time you say “NSFW,” I am absolutely going to believe you :)

  51. July 24, 2010 at 1:29 am —

    This is related to my earlier arguement regarding atheists, atheism and what they really are. When I was a child, the dictionaries I read defined atheist as “a person who beleives there is no God,” and atheism as “the belief that there is no God”. I spent decades assuming that definition was the same for everyone, so I was shocked a couple of months ago when I found atheists who defined atheism as “the lack of belief in God”, which is NOT the same as “the belief that there is no God”. Thus I had spent all that time being an atheist according to the broader definition, while scornfully rejecting the word atheist because I had assumed that only the older definition applied to it. I didn’t beleive in God, but I saw most atheists as being bigoted fanatics no better than most religious types.

    I am an atheist. But not an affirmative one. I cannot bring myself to state outright that “there is no God” because I have no compelling reason to, any more than I have a compelling reason to think there IS a God. That is why I call myself agnostic instead.

  52. July 24, 2010 at 1:41 am —

    @Dale Husband:
    I see that, and that was my point. Basic agreement but coming from two different places. I think @Garbledina is right, a basic “define please” could save so much grief in the future.

    Soooo…., how about those vaginas? Pretty nice right?

  53. July 24, 2010 at 2:59 am —

    I really enjoyed this article, but I’m a bit of a language nerd myself. The usage history of words is as interesting to me as ghost photos – which is saying a lot. And I used to be very, very pedantic about “proper” usage. One example that used to set my teeth on edge is when people pronounced the word “ask” as “axe.”

    “Let me axe you a question,” they said. And I couldn’t think about their question because I was distracted by the way they pronounced “ask.”

    Then one day I was doing some research and found that the original pronunciation of the word probably was “axe” and realized that unwittingly these speakers were likely giving me a more historically sound rendering of the word than the modern version.

    That incident gave me a better perspective on how language works.

    I remember Steve Novella talking about how there are extremely precise terms in medicine because you need exactitude for procedures and research.

    It’s all about context I suppose. I am one of those people who thought calling those felt craft things at TAM “angry vaginas” was tantamount to me calling a sack with two marbles in it a “cock.” That’s not to belittle the important lesson of that craft time, just that I thought it weird to call the exterior sex organs the name of the interior ones.

    Yet to be fair, I don’t have a vagina. My wife loans me the use of hers from time to time and I try to take care of it – but I don’t have my own. And I don’t have any pet names for it and only speak of it in terms that she and I have agreed are okay.

    I think that’s probably good advice for someone in a relationship. Find out what all interested parties want to have their naughty-bits called, and find out what they DON’T want them called as well.

    After all, this sex talk can be very confusing and misleading. For example I hear people talking about “eating pussy” all the time, but try and take an actual bite of one and see what happens! Fucking language.

  54. July 24, 2010 at 3:10 am —

    @Reverend Kel:

    I have heard of a Klezmer band called Labia Menorah.

  55. July 24, 2010 at 5:01 am —

    Excellent post! But surely the major problem is the morbid use of previously acceptable words as profanity. Vagina is in itself a perfectly innocent word but is now being marginalised and treated as not for use in polite company or perhaps not for use in the hearing of the public. Instead of the supposedly unacceptable vulva or vagina people are exposed to va-jay-jay, a term which makes me want to shake my f-fah-fist at the infantalising idiots who use it.

    This process of making profane the words for sexual organs or processes has been going on for a long time. Pussy, for example, has become a part of the lexicon of invective despite a pussy being something that likes being stroked and having a taste for cream. Cunt was originally a word for a purse and applied to cavern type wells. On the other side dick and cock are also pejorative where once they were acceptable.

    Perhaps these pejorative senses for normal, functional parts of the human body will only be lost when we stop thinking of sex as “dirty” or sinful.

  56. July 24, 2010 at 5:35 am —

    Shaved twat: 374 000 hits

  57. July 24, 2010 at 6:08 am —

    Finding pictures of female genitalia online is always so difficult so thank you for the picture.

    The discussion was also informative as well.

  58. July 24, 2010 at 9:34 am —

    @Bjornar: Thanks for the morning chuckle!

  59. July 24, 2010 at 10:05 am —

    Here’s an actual excerpt from a story where a blanket term isn’t used… and I think it’s kind of effective:

    “Finally, your fingers found my shaved mound, eagerly parting the slick lips. I cried out as you thrust a finger inside of me. As the torment began to build, you inserted another finger and slowly stretching my clit until I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, couldn’t do anything but feel. You leaned up and drew my nipples, one after the other, into your hot mouth. You suckled hard at my breasts, and I nearly swooned. You pressed your fingers upwards and I jumped over the edge. I convulsed around your fingers as you slipped one more finger into my wet channel.”

    (I’m not sure what the author means by “stretching my clit” but the point remains – she uses language to differentiate between the different parts of the genitalia without it seeming forced.)

  60. July 24, 2010 at 10:38 am —

    Wait… there was a sex scene in Tess 0f the D’Urbervilles?

  61. July 24, 2010 at 11:04 am —

    Could we have a penis article next complete with pictures??

  62. July 24, 2010 at 1:38 pm —

    *clearing throat and blushing* Um…Lydia_Lydia, what exactly was the title of that book?

  63. July 24, 2010 at 1:45 pm —

    To those who’ve said that people take this usage as a slight, you’re right. People have huge personal investments in language, and find it hard to separate their biases. As this case illustrates.

    @Lydia_Lydia Yeah, but the use of words like “torment” and “swooned”, and phrases like “jumped over the edge” and “wet channel” make it sound naff.

    @heidiho I’m glad you agree with my argument, because all day yesterday and today you’ve denied my points on Facebook and Twitter.

    All along, I’ve described usage. Try not to take it personally.

    But, as an aside, since you’re focused on appropriate terminology, you should cease labeling yourself a “Professional Sex Educator” as you did on my Facebook page. As I said there:

    Heidi – since you’re so concerned about what you see as “correct” nomenclature – “Professional Sex Educator” is a misnomer. You’re a Development Coordinator for a crisis centre, which is usually a fund raising role. You’re not qualified in sex education at all, only business admin. I’m a PhD-qualified Linguist but I’ve never called myself a “Professional Linguist”.

    You may have some background in this area, but NO qualifications. You are not an academic or a scholar in this area, or a teacher, advisor or counselor beyond what you say in the skeptical movement.

  64. July 24, 2010 at 4:41 pm —

    Photo should be on a calender next year, perhaps for a holey month.

  65. July 24, 2010 at 5:30 pm —

    @James Fox: Chuckles was what I was aiming for, so I’m glad I got at least one.

  66. July 24, 2010 at 6:26 pm —

    @Bjornar: Shaved mound: 1,950,000 results. I think that leaps into second place. Surely someone should be graphing these results my now.

  67. July 24, 2010 at 6:40 pm —

    OK, I plugged most of Bjornar’s search terms into google trends, and this was the result: http://bit.ly/d2FZrv

    Which is pure, uncut awesome, because it contains these two sentences:

    shaved vulva does not have enough search volume for ranking.

    Scale is based on the average worldwide traffic of shaved vagina in all years.

    Now, if that isn’t a “your mom” joke waiting to happen, I don’t know what is!

    Also noteworthy, all search queries seem to be the most popular in South Africa and Waterloo, Canada. (WTF?)

    And I just remembered that every time I say, “WTF?” my son says, “What’s Weird Taco Flavoring got to do with it?” Which of course reminds me that I forgot to search “Shaved taco!” (because I’m a grown-up). Next time…

  68. July 24, 2010 at 9:27 pm —

    @NurseEd:

    I totally agree, and we are teaching the anatomically specific terms (for both boy and girl genitalia) to our boy and girl. I think direct accuracy and clarity goes a long way toward demystifying and destigmatizing parts of their own (and others’) bodies. I’m proud that my son didn’t know what the hell his doctor was talking about when he asked if my son’s “nuts” hurt. (Of course one could make a strong argument in favor of cultural literacy….)

  69. July 24, 2010 at 11:39 pm —

    I’m confused. Are you saying the second line of dialog should be “I’m gonna impact your Felis catus, baby”, or not?

  70. July 25, 2010 at 12:09 am —

    @Garbledina: Actually, there are four… (Continues typing with left hand while mopping up pool of blood under keyboard.)

  71. July 25, 2010 at 1:16 am —

    @JOHNEA13:

    I was TAing calculus one semester when the topic of cross products came up during Holy Week.

  72. July 25, 2010 at 1:35 am —

    So one of the things I don’t like about the notion of a “correct” form of language (at least in a prescriptive sense) is that it sets the stage for language prejudice and discrimination (though historically, it may be the other way around). Notice that elites in any linguistic community tend to use language “correctly.” Is this because

    a) they are more highly educated and have learned the prestige dialect for their community in the course of their educations?

    b) they are smarter/more morally upright/more urbane and all the other positive attributes that get attached to prestige dialects?

    c) the dialects of elites are the ones that are given prestige?

  73. July 25, 2010 at 5:24 am —

    @Garbledina: Good job! On finding high ranker such as “shaved mound”. Bad job on letting me know about Google trends. Hadn’t seen that tool before, and after hitting this interesting graph on my first try that wasn’t my name, I risk spending a couple hours looking for more interesting trends. As Lore Sjöberg recently wrote:

    the internet is a constant, beguiling temptation, like one of the Sirens of Greek myth if you could embed Flash in her.

    Now where are my earplugs?

    Anyone wonder if this post was positioned deliberately just before the weekend to keep it at the top of the main page for as long as possible?

  74. July 25, 2010 at 11:29 am —

    I am not a pedant, let alone and expert in this subject, and yet the phrase “shaved her vagina” just sounds wrong wrongity wrong.

    What’s wrong with “crotch” as a vague locational designation?

  75. July 25, 2010 at 1:13 pm —

    I would like to take this opportunity to say that as a coworker of @ heidiho she is definitely qualified to call herself a sex educator. She is also qualified to call herself a counselor, advisor, and teacher.

    As the Director of Education for SAFE Homes-Rape Crisis Coalition and having worked with Heidi for over 10 years, and am sorry that she is being judged for not being considered a professional not for her work but for her title at our organization.

    A professional is someone who is a skilled, competent, qualified, trained, practiced person which Heidi is.

    In our oganization, Heidi has provided a numerous amount of educational workshops to college kids, youth, other “professionals”, and our staff on sexual issues. She has also spoken at our Annual Conference about sexuality.

    She is one of the most requested educators on our staff!

    I feel after reading all of the posts that she is being attacked for what she believes is correct terminology she uses when she is providing such expert presentations. She is not discounting how others perceive words or terms or usage.

    We all have our own opinions, in which I am stating mine as well. People will either agree or disagree with me and that is a choice which I believe everyone has a right to.

    I think if you disagree about certains issues you should def state your side and why. I do NOT agree with calling someone out and belittling their talent.

    I know that Heidi is a remarkably gifted speaker, advocate, advisor, educator…..a professional in every aspect of her life-personal and professional!

  76. July 25, 2010 at 1:25 pm —

    Number of hits for shaved cro… No, I think I’m done now.

  77. July 25, 2010 at 4:23 pm —

    One of the problems with using the term “vagina” to describe the female anatomy in a general sense is that the individual functions of the separate parts loose their meaning. For example, a large portion of the population doesn’t realize that women have three holes: a urethra, a vagina and an anus. As a labor nurse, I have to explain to these people, male and female, that women don’t pee out of their vaginae. So, no, the urinary catheter that you get when you get an epidural will not touch the baby, hurt the baby, or otherwise get in the way of the baby coming out.
    Overall, it is used in the same way the word “stomach” is used. The stomach is an actual organ, but people will use the term “stomach ache” when any part of their abdomen is in distress. Stomach ache just sounds better than abdomen ache. The key is to make sure than in clinical and educational settings, as well as at home, ample time is taken to stress the complexities of both the “stomach” and the “vagina” starting from the very beginning.

  78. July 26, 2010 at 1:51 am —

    I have to agree with lizlemon. Having been both a sex ed teacher (for HS), along with experiencing sex personally, I found males (and females) woefully ignorant of the different parts of the female anatomy. Using the word vagina can be acceptable in the company of those who have that understanding of implying all parts of the female’s fun parts. But too often, way too often, I have encountered males who think that there are only 2 parts to the female: the furry part (which blocks the way), and the hole for the penis. I am tired of teaching males about all the other fun bits. We atleast have names for the several parts of the penis (the head & shaft) along with the scrotum and testicles (or balls). I am not suggesting that we need to be excessively detailed when describing our “crotch”, but it would be nice for males to understand that there is a clitoris, mons pubis and vulva, and where they are, and what they do. Maybe adding a few words to the vernacular, instead of removing them, might help?

    And, BTW – I think the first paragraph WAS hot. It was much better than any pornography I’ve read written by men or women. Instead of using pathetic metaphors, it painted a very clear image for me. (But I’m insane – so don’t go by me).

  79. July 26, 2010 at 5:31 am —

    @rotifer:

    And, BTW – I think the first paragraph WAS hot. It was much better than any pornography I’ve read written by men or women. Instead of using pathetic metaphors, it painted a very clear image for me. (But I’m insane – so don’t go by me).

    I agree with you. And not with the parenthetical part.

  80. July 26, 2010 at 10:28 am —

    Maybe the reason so many people use the term “vagina” to refer to everything in a womans crotch is because during intercourse that is the big draw. The penis loves it, seeks it and so it becomes the main performer in the show. It is the part of the anatomy that when stimulated by a penis, both partners get aroused and off. It also hidden so it becomes sort of a mysterious, holy grail. The interior of a womans body is about as intimate as you can get. I know, lots of women also want the other bits stimulated during the act but in the end (no pun intended) it is the vagina that is the star of the show so it gets top billing.

  81. July 26, 2010 at 3:10 pm —

    I agree that specificity is a good thing in this area (as it were), and I particularly loathe the all-encompassing “down there.” I just don’t think you can turn back the clock on language change–“vagina” gets used to mean the entire external female genitalia? ok, we’ll use “vaginal canal” (or whatever) to specify the sheath between the uterus and the outside. And definitely make people aware of the individual parts.

    Some others in this discussion probably are more familiar with the details, but I recall several years back some organ of the US government wanted to put out some AIDS education pamphlets that used terms like “fucking,” “ass,” “pussy,” “cock,” and so on. Some politicians got all upset about this, but my memory is that the educators who wanted to use explicit language won out with the argument that you have to speak the language of the people you’re trying to educate. The same principle applies here in that if the person you’re trying to educate calls the whole area a vagina, you may have to use a different term for the sheath.

  82. July 26, 2010 at 9:20 pm —

    1.) @Bjornar: you fucking crack me up. Your dogged posts of terms and statistics, paired with the expression of your avatar, made me laugh repeatedly.
    2.)@Garbledina- I absolutely love the phrase “Don’t confuse the map with the Territory” That gets a COTW from me. I’ll repost with the right attribution to make it easy on the skepchick admin.
    3.)@Mr.Misconception- My mother (can be occasionally very prudish and strange) once said to me that she didn’t like Volvos because they were “ugly and the name reminded her of Vulvas” I spewed beer out of my nose.
    In general, I include the vulva, vagina, mons pubis, clitoris, labia minora and majora, and perineum as parts of the whole wonderful Gynescape.

  83. July 27, 2010 at 2:54 pm —

    Makes me think about all the “Volvos” that get rear ended.

  84. July 27, 2010 at 10:29 pm —

    Hey, arrrrmm …

    I am no Language Nazi – or not often anyway, but my beloved MacQuarie dictionary defines “crotch” as : “… between the legs …”. And even that is too imprecise for me.

    So instead of using “crotchetty bits/area”, as some here have been doing, how about using “perineum” – if indeed that is the area you wish to identify.

    The early picture of female genitalia (in the excellent first post by Karen) was missing this essential nomenclature. Can someone fix that ?

    Only trying to help here.

  85. July 27, 2010 at 10:53 pm —

    o_O

  86. July 27, 2010 at 11:39 pm —

    This is re-post from the FaceBook discussion on this topic; hope that’s permissable.

    Karen,

    A well crafted article, ’embracing’ all of :
    puritanism, pedantry, precision, psychology, politics (usual + gender), power, prurience, penises (not so much), but definitely not pederasty.

    Only someone who loves Philosophy of Language could tolerate that many alliterations in one sentence !

    Look, most of us here would easily agree that there is NOTHING immoral, immodest about ANY body parts. Like, if we were were meant to go around naked, we would have been born that way.

    Once upon a time, Victorians dressed the ‘ankles’ of pianos; nowadays, a bare midriff or more is seen as natural, or even fashionable.

    If a naked nose is “normal and natural,” why not every other part of the body as well ? Yeah, hygiene dictates certain protocols, and that’s fine.

    Well, we could also equally accept that humans are irrational captives of normative values, and just as we can easily forgive toddlers running around naked on a seaside, thus we ought to be able to forgive someone who has been been battered and bruised by a barbaric holy book (and its protectors). … stay with me here.

    Sure, ppl may be irrational and messed up, but like a person with more visible injury, we ought to be more compassionate about their afflictions. Except, of course, if they impose their irrationality on others.

    So how is society best able to moderate the inevitable conflict between the prurient and the prudish ? And that is the fresh tweak I bring here.

    I think blogs like SkepChick are an excellent vehicle for the extremes of those spectra to get to know one another, tolerate one another, accept one another, respect one another.

    Am I being too naive here ?

    PS:
    I went on a camping trip with some young ppl, 1st/2nd year Uni, male and female.

    The guys were, of course, demonstrating typical undergrad iconoclasms with generous doses of ‘swear words’. I’m cool with that. “Homo sum; humani nil a me alienum puto” … and so on.

    And the gals were copiously demonstrating that they were not going to be strictured by patriarchal expectations of ‘lady norms’, and contributed their fair share of Sailor Blue.

    I was a little concerned that rebelling – by conforming to an expected language of discourse – is not, in fact, rebelling.

    And too much emphasis on one gender of body part, or another, ain’t exactly gender inclusive.

    So I suggested that for the rest of the tenting-hiking trip, we employ a gender inclusive word like “prunt”. It got a guernsey.

    But beautifully, this evolved to “prucking funt”. Doncha luv Spooner, right when you need him ?

    And then in a triple Spoonerism, this evolved to “pright rucking funt”.

    I was ecstatic in admiration of these young folks. Hope you lot are too

  87. July 30, 2010 at 3:54 am —

    Karen clearly enjoys a pun or two, so:

    “_Cunning Linguist_ … is definitely not a phalacious label.”

  88. July 31, 2012 at 6:59 am —

    But we’re still cool with using the word “pussy”?

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