The Mystery of Sexual Nomenclature

I have been cleaning frantically as I try to get ready for my last day of work. This means I have uncovered a huge array of strange and fascinating items, which I will now share for your edification (or horror).  Today’s exhibit: the collection of misspellings and mistakes on a freshman biology human sexuality exam I gave in 1998.

I taught freshman biology for about 17 years before I completely burned out. (I started having dreams about photosynthesis where chloroplasts were threatening to knee-cap me. I took that as a sign it was time for a job change.)

Each semester we would drag the kids through a human sexuality unit in hopes of encouraging them to practice safe sex, as well as understand their hormone-raddled bodies better.

It was actually a lot of fun; I demonstrated that you can actually put over 2 liters of fluid inside a condom, so complaints they were ‘too tight’ was suspect.  I made up “body fluids” which they could then exchange with other students (in paper cups!) to model sexually transmitted diseases.  I explained that oral herpes could become genital herpes.

Yep, they liked those classes. And each year, that exam was consistently the one on which students would score the worst.

Was it because they thought they knew it all? Was it because the topic was too mortifying? I don’t know.

The question on the exam that destroyed them was the same each year: Here’s a diagram of the human male and female reproductive tract. Label some parts. The answers were just as hilarious as they were tragic:

Name two parts of the female external genitalia:  clavicle and clitorium.

This gave rise to a behind-the-scenes plans among the instructors to start a sex shop called the Clitorium Emporium, BTW. If anyone registers that domain name, I expect a cut of the action.

Some of the other answers were a bit disturbing; the scrotum was labled as “sodom” fairly often.

Someone labeled the bladder on the male diagram as the uterus, even though there was a rather conspicuous dangly bit in front!  It also was called the “Bilbo gland” once, which made me wonder if hobbits had hairy…no, never mind about that.

I suspect that this is simply a symptom of our uptight high school system and fear of teen sexuality. I know that I would not have passed this exam as a freshman. Hell, I didn’t learn that hermaphrodite, bisexual, and homosexual were not the same until I was at least a sophomore in college.  Thanks Texas.

Was forcing these students to learn the names for the parts of their body worthwhile?  Does using the proper names really matter?

I think so, even if it made some students very uncomfortable. I feel like we should at least give students an owner’s manual to their body, and make them learn the parts.

When did you learn all this stuff? How did you learn it?



Bug_girl has a PhD in Entomology, and is a pointy-headed former academic living in Ohio. She is obsessed with insects, but otherwise perfectly normal. Really! If you want a daily stream of cool info about bugs, follow her Facebook page or find her on Twitter.

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    1. Ditto here. Starts in the 5th grade in Manitoba. I was also lucky enough to have my sister start menstruating at the same time, and our mom made sure that we both knew all that we needed to.

      (of course, it still didn’t stop her from getting pregnant at 15, though :( )

  1. I took WAY too much sex ed in High School. Oddly enough, it was in Louisiana and Texas, and all of it was fairly competent.

    In Louisiana, I first got it in Naval Junior ROTC, with Chief Sanders showing us some of the videos they show young sailors about STDs, with white-out strategically applied to mermaid boobs. Because it was my PE replacement, I got this both years… reasonably competent advice to use condoms, even if it lacked much in the way of practical how-to.
    Next, I got it Sophomore year biology. Again, fairly competent, a bit more technical on the reproductive bits, with good information on birth control (abstinence being 100% effective was stressed, but condoms and the pill were in the 90s).

    We then moved to Texas, which didn’t acknowledge that 2 years of NJROTC equaled 1.5 years of PE and .5 of health, even though they’d count NJROTC as health or PE. Thus, I took health again, and got another dose of Sex Ed. By this time, I was more or less coasting, as I was when I had to retake the second semester of biology (due to an extreme lack of a damn on my part back in Louisiana). The bit I remember most from Texas Sex Ed was the teacher took anonymous questions, and answered them.

    Somewhere in there, I got a bit more of a how-to education on sex from bodice-rippers and the burgeoning internet, including spending some time writing erotica for lonely housewives.

  2. I considered going to med school while in college but had a terrible time remembering all the pieces and parts in my biology lab. I could tell you where they were, their relation to nearby organs and what their function was but for the life of me I couldn’t remember what they were called. So, I went into engineering instead.

    Now I work in for a medical device company specializing in women’s health and can spout off all sorts of female body parts.

    This job makes it very easy to describe sexual organs like one was naming off days of the week. It’s actually very liberating to be able to say vagina out loud to a room full of women. Vagina, vagina, vagina.

    As I have kids, it’s also been very natural to let them know the real names of all the body parts without getting into cute euphemisms.

    As for the difficulty we see with new sales trainees. The thing that throws people off the most for both male and female anatomy has to be the pelvic bone. Because its a sagittal view, it looks really odd and some say it little egg sitting up there and people haven’t the slightest idea what it is.

    Ah, good times.

  3. When I was 10, my mom gave me 3 book: “My Body, Myself for Girls,” “The Period Book” (which I actually didn’t read for about a year because I thought it was about punctuation!), and “It’s Perfectly Normal.” Apparently that last one was banned in some areas, which makes me feel like a total rebel for having read it. About every other day I would read something and then go ask my mom (a former nurse) questions– “Is that true? What does that mean? Is this diagram actual size?”
    Apparently once I became the playground know-it-all on sex facts, those books started making rounds with all the other families at my school. I still don’t know where they ended up.

  4. I knew what all the body parts were from the time I could read. I was really obsessed with the plastic pages showing the layers of the human body that were under the topic “Human” in our encyclopedias. Other than that, sex ed in Louisiana started young and was actually fairly informative. By the time my mom got up the nerve to give me “the talk” I told her not to bother because I knew it all already! She sort of quizzed me on a few things, realized I was right and just let it go.

  5. While I saw the various bits in encyclopedia diagrams before age 10, the description of how to use them came at age 12, reading Desmond Morris, “The Naked Ape”.

    When I got to 7th grade, the Jr high started offering “hygiene” classes. It was strictly biology, and did not include discussion of contraception (hey, it was 1969, and it was literally the first year they tried it). I suspect that had I continued onto that towns public high school, they would have gotten to more practical discussions. Instead I spent the first two years of high school at a Catholic institution, and then as a Junior, the town we moved to had public schools that didn’t do “health”, but did require public speaking classes…

    My high school GF’s school system (she lived in a different town) waited till high school before any discussion, but her class included teacher doing the usual demo involving a banana and condom (but didn’t provide any to take home), as well as passing around samples of diaphragms, IUD’s, foams, pills, etc.

  6. I honestly don’t remember when I learned these things. My parents weren’t uptight about sex, I perused Playboy magazines when I was 6 (the pictures of naked women didn’t interest me but the cartoons did) and when my mother was going through nursing school I would steal her anatomy books and learn about body parts before I was 10. I was all set to be a doctor until I was 12 when I was first exposed to computers.

  7. Learning the correct nomenclature is absolutely essential for children. I remember reading a story about a boy who complained his grandad (uncle? stepfather? can’t remember the details now) was playing with his toy. He was ignored and not taken seriously – only much later was revealed that his parents had told him to call his penis his “toy”.

  8. Ugh, I wrote a really long comment on sex ed here in the Netherlands and then the internet ate it… so here we go again.
    We got two rounds of sex ed, one at 10/11/12 in primary school and one at 13/14/15 in high school. Primary school pretty much focused on what all the parts are and how they’re called, where do babies come from, what’s going to happen with you in puberty and contraceptives (indeed, we got to fill condoms with water ourselves). In my christian high school, sex ed was divided over biology class and health class, with biology focusing more on the technical side of things, including contraceptives, and health class on relationships, different sexual practices and how they’re all okay if everyone involved is a consenting adult (this got some opposition from a few of the very religious kids in class, but the teacher made short work of that by saying ‘If you don’t like it, you don’t do it and let other people make their own decisions’) and healthy decision making. I remember our biology teacher holding a fairly passionate 5-minute speech about how the labia, which are literally called the ‘big and small shame lips’ in Dutch, should be renamed the ‘inner and outer fun lips’. I don’t remember anyone being particularly uncomfortable with any of it. We had a competitive quiz about the subject. As I recall, grades for the examn on human sexuality were no different than those for the other exams. I also feel I should note there was no such thing as abstinence only propaganda, even though I went to a christian high school.
    To be fair, I can’t imagine a school system where you would NOT teach children the proper names for the parts of their own anatomy (and that of the other sex). So keep forcing them! They’ll be grateful for it later, I should think.

  9. The Usborne Complete Book of the Human Body! ( looks like an updated version.) There were pictures of robots exchanging bodily fluids to have sex, but there was an awful, awful lot of anatomy and biology in there. It’s one of my earliest memories, so I would have been around four.

    (I really recommend checking that book out, if it’s the right one – I still have my copy somewhere at my parents house, although my new niece might be about to nab it…)

    1. Hah, but that didn’t explain genitals very clearly, I recall. So, when I was eight, reading the Red Dwarf Omnibus in a corner whilst my mum and dad had some friends over, I suddenly piped up and went “Mum – what does CLITORIS mean?”.

      1. Ah the Committee for the Liberation and Integration of Terrifying Organisms and their Rehabilitation Into Society.

  10. I don’t really remember what I learned when, but I learned some from the Norwegian children’s TV program “The Body” ( The moment of conception ) and the later book of the same name, some from the medical encyclopedia, some in school, and possibly something from my parents, although I can’t remember ever “having the talk”.

  11. I learned all the correct terms (but not the correct pronunciation) by studying my mom’s sex manual, a very dry tome from the 1940s, on the QT.

  12. Most of my sex ed was in grades 5- 7, which was the ” this is where babies come from, and this is what the parts are called” section, with a heavy emphasis on puberty, since this was obviously the most pressing concern for the age group. I remember particularly a video where they subtly slipped in there that sometimes girls masturbate, which completely blew my mind at the age of 12 (I don’t remember if they ever told boys the same, but that one offside little comment did more for encouraging highschool abstinence for me than any of the delightfully terrifying facts about STDs or teen pregnancy they liked to throw out there.)

    I think my high school might of actually had a decent sex ed program, but I didn’t get any of it. Due to my super nerd advanced program (Thanks IB!), there literally wasn’t room for health or PE or that Careers course in our schedules. They squeezed half an hour a week for one semester to mash all those courses into one so we could graduate. The health portion of the class covered “Eat green vegetables” and “Stress: please learn to deal with it”, while the rest was general career aptitude and “Taxes, you should do them at some point” We glumly decided that we didn’t get the sex ed part of health because they figured none of us were ever going to have sex in anyway (ah the fatalist attitude of 16 year olds…). Most of my highschool sex ed came from my my non super!nerd friends who would go complain to me later how very discomfiting it all was.

  13. Clitorium, I love it! Great stories, Bug, though I’m sadly not surprised given that recently in one of my grad classes it seemed like a couple guys were confused about how women menstruate and urinate from two different places. (I don’t know what they thought, that we have one bird-like cloaca or something?)

    I learned the basics fairly early on, from a combination of science shows and books. And now I know all the lovely details from having taken a lot of anatomy. Epididymis is one of my favorite anatomy names, up there with Purkinje cells.

  14. I spent a summer as an exchange student in Germany when I was 15. I came across the SexEd book my German counterpart was using for her class. Forget diagrams and labels, this book had photos. Forget abstinence, this book had a chapter on foreplay. I remember specifically a photo of two teen kids spraying each other with a shower head. The caption read, “Taking a shower together before sex can be a fun way to get in the mood”.
    It was one of the healthiest and happiest views of sex I have ever come across. America’s preoccupation with shame makes me feel ashamed.

  15. I have sporadic memories of sex ed starting in 5th grade and on through high school. Small town Texas which means my “education” consisted of: these are the parts, this is how they fit together, god hates premarital sex and homosexuals. Needless to say, always a good day for a nap.

  16. We make a very conscious effort to teach our son and daughter the correct names for all the boy-and-girl parts. I chat to my daughter when I change her diaper and her older brother learns the names too: “wait a second, I need one more wipe for your labia…” Hopefully they will both grow up with at least an anatomical map and labels of the external bits. Which is a great deal more information than I took into adulthood.

    A few days ago my son, 7.5, asked about sex, “But how does the sperm from the daddy get inside the mama’s uterus to get to the egg?” I told him the truth, tried to keep it simple and low-key, and emphasized that there is a lot of inaccurate information on the schoolyard. I told him that he should come to us with questions, and we’ll do our best to give him a truthful answer or help him find a truthful answer.

    I’m never sure how parenting will turn out, and I really wish I could be reasonably sure I’m doing the right things….

  17. I, too, don’t recall exactly how I learned about sex. But I didn’t learn much. My mom, a nurse, did give me a book, and probably said, “See me if you have any questions.” I don’t think I did. We had some kind of class in school (70s) but I really don’t recall much more than being shown pads and belts for menstruation.

    My 7 year old daughter has been learning about reproduction for years, starting with pollination in plants. She’s been participating in an “Our Whole Lives” class at a nearby UU fellowship. The OWL program is great and I hear it gets even better in middle and high school. She hasn’t asked the question Anthropologist got, but she probably will shortly.

    1. I learned the better part of my sex-ed in a UU congregation and now I teach the Our Whole Lives curriculum to 6th and 7th graders.

  18. I read a lot from age 8 or so — like, a lot a lot. Anything, pretty much. And my parents didn’t care what I read. So a lot of it was adult, and being precocious in other ways I definitely was happy when I found sex scenes.

    I think the sheer amount of stuff I read let me figure out the basics. But the more technical stuff came in a few classes in school; body parts in grade 3/4, sex ed in grade 9. In Ontario, so I think it was somewhat comprehensive.

  19. The misuse I find really bizarre and disconcerting is the very common one of “vagina” to mean the entire vulva. Hearing about a “hairy vagina” creeps me out. I also wonder if this won’t at some point lead to jurors misunderstanding instructions and convicting some offender of a more serious form of sexual assault or abuse than the evidence supports. (I’m imagining a state where “sexual assault” is defined as forcible penetration of the vagina or rectum.

  20. I don’t precisely remember receiving info about the details, but I do remember my parents thought it was entirely appropriate that I know them from an early age ( we were hippie nudists in the late 60’s after all). But what I most vividly remember was relating what details I knew to rapt audiences on the playground at elementary school. I remember being horrified at the general ignorance of the playground population.

    Bug Girl: If I manage to pitch my idea of a series of children’s books “The Confounding Chronicles of Clitoria Clitterhouse” I’ll dedicate volume one, “The Curse of the Clitorium” to you.

  21. Bug-Girl: Sorry, but the amount of fluid that an elastic structure such as a condom can hold without rupture is not directly related to “how tight” it is. …Not that I am therefore condoning the excuse of a “too-tight” condom for non-use, but elastic surfaces like balloons (and condoms) provide proportionally less resistance to increased internal pressure as the volume increases. If you want a first-order experiment, blow up a balloon.

    In the realm of “too much information” once one gets over the novelty, condoms are a nice alternative of baseball stats, if you get my drift…

      1. If it’s uncomfortable enough to complain then spring for a pack of large sized. If that isn’t loose then it’s the size for you.

        Condoms that are too small are at a higher risk of breaking.

  22. So, with everyone but the OP we get a color-coded “reply” link. What do we use to reply to the OP?? Oh, please help! I’ve fallen and can’t link-up!

  23. I had an advantage with two relatives orking dairy farms. My great uncle, a subsistence level bachelor german farmer, bred his cows the natural way.
    (Meaning Earl walked his bull up the road when uncle’s cows needed freshening) The process was eye opening, though the descriptions were not the clinical ones I got at my other relative’s. Their operation was (is) quite modern (They produce oceans of milk w/o prophylactic antibiotics or hormones-Just selective breeding and mountains of mineral supplements). Their breeding was by artificial insemination and the father of a friend worked for Midwest Breeders. So I had no problem asking Tom’s dad”Why are you sticking that tube up her butt?”
    “It’s not her butt, it’s her vagina. This is her anus.”

    I was a little surprised to find the same name for the human vagina. A cow doesn’t have breasts.

    1. Yes, cows do have breasts!! Where do you think the milk comes from? They are just oriented a bit lower on the “torso”, if you will.

  24. Sex Ed didn’t happen in our school system until 10th grade. Until then, we were on our own.

    I remember when my brother and our neighbor were sitting in our apple tree one day, and the friend asked us, “Do you know what a VAUGE-ina is?” He then proudly pulled out a sheet of paper he had found in the bathroom trash at his house; an instruction sheet for his sister’s tampons. We were, of course, fascinated though clueless. This didn’t tell us anything about sex, though, so we used *logic* to decide that since boys and girls weren’t allowed to see each other naked, married people must go to the hospital when they wanted children, and while in separate rooms, the man would stick his “thing” THROUGH THE WALL into the woman, and she would get pregnant. We weren’t’ stupid, though. We knew they were lying on beds. My parents never, EVER talked about sex, so I really don’t remember when I learned the truth.

    You know, about the different colored cabbages.

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