Why right-wingers shouldn't stop women saying "vagina"

Let's make a hoohah.

Tender reader, take a seat because I'm going to talk about something upsetting. Maybe "something" is a bit too vague. OK then, it's a fibromuscular tubular tract. Are you with me? What if I tell you it's a part of the female body? A sex organ? Fine, I'll just come out with it: VAGINA.

Still conscious? Then you have a more robust constitution than the Michigan State House, where Democratic Representative Lisa Brown was prevented from speaking after she used the V word in a debate about abortion. I mean, she wasn't just shouting "Vagina!" at the assembled legislature. This was definitely a context-appropriate use of the word.
 
All the same, it was too much for some, including Republican Representative Mike Callton. "It was so offensive, I don't even want to say it in front of women," he spluttered (I didn't hear him say it, but it sounds like the sort of thing that would be spluttered rather than just said). "I would not say that in mixed company." 
 
Of course, Callton was absolutely fine with the "mixed company" in question deciding what should happen to women's bodies – the bill being debated would ban all abortions after 20 weeks, with very limited exemptions where the mother's life is in danger. It was just the act of giving the physiologically accurate names to the parts of women's bodies that went too far for him.
 
The idea that an adult man could be distressed by the word "vagina" is hilarious, and also deeply sinister. Declaring the vagina unspeakable makes women's bodies unthinkable: in Michigan, the argument about reproductive rights proceeds as though the embryo were drifting about independently, rather than being carried within a woman who will have to give birth to and care for the eventual baby whether she wants to or not.
 
The lack of control that women have historically had over our reproductive organs is evident in the difficulty that we still have in naming them. Women are left hesitating between highly specific anatomical terms and The Worst Word In The Word, with a range of florid euphemisms in between. 
 
"Vagina" is a very useful word when you want to talk about the birth canal, but the part of the body you actually see is the lesser-mentioned vulva – that is, the exterior sexual organs including the clitoris. It's an essential distinction to be able to make, but it doesn't necessarily reflect the day-to-day user experience of owning female genitals, where the inside and outside seem like part of the same thing.
 
The V words are also quite formal, making using them a bit like addressing your own body by its surname. If you're potty training a girl toddler, telling her to "wipe her vagina" would be plain inaccurate and confusing, and yet many adults don't know (or aren't comfortable with) with the word "vulva". So instead, parents tend to fall back on euphemism – including the slightly tautological "front bottom". 
 
A bottom is at the bottom of your torso, obviously; saying "front bottom" makes it sound like we've resorted to Escher-ish tricks of perspective in order to conceal our ladybits. There are some colloquial alternatives – I've always quite liked "tuppence", ever since I heard a woman on the tram in Sheffield tell her stroller-bound toddler to "leave your flaming tuppence alone", and "fanny" has a good pedigree. But I still wasn't sure how to introduce my own daughter to her physiology on a friendly basis, so it was a relief when she volunteered the made-up word "nooni". 
 
For adults, the range is even wider – and stranger. There are the terms that imply violence and unease, ones that you'd never use about your own body like "axe wound", "gash" or "hairy clam". None of these are the kind of thing you could say to a lover – but then, the V words don't seem appropriate in that situation either. I'm inclined to agree with the person who told me, "During sex I'll accept 'pussy' but my preference is 'cunt'." 
 
The C-word is perhaps a bit strong for most situations – it's become more widely used in the last decade or so, but I don't remember hearing it until I was 18 (and can recall coming across the Bowdlerization "c***" in the NME and wondering urbanely why they'd starred out so mild a word as "crap"). But once you get used to it, there's something very pleasing about the way it fills the mouth from throat to teeth, and if anyone should get to wield that rhetorical power, I think by rights it ought to be the owner of the item.
 
But whether you've got a foof or a fandando, a growler or a ladygarden (or even an Iron Ladygarden), the important thing is that you're on first-name terms with it. As the Michigan incident tells us, those who want to control women's bodies also want to treat that body as an obscenity. The best answer to people like Mike Callton is simply to say the word: vagina, vagina, vagina.
The idea that an adult man could be distressed by the word "vagina" is hilarious

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Saudi Arabia is a brutal and extremist dictatorship – so why are we selling it arms?

With conflict in Yemen continuing, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of “our despots”.

This year, during Pride week, I noticed something curious on top of the Ministry of Defence just off Whitehall. At the tip of the building’s flagpole hung the rainbow flag – a symbol of liberation for LGBTIQ people and, traditionally, a sign of defiance, too.

I was delighted to see it, and yet it also struck me as surprising that the governmental headquarters of our military would fly such a flag. Not only because of the forces’ history of homophobia, but more strikingly to me because of the closeness of our military establishment to regimes such as Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is a sin punishable by jail, lashing and even death

That relationship has been under the spotlight recently. Ministers writhed and squirmed to avoid making public a report that’s widely expected to reveal that funding for extremism in Britain has come from Saudi Arabia. The pressure peaked last week, after a series of parliamentary questions I tabled, when survivors of 9/11 wrote to Theresa May asking her to make the report public. At the final PMQs of the parliamentary term last week, I again pressed May on the issue, but like so many prime ministers before her, she brushed aside my questioning on the link between British arms sales and the refusal to expose information that might embarrass the Riyadh regime. 

The British government’s cosy relationship with Riyadh and our habit of selling weapons to authoritarian regimes is “justified" in a number of ways. Firstly, ministers like to repeat familiar lines about protecting British industry, suggesting that the military industrial complex is central to our country’s economic success.

It is true to say that we make a lot of money from selling weapons to Saudi Arabia – indeed figures released over the weekend by the Campaign Against Arms Trade revealed that the government authorised exports including £263m-worth of combat aircraft components to the Saudi air force, and £4m of bombs and missiles in the six months from October 2016.

Though those numbers are high, arms exports is not a jobs-rich industry and only 0.2 per cent of the British workforce is actually employed in the sector. And let’s just be clear – there simply is no moral justification for employing people to build bombs which are likely to be used to slaughter civilians. 

Ministers also justify friendship and arms sales to dictators as part of a foreign policy strategy. They may be despots, but they are “our despots”. The truth, however, is that such deals simply aren’t necessary for a relationship of equals. As my colleague Baroness Jones said recently in the House of Lords:

"As a politician, I understand that we sometimes have to work with some very unpleasant people and we have to sit down with them and negotiate with them. We might loathe them, but we have to keep a dialogue going. However, we do not have to sell them arms. Saudi Arabia is a brutal dictatorship. It is one of the world’s worst Governments in terms of human rights abuses. We should not be selling it arms.”

With Saudi Arabia’s offensive against targets in Yemen continuing, and with UN experts saying the attacks are breaching international law, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of "our despots".

The government’s intransigence on this issue – despite the overwhelming moral argument – is astonishing. But it appears that the tide may be turning. In a recent survey, a significant majority of the public backed a ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and just this weekend the Mayor of London denounced the arms fair planned in the capital later this year. When the government refused to make the terror funding report public, there was near-universal condemnation from the opposition parties. On this issue, like so many others, the Tories are increasingly isolated and potentially weak.

Read more: How did the High Court decide weapon sales to Saudi Arabia are lawful?

The arms industry exists at the nexus between our country’s industrial and foreign policies. To change course we need to accept a different direction in both policy areas. That’s why I believe that we should accompany the end of arms exports to repressive regimes with a 21st century industrial policy which turns jobs in the industry into employment for the future. Imagine if the expertise of those currently building components for Saudi weaponry was turned towards finding solutions for the greatest foreign policy challenge we face: climate change. 

The future of the British military industrial establishment’s iron grip over government is now in question, and the answers we find will define this country for a generation. Do we stamp our influence on the world by putting our arm around the head-choppers of Riyadh and elsewhere, or do we forge a genuinely independent foreign policy that projects peace around the world – and puts the safety of British people at its core?

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.