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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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories