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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The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue