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.