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What do you call yours?

July 24th, 2005

Dr Petra

I get a lot out of reading other people’s advice columns – and usually they teach me a lot personally and professionally.

And then again sometimes they don’t.

Like today.

The Observer magazine was devoted to answering reader problems. I can’t speak for the quality of the advice on fashion, gardening, nutrition and interiors, but the relationship advice was let down by the usual problem that the person giving the advice wasn’t as knowledgeable as they might be.

Which is why they got into a bit of a pickle over a question from a reader about naming female genitalia. The reader asked ‘boys have willies. What do girls have?…I have two-year-old-twin girls…and they know the name for all the body parts, bar one. Vagina is too technical, and fanny – though I don’t mind the word – some people think is rude. As a child I used willy, but others tell me this is only for boys and will cause confusion. We need an answer and to stop this confusion about the naming of our girls’ fannies, willies, vaginas. Help!’.

The reply wasn’t a great deal of help. The reader was pointed in the direction of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues for some ideas on names for the female genitalia and that was about it.

The trouble is many people struggle with this issue – and it’s the place of those set up as sex or relationship experts to help with the naming and celebrating of our genitals.

Sadly there’s a long history of shame and embarrassment linked particularly with female genitalia, meaning parents, teachers, health professionals, friends and lovers get tongue tied when it’s time to describe or discuss female anatomy.

The most commonly used approach is to describe the female body in contrast to the male – usually incorrectly and in terms of disadvantage – with parents and teachers saying things like “boys have a penis and girls don’t”, or “girls have a mini penis”, or “boys have a penis and girls have a vagina which is like a penis turned inside out”.

Anyone who paid attention in biology would know that in fact the penis is simply an overgrown clitoris, rather than a clitoris being an inadequate and stumpy dick. Furthermore direct comparisons of clits and dicks aren’t helpful since the clitoris is so much more sensitive than the penis – and unlike the penis is the only organ purely devoted to giving pleasure.

How odd then that it rarely gets a mention in sex education materials for young people, or in the case of the Observer magazine’s advice, is not mentioned at all.

Alternatively descriptors are used where the male penis and balls are given distinct descriptions, whilst female genitalia are all incorrectly called “vagina”. So the clitoris and labia (which most young girls are aware of) are replaced by the term “vagina” that may not be so important to them just yet.

Those are the clinical terms of course. When it comes to slang terms it’s just as difficult since most terms you use to insult another relate to the female sex organs.

Hardly surprising then that if you grow up with either no words to describe your pleasure organs, or are led to believe they are bad or dirty, or the only words you have to describe them are bad or dirty ones, then how can you find yourself desirable, or communicate any sexual needs to a partner.

Frequently women feel embarrassment, shame or disgust when having to think or talk about their sex organs. Whilst those like Eve Ensler have done a lot to bring the vagina out of the closet, the clit remains firmly shut away. If as a child your parents can’t even work out what to call your vulva and vagina, or they use boys genitalia as a descriptor, or more likely say nothing at all or use coy descriptors like ‘tinkle’, then how can you feel a sense of pride or celebration about your body?

Until parents and teachers feel enabled to unselfconsciously describe female genitals positively, accurately and without comparison to the male, and until the clitoris can get the status it truly deserves, then women will continue to struggle in naming and experiencing desire.

How sad then, that when asked, certain agony aunts remain struck silent.

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