Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Jumping on the vagina bandwagon...

It's about that time - time for women all across the country to come together in groups to recite from the sort of feminist bible that is Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues.

There have been plenty of criticisms of Ensler, most notably for her fixation on vaginas as the thing that bonds all women together. Because - and I'll bet some of you may not know this - not all women have vaginas. Some women have had cancer, for example, and had to have their vaginas removed. (If that sounds strange to you, it's probably because we think of vaginas as holes, as the absence of something - but in fact, vaginas are muscular organs, and pretty amazing ones at that.) Other women may be intersex and may not have a vagina at all. And then there are also transwomen, who may or may not have vaginas, who may or may not see vaginas as something that is especially womanly or central to the definition of "woman". (And remember: there are also transmen with vaginas.)

She's also come under criticism because her interviews reflect a mostly heterosexual vaginal reflection. Because - and you probably knew this already - all those people with vaginas? They're not all heterosexual. And, let's face it - queer women frequently have more positive feelings about "down there" than do het women. I mean really - totally different conversation.

But the thing that's been bugging me most about Ensler is her insistence on the word "vagina" when what she and her narrators are talking about are actually vulvas.

The vulva, for the unitiated, would be the "outside part," the part with the labia and the clitoris. (And yes, I was just recently reading on someone's blog - I wish I could remember whose - a question about "innie" and "outie" vaginas. As someone pointed out, an "outie" vagina would be a very, very bad thing. It would be a prolapsed vagina. Ouch.)

And much of what Ensler's narrators are talking about is that "outside part" - hence, NOT their vaginas!

Perhaps this wouldn't bother me so much if not for the fact that there seems to be a real inability for pretty much everyone to call female anatomy by its name(s). We have no problem saying the words, like cunt and pussy, that have often been used as hateful slurs (thank GOD for feminists and lesbians and feminist lesbians who've led us in reclaiming these words). But when it comes right down to it, we can't talk about our bodies honestly.

"Why does it matter?" you may be thinking. Well, think of it this way. Would you ever refer to a scrotum as a penis? I think not. They are clearly two different things. So are vulvas and vaginas. Or, for a better analogy, so are mouths different from lips. And while we sometimes use the shorthand "mouth" to talk about the whole area, we can tell the difference between the lips and the tongue and the teeth and the throat. And we know where the uvula is.

Is it any wonder that we've got a significant population of people who can't find a clitoris on a map when we don't even know the difference between a vulva and a vagina?!

And, incidentally, to that nurse who asked me, when I was recovering from having given birth, if my "bottom" was sore, here's what I should have said:

"No, you nitwit! My 'bottom' is just fine. My 'bottom' did not just deliver a baby. My 'bottom' is perfectly content!"

But of course, I couldn't really correct a nurse, could I? I mean, what kind of vulgar person uses words the medical staff wouldn't even use - you know? And so the silence about "down there" persists, even among medical professionals, whom you'd think would have at least something invested in using proper terminology.

And as for the term "front bottoms": Good lord! Who came up with THAT?! My precious female parts are NOT the equivalent of an asshole!

So, women, I propose we reclaim the vulva. Let's call it what it is. Let's get t-shirts that read "It's a VULVA, you idiot!" And here's a little inspiration for vulvactivism...


Anonymous said...

"And, let's face it - queer women frequently have more positive feelings about "down there" than do het women."

Hmmm, is that so? As someone who is both pretty close to stone, and bisexual, I'm not entirely sure about that. Which female-bodied queers, exactly, are we talking about here? And are we talking about their relationships to their own genitals, or to women's, or both?

Anonymous said...

to other people's... I can't type worth a crap.

I was trying to say "other women's" but... many female-assigned queers are not. My correcting that got lost in the shuffle totally. Bleh.

Anonymous said...

While I totally agree on the silliness of "front bottom" and our general discomfort with accurate naming, isn't it possible that Eve Ensler's focus on "vagina" is a direct result of the monologues? If you wanted to write a play about mouths, including essays about lips and teeth and tongues, you would probably not call it the "mouth lip teeth tongue show" - and in choosing "vagina" instead of "the 'down there' monologues," she chose what is, for many the hardest of the correct terms to say.

Plain(s)feminist said...

I do think that lesbian and bisexual women are more comfortable with their own and other women's genitals than are straight women. There are so many love letters to the vagina, vulva, and clit in queer women's writings (much like gay men's writings include love letters to the penis).

Pseudo - It's not the title that bothers me, or even that she uses it throughout the monologues. It's when she uses it in anatomically incorrect ways, like talking about hair on vaginas, or some such thing. I think that promotes confusion. I wouldn't want her to call it "The 'Down There' Monologues," but I would have liked to see her use "vulva" frequently and correctly.

SallySunshine said...

Hell yes, I'm in complete agreement here! I was amazed by how many of my hetero friends have never had an orgasm, and found receiving oral sex to be extremely uncomfortable and embarrassing. How awful! I'd hate to feel that way about my body. But, I've also been with other gay/bi women who are quite shy about their bodies as well. I think it probably depends on each individual person. My ex-girlfriend was very uncomfortable with her sexuality until we broke each other in- metaphorically speaking, of course. :)

Anonymous said...

Personally, the only really terrible sex I've ever had was with a woman, so I get pretty twitchy when I see the "lesbians are so much better and more understanding than men" thing. I'm sure a lot of people have found that sex with women has been less awwkward and more fulfilling than sex with men... but honestly...

the one time I was fingered consensually and thought I might die from the pain? Girl.

In my personal experience men tend to know that they don't know everything. Women tend to think they must be better lovers, forget that different women have totally different preferences, etc. It actually makes me a bit leery of getting involved again with lesbians, but I'm sure I'll get over that.

Anonymous said...

Eh, I sound really oogy there.

I don't mean to suggest that i don't know many hetero women have really really unsatisfying sex lives. I see it all the time.

And it's not really that I don't want to be involved with lesbians -- it's that I've seen certain lesbians who seem to think that they are perfect without effort because men are so ignorant that they must be goddesses. It's that kind of lesbian I'm not interested in. The kind that thinks my bisexuality is some sort of weird hankering, despite women's vastly better skill, understanding, patience, feminism, etc.

And honestly, the best head I've gotten came from a relatively inexperienced man, not the woman who loved to claim she had so much experience and skill and "knew" in a way men couldn't because she had a vulva too.

Plain(s)feminist said...

Well - I wasn't really meaning to imply that women who have sex with women are better lovers. I just meant that women who have sex with women generally like vaginas and vulvas and all of it, whereas women who don't, often think their own genitals are "icky" and seldom have the opportunity to see other women's. So it's something they have less experience with, and it's unfamiliar and strange.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for this topic. I've seen your writings on the net and didn't know you had a blog and I'm really happy to have found yours.

Thank you for the respect you show to our genitals.

I was heterosexual in the seventies and came out as lesbian in the early eighties about the time that we lost the ERA. I'd have to say that both my vagina and vulva have take on different meanings over the decades.

As a heterosexual woman, to me, sexually my vagina was what he fucked. I didn't really feel it was wholly mine as it was his receptacle for sexual release. It's funny but I used to have lots of vaginitis as heterosexual. I used to try everythig to get rid of it as I went down the list in Our bodies ourselves. By the time I got to the end I was using turkey basters filled with acidophilus and standing on my head to get rid of the "ITCH" and that's what my vagina was.

It changed somehow when I partnered with women in ways where words seem frail vehicles for lack of depth. With a loving caring partner my vagina is a way i can open to her and take her in and love and nurture her as she does me. It became a way to share myself as opposed to a way to be fucked.

I am from the old school and I never talk about my vagina per se. On the other hand I'm happy to talk about the spirituality around it. I find that's diminishing and disappearing.

We still don't have good ways to about warm moist places. Vagina is latina and means "sheath of the sword". Ouch. Somehow that stii portrays me passive as the holder of the "real action".

Everyonce in a while I'd like to write poety, non-graphic, non-erotic poetry and did you know there really no poetic words for clitoris?

There's "pearl", "rosebud" but somehow those seem to have a 1950s kind a cloyed femininity to them. I am feminine but in such a way that I need pearl or rosebud to talk about my partners clitoris (privately of course). The point is, we haven't even began to name the names and have loving words for our genitals.

Trin, I think you had a lot of good point but I had a hard time with some of your language. I really hate when woman adopt men's language. "You received good head"? That's "head" refers to the head of the penis. You... one of the things I love about being with other women and that I don't have to listen to men's insensitivity to women. That's why it hurts hearing it come from other women.

Anonymous said...

It is simply and sadly true that American women took a wrong turn 40-50 years ago, when they wrongly decided that their preferred polite term for the pink bits would be "vagina" instead of the anatomically correct "vulva." "Vagina" (probably pronounced "wahgueena") was the Roman soldier's term for his scabbard.

A few years back, Betty Dodson saw the Monologues in New York, then wrote a sharply critical essay about it. That essay captured a fair bit of my distaste for the Monologues.

Trin, your bi experiences do not surprise me. All people, not just men, need to "think before you lick" about doing oral on a woman.