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Thinking Sexy Thoughts, Installment one: A Vagina by many other names

What you think is your vagina might not be your vagina at all

by Julie Saint-Mleux

photo via flickr
photo via flickr

Think peach and pussy are not the best words to describe your sexual organs? Guess what, vagina might not be a better choice.

If you are the proud owner of female genitalia, chances are you have been raised to think this part of you was called a vagina. And you would not be entirely wrong. But there’s the rub: there is much more going on between your legs than just a vagina.

There seems to be a consensus in the English speaking world to use the word vagina when referring to female genitals. From childhood, most of us are told that "boys have a penis, girls have a vagina". Very few people question that terminology. Even the Great Wall of Vagina, a recent project that aims to "change female body image through art", and that recognizes the more accurate term of vulva in its self-description ("a sculpture made from plaster casts of 400 women’s vulvas"), uses the term vagina in its title despite the fact that the display actually represents vulvas.*

There are a few reasons why calling your private parts a vagina is problematic. Whether you focus on the inherent anatomic or semantic inaccuracies, it has the unfortunate consequence of depicting female sexuality in 1) mostly reproductive terms (as opposed to highlighting pleasure) and 2) a mostly heteronormative framework. It also constitutes an obstacle to a healthy relationship with one’s own body.

Anatomical inaccuracies

 

Anatomically speaking, the vagina is "an elastic, muscular canal [that] connects the uterus to the outside world. The vagina receives the penis during sexual intercourse and also serves as a conduit for menstrual flow from the uterus. During childbirth, the baby passes through the vagina (birth canal)." (source: WebMD)

 

This definition reminds us that the vagina is an internal structure. It does not refer to the entirety of the female genitalia, which also include, among other things, the pubic bone, the labia (minora and majora), the urethral opening, and last but certainly not least, the clitoris. There’s all kinds of stuff going on in that area! The vagina is only one of those structures. But maybe this is exactly where the issue lies. There must be a reason why this one specific structure gets all the attention, to the point of becoming synonym with female genitalia.

Before we move onto investigating that potential reason, let’s take a moment to ponder another type of vagina-induced inaccuracy:

Semantic inaccuracies

Calling your genitalia vagina is not only inaccurate from an anatomical standpoint. It also makes no sense from a semantic point of view. The linguistically inclined will indeed have noticed the blatant example of metonymy: "a figure of speech consisting of the use of the name of one thing for that of another of which it is an attribute or with which it is associated" (source: Merriam-Webster). Or, to put it more simply, let’s just say that calling the female genitalia “vagina” makes as much sense as calling "mouth" your entire face.

As Australian feminist and academic Germaine Greer pointed out in her criticism of the Vagina Monologues a few years ago*, "'vagina' is the nastiest kind of name for the female genitalia, because it is the Latin for "sword-sheath". There is more to the female sex than accommodation of a male weapon, and much more to female sexual apparatus than a hole."

Interestingly, the word “vanilla” has the same etymology, which gives a whole other dimension to this discussion.

Late 17th century saw the apparition of the term vagina, but we don’t know if it was immediately used as a synonym for female genitalia. What we do know is that the scientific community equates “vulva” with external female genitalia, but acknowledges the colloquial use of “vagina”.

Some thirteen years after Greer’s intervention, things don’t appear to have changed all that much: despite her calling the inaccuracy to our collective attention, the word vagina still is the term of choice when it comes to evoking female genitalia. This can be surprising to native speakers of other languages. In French, for example, the word “vulve” (vulva) is commonly used to describe the external female genitals, while “vagin” (vagina) specifically refers to the internal structure.

Let’s see what kind of consequences focusing on the vagina can have.

A focus on reproduction, at the expense of pleasure

As is often the case when it comes to sexual fallacies, the focus on reproduction might be the culprit here. Hippocrates, prominent figure in the history of medicine, thought the clitoris was indispensable to reproduction, and consequently considered it to play an important role in the sexual act. By the nineteenth century, however, we knew how reproduction really works, and the vagina took over as the most important structure. Even Freud, despite his acknowledgement of the clitoris and his understanding of the importance of pleasure, stated that a "real woman" should experience the orgasm vaginally, not via the clitoris.

The problem is, many experts question the existence of the "vaginal orgasm" entirely. Research has shown that the vagina contains very few nerve endings, preventing this structure from experiencing intense sensations (which is a desirable thing when you consider childbirth, and which is also why a properly inserted tampon is often not felt whatsoever). The ever-neglected clitoris, in comparison, contains more nerve endings than any body part: 8000 for such a small thing, vs 4000 to 6000 for the penis. In fact the clitoris is the only body part that has the unique function of providing pleasure. It reacts similarly to the penis (blood afflux, increase in size).

Sure, the ins and outs of the vagina are important, but focusing on it creates a limited vision of sexuality that dismisses "pleasure for its own sake", or considers it subsidiary at best. According to Ellen Laan, associate professor at the University of Amsterdam, the concept of anorgasmy (frigidity) has increasingly been replaced by “preorgasmy”, as science discovers that many healthy women with a clitoris are able to easily reach an orgasm… once they have learned how.

What is certain is that for many women, vaginal penetration is not the central aspect of a pleasurable sexual life – it might be a nice “side dish“, but a stimulation of the clitoris (direct or indirect) leads to the bulk of the enjoyment. How can we attest to the whole range of female sexual pleasure when we call their genitals “vagina”?

Found guilty of heteronormativity

Sexual intercourse is often equated with penetration involving both a penis and a vagina, as illustrated by Bill Clinton’s claim that he did not “have sex with that woman“ (as if oral sex somehow did not qualify as a sexual act). This might also be why we often hear that “two women cannot possibly have sex“.

Sexual intercourse, despite what some will argue, does not equal vaginal penetration, and does not necessarily involve a penis. Not only is this vision reductionist, it is also heteronormative (straight-male centered to be precise). The whole range of possible sexual activity deserves to be accounted for. When you get down to it, focusing on the vagina not only presents a misleading picture of female sexual pleasure, it also dismisses a good part of homosexual activity. Has the vagina been “chosen” as the most important part of the female genitalia because of its “yin/yan” relationship to the penis? This hypothesis reinforces the idea of a heterosexual-centered view.

Relationship to your body – revisited

When was the last time you washed your vagina? Hopefully, never. Your vagina doesn’t need to be washed. Ever. Doing so will be useless at best, and will give you a nice little infection at worst. The confusion could be damageable. As Greer points out: "[The Vagina Monologues] tells a cautionary tale about a woman whose husband insisted on shaving her vagina, a procedure that is not only impossible but unimaginable."

Your vulva, on the contrary, does call for some self-care and attention. When you wipe after using the bathroom, it’s the vulva you’re wiping. When you take a bath, it’s your vulva you’re cleaning. When you put on your underwear, it’s your vulva you’re covering. And in most cases, your first experiences of masturbation will also mostly involve your vulva. Any true “encounter” with your vagina will only come later…or, for some people, never.

In any case, unless they have a) a hand mirror b) a good flashlight c) a speculum and d) an actual desire to literally look inside themselves, most women will never really see their vagina - not past the exterior opening anyway. The more approachable vulva and its various bits and pieces, on the other hand, are there to be discovered and taken care of, and can be a source of pride. Once you realize that you actually possess more than “a hole”, penis envy kind of goes out the window.

As Joyce McFadden, psychoanalist and researcher, put it nicely:

 

“If our little girls are raised to believe that boys have a penis but girls have a “down there,” we need to understand these girls will likely grow into women who, even in the new millennium, confuse their vulvas with their vaginas. Along the way, they’ll be at risk of seeing their bodies as the property of boys because they haven’t been supported in developing a sense of ownership over their own bodies, and this will put them at risk of unintended pregnancy as well as make them more susceptible to not knowing how to advocate for their safety in potentially dangerous situations. And ultimately, they’re more likely to end up in long-term relationships or marriages in which they’re sexually unhappy.”

Replacing the word vagina with the more encompassing term of vulva constitutes a good starting point for a healthy discussion of female sexuality. This is empowering: the better you know your body, the more you can use it for your own enjoyment (as opposed to using it solely to please others). If you have a partner, s/he will also benefit from this knowledge and self-confidence.

*http://www.greatwallofvagina.co.uk/about

**The Telegraph, 2002 : http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/drama/3573861/This-V-word-is-no-victory-for-women.html

***J Sex Med. 2009 May; The clitoral complex: a dynamic sonographic study. Foldes P. and Buisson, O.

The Halifax Media Co-op acknowledges the financial support of Venus Envy Halifax in helping to make this article possible.


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