Friday, November 22, 2013

Why, why, why, "vagina"?

This has been bugging me for a while. What I'm about to rant about is nothing new. Thousands, probably millions, of feminists have ranted about it before me, and will have ranted about it better too. But this has been building for a long time, and it may be therapeutic for me to finally just write this down and emancipate myself from the rage. So here goes:


Now that that is out of the way, allow me to clarify. Vaginas are wonderful, magnificent parts of a woman's anatomy. They can give birth; give pleasure. They're strong and resilient. And somewhere along the way they have managed to become the only part of a woman's genitalia that's worth mentioning. In fact, the word has morphed and the wonderfully complex variety of folds, nerves, mounds down there are all collectively and colloquially as "the vagina". At the end of the day, that's the only really important bit, right?

Well no. It really isn't. To suggest it is is about as heteronormative and misogynistic as you can get. It undoes a fair chunk of work those feminists back in the 70s did of not only ensuring women knew their genitalia had different parts that are all important, but also re-including clitorises in medical textbooks after they had been omitted for decades. I'm not being over-the-top here, I promise. It's just that I can't think of a single time where I have heard the entirety of a man's genitalia referred to as "the penis". Generally speaking, we tend to acknowledge that there are other bits there that have importance and refer to them accordingly.

Yes, occasionally we do hear about the other parts of female genitalia, but at this point in time, they hardly seem to be being celebrated. Sometimes the clitoris is mentioned as a source of pleasure, but if women's sexual pleasure was actually central then I have to wonder why we don't hear the entire area being referred to as the "clitoris" rather than the "vagina". To be crude about it, I feel it's really no coincidence that the bit that gets a penis inserted into it in good, clean, heterosexual, reproductive sex is the part that is centralised. 

Sometimes this manifests in funny, or rather shallow ways. The Great Wall of Vagina; supposed to be celebrating the amazing variety and uniqueness of women's genitalia; doesn't actually feature a single vagina. The artist states
For many women their genital appearance is a source of anxiety and I was in a unique position to do something about that" yet ironically chose to use the name of the bit you can't actually see in his moulds because it is internal as the title for his work. 101 Vagina does actually go to great lengths explaining the choice of the title of this word in quite a valid way, until you get to the claim that the term "vagina" carries more stigma than the term "vulva". I don't actually agree with that claim. Sure, I think society is utterly terrified by vaginas and their bearers. At least though vaginas seem to be seen as essential. They're not seen as expendable like the poor vulva-situated labia minora seems to be according to the vast increase in labiaplasty over the past 10 years.

101 Vagina also argues that the word "vagina" has both anatomical and colloquial meaning and that both these meanings have validity. I agree with that, but would argue that there is no point acknowledging there is a colloquial understanding of a term unless you're willing to examine why this may have came about and what it signifies. Additionally, it seems to me that proudly using the word "vagina" is part of a reclamation exercise many feminists are undertaking to remove shame from the term and actually celebrate women's genitalia. Considering that the most offensive swear word in the English language at this point in time is a word used to describe women's genitalia, it's a perfectly understandable reclamation. But what exactly are we reclaiming here? And why wouldn't we reclaim the lot of it, proudly naming each and every part and celebrating their unique functions?     

What I'd argue we're reclaiming is a simplistic understanding of women's anatomy that is also quite heteronormative and potentially quite harmful. Previously mentioned, I do have to wonder if a lack of pride and reclamation of the other parts may contribute to some severe body issues. The rise in labiaplasty has been well-documented, and a great deal of it has been attributed to pornography where short labia minora are zoomed in for a close-up. Other sources include Australian decency laws which deem that the female genital area needs to be “neat and tidy”. Of course if the main sources of comparison are either chopped or “shopped”, women may start to believe they're not normal, but could the idea that these are secondary parts when compared to the vagina be contributing? What about that wonderful pleasure centre; the clitoris? A great percentage of women have never experienced an orgasm in their lives, and I have to wonder again if the view that the clitoris is somewhat secondary to the vagina might be interfering with the sexual enjoyment of a lot of women.

Admittedly, when I have heard of women getting their “vagina waxed”, I may have giggled to myself picturing an extraordinarily contortive woman, or alternatively mused about odd medical conditions. I hardly claim to be mature... I also admit that I have previously been curious about these many artistic works geared around celebrating women's anatomy, at one stage even pondering taking part in such a project. I eventually decided not to after thinking on it because ultimately I do think it is more powerful to emancipate ourselves entirely from the notion of any sort of “normal” here. None of us look the same anywhere else so why do we need to prove that we're not the same when it comes to genitalia by putting it on display? Can't we teach acceptance and diversity by reinforcing body positivity all over from the time a girl is young? For me, the real issue is how female bodies are continually scrutinised from the time they are born into this world, and perhaps less focus on how any woman looks anywhere may assist.

But I've diverged. The crux of the original matter for me is this: we need to start naming and understanding the entirety of a woman's genitalia. Focussing on the vagina ends up framing it as the most important bit. It also possibly frames PiV sex as the most important type, and it potentially leads to the rest of the area being seen as secondary. Words do have colloquial meanings, but those meanings always come from somewhere. Frankly, when it comes to my own anatomy and the anatomy of other women, I'd prefer not to reinforce the ideas that led to the colloquialism forming as I think it's limiting and potentially damaging. I'm all for reclaiming terms related to women's anatomy but I would prefer that it is done comprehensively and accurately so that we're celebrating an entire area and informing women of the importance of these parts. Referring constantly to “the vagina” doesn't do this.

Reckon that's about it ;)


  1. Just wondering if "vagina 101" has anything to do with "Cliteracy" which i saw not long back via FB. As I read your piece I thought of it.,d.aGc

  2. THIS. So much this. Well said - you've articulated my views on this precisely, and better than I would have. It doesn't help that, for instance, the Victorian Crimes Act defines "vagina" as including the external genitalia and labia - so for example, an offence involving touching the clitoris has to be particularised as "penetration of the vagina", which is a concept I have a difficulty with on the grounds of logic, accuracy, and because of its unconscious reinforcement of this reductive concept of women's genitalia being limited to "the vagina".

  3. hi, I've just found this blog and I've enjoyed the first couple of posts I've read. usually I browse blogs without commenting but the way you're equating vaginas (and the associated biology) with womanhood is cissexist and I need to point it out. not all people assigned female at birth are women, and not all women are assigned female at birth. for all that this post has its valuable points to make, the language it uses is excluding & harmful to transgender & non-binary people.