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Vagina vagina vaginaaaaaaa!! Feminism’s hot new-old word

2012 June 16
by Zoe Strimpel

"Woohoo for my froofroo" reads this ad for a "feminine hygiene" product. I'll take vagina over "froo froo" any day, thank you very much.

Vagina. Vagina. I’m going to say it again. Vagina. Oh, vagina.  Vaginas. Vagina-tastic. Vaginosity. Vaginarific. Vagina. Your vagina. Our vagina. America’s angry collective vagina.

Only a month ago, the above lines would have been enough to bring me out in a confluence of violent skin reactions and a touch of gut upset. Perhaps I exaggerate, but the fact is, before the blogosphere (read: Jezebel), and American media and politics went completely bananas about vaginas – the word and the thing – I still thought of the v-word as a bit of an uncomfortable one. A bit out there, if you will.

It was this squeamishness that led me to pitch – and write – a piece for Sunday Times Style exploring the surprising extent of society’s (well, British society’s) revulsion to the word vagina which – you’ll notice – far exceeds its colleague, the penis, in scare-factor. For example, nobody feels the need to call penises “the p-word”. Specifically, it was the reaction of faint scorn mixed with nose-crinkling that I observed in people hearing the title of Naomi’s Wolf’s forthcoming book, The Vagina: A New Biography, that led me to pitch the piece.

I maintain that “vagina” is still not a comfortable word in the UK. Of the numerous people I interviewed for the article, almost none said: “Vagina? What of it?” Men complained it was a horribly unsexy word that could not in any circumstances be compatible with a sexual situation. One man said it violently evoked “seriousness”, “feminism”, “science”, “your mother talking about sex” and a “big bush”. Other said it was “just rank” and “only ever to be used in a medical situation”. People said: “oh, it’s such a clinical word, you see, that’s why we hate it”. Well, clearly “vagina” fares even more poorly than other “clinical” words. Do people think that breast, prostate, epiglotis, glans, or molar are “rank” words? Or – for that matter – “penis”? They do, in general, not.

But it appears that – as ever – the Americans are a little ahead of us (can you imagine a British feminist writing a biography of “the vagina”?). Or rather, a little more insane than us. Over the last few weeks, the word “vagina” and discussions about its use and misuse and associated perceptions has had so much airtime that I have basically ceased to see the word as any stranger, or more evocative, than “ear”.

There are several reasons “the vagina” has had so much coverage lately. One, many left-leaning (and sane) Americans feel the Republicans eg Rush Limbaugh – with their invasive pre-abortion probes and other outrageous, backward interferences with female reproductive health – are just getting WAY too up into women’s biz-ness. Indeed the vagina, as portrayed by Democrat noise-makers of a certain ilk, is once again the battleground for the Republicans’ new War on Women. Dan Savage, the sex podcaster, recently suggested women flood the in-boxes of incriminating, vag-bothering senators and other lawmakers with PDF images of their nethers to give them the nice long stare that they clearly want – and crash their servers. A woman from Colorado has set up a group called Government Free VJJ that makes and then posts knitted, beaded, embroidered, crocheted and patchwork quilted vaginas, cervixes, wombs and clitorises for the same purpose. Sings the website: “Let’s make a uterus or VJJ for each male rep in congress!”

With notoriety comes coolness.  “Vagina” has become a hipster word across the pond, an utterance announcing easy yet shrewd sexual self-knowledge tinged with just the right amount of feminist grit. In Girls, the hit HBO show, there is constant frank talk about “vaginas” – embarrassment is dead in their brave new world of sexual green lights. The other week, the LA Times actually ran a piece headlined:  “‘Vagina,’ once unmentionable, has become a fashionable term.” I can see cocktails turning up in Brooklyn called things like Vagina on the Rocks and Vagina Straight Up and Dirty and A Monologue in V. Bars will start opening called: “Does my vagina look big in this?” In that vein, Jezebel has a whole “vagina” category and has – in the last few months – run stories including: How to Make Your Vagina Taste Awesome and Quiet Down Vaginas, The Boners are Talking.

But for all the easy vaginal references, the word still signifies trouble. In the US, where abortion rights are a monstrously live issue, it has become a vessel of dark and heavy political cargo. Just this week, state representative Lisa Brown, concluding her opposition speech at a debate on a bill that would restrict abortion in a number of ways, finished with: “Finally, Mr Speaker, I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina, but no means no.” She was then banned indefinitely – along with another female state rep – from speaking on the floor of the state house.

Back in Britain, our abortion rights seem mostly in tact, but our distaste at the word “vagina” persists. The dark side to this revulsion is that it does not offer any alternatives. Well, alternatives that anyone would actually use in any situation on earth bar a comedy-porno. “Smelly jelly hole”, “penis house”, “slobbering bulldog”, “sausage wallet” “foofy bird”, “trout basket” and “vertical grimace” – to select just a few – are hardly viable. More mainstream words aren’t much better – you’ve got the pathetic floral words like “flower” and “lala”; the weird, historical, forceful ones like “cunt” and “quim”, the porny gross ones like “pussy” and “twat” and the Mooncup-evoking ones like “yoni”.

Vaginas are busy at the moment – busier than ever, you might say, in our hyper-“sexual” culture. And when it comes to a satisfactory word for the lady-nethers, the old V is the best we’ve got, so we might as well make like the Americans and get comfy with it. Otherwise, we condemn women to live their sexual lives in a verbal hinterland of quasi-references, potential distaste and pointless mystery.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Aaron permalink
    June 16, 2012

    I wonder, would attitudes be any different if it were more widely known that the word is technically a euphemism in itself? I as I understand it it’s simply the latin for ‘sheath’. Maybe if people remembered coould think to themselves that ‘well, it’s not the ‘real’ word anyhow’ they’d be more comfortable with using it?

  2. Andrew Nott permalink
    June 27, 2012

    Your article in the ST left me rather depressed. Are we really, in 2012, so unable to enjoy intimacy even in terms of language? Personally I love vaginas but I usually refer to them as fannies.

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