When our language is laced with sexism when the words defining our bodies inherently objectify us when it’s so deeply ingrained that we don’t even realize it, how are we to be empowered? It’s a daunting question, but one thing is simple: we can begin by changing our awareness. So, let’s begin, shall we? And where better to begin than with “vagina?”
It’s surely the most popular “part” of the female “parts” — the only one we ever really recognize. It was the first and only term I heard describing female genitals — from my doctor, from sex-ed, from the media, from my mom. And yet, it’s Latin for…a “sword sheath”? Well, it was — until we realized what a wonderful metaphor it is for the female genital canal.
Until the 17th century, vagina was Latin for a “sheath” or “scabbard” for a sword. And yes, the Latin word for sword, gladius, was used to refer to penises.
The metaphor’s misogyny
Accepted by our social consciousness centuries ago, this misogyny has been integrated beyond our awareness level, and we unconsciously carry it forward to this day. Let’s unpack the objectifying implications:
- A sword-sheath is an unfeeling object.
- A sword-sheath exists to be used by a sword.
- A sword-sheath neither needs to nor can consent.
- A sword-sheath is the possession of someone with a sword.
- A sword-sheath is penetrated by a sword at the will of the sword-holder.
- A vagina is an unfeeling object.
- A vagina exists to be used by a penis.
- A vagina neither needs to nor can consent.
- A vagina is the possession of someone with a penis.
- A vagina is penetrated by a penis at the will of the penis-possessor.
Oh, and since swords are used to damage and dominate, penises should be used to damage and dominate, too — which they unfortunately are.
How it’s relevant today
If you’re thinking: The word is centuries old! No one even knows the original Latin meaning! It’s not relevant! Well, is the misogyny underlying this word still relevant? Yes. Are its objectifying implications present in 21st-century attitudes and actions? Yes. Do people still use penises to violently violate others’ bodies? Yes. Is the female body perceived as an object for male pleasure? Yes. So…is this issue still incredibly relevant? Yes.
The attitude behind this metaphor — that the female body is an object for the use and pleasure of penises — is the same attitude that:
- Has entitled men to centuries of rape and sexual violence — and continues to do so.
- Perpetuates oppressive sexual norms (pushing intercourse as the sexual standard — though the majority of vagina-owners won’t orgasm from it).
- Perceives female-bodied people as objects, refuting their autonomy, personhood, and intelligence.
- Invalidates queer sexualities and identities.
The list goes on. As does the list of issues with “vagina.”
The Vulva/Vagina Misnomer
“It is true that Americans do not excise the clitoris and ablate the labia, as is practiced in other cultures on countless girls and women. Instead, we do the job linguistically — psychic genital mutilation, if you will. Language can be as powerful and swift as the surgeon’s knife. What is not named does not exist.”
– Dr. Harriet Lerner (clinical psychologist, researcher, author) as published in the Chicago Tribune
“Vagina” is constantly used as a catch-all for female genitalia. In case you’re not aware, the vagina is only the muscular canal from the external genitals to the cervix of the uterus. The vulva, on the other hand, encompasses all external female genitalia (the glans clitoris, labia majora and minora, mons pubis, urethral opening, prepuce, fourchette, vaginal opening, and perineum). Parts of the vulva, like the clitoris, are key to female orgasm.
While the vast majority of people with penises can orgasm from intercourse alone, the vast majority (roughly 75%) of people with vaginas can’t. They need the stimulation of the vulva. Yet, we linguistically, psychologically, sexually, and societally neglect the vulva’s mere existence, constantly reducing female genitalia to just a vagina.
Reducing the whole of female genitalia to just the literal hole reduces the female body to what’s most important for heterosexual male pleasure, to the exclusion and erasure of female pleasure.
At first blush, a seemingly innocent reduction, this misnomer is found guilty of many significant offenses: contributing to orgasm inequality, oppressive sexual dynamics, sexual violence, and the pervasive shame, confusion, and stigma surrounding female sexuality.
Moral of the story: if you’re not specifically and exclusively talking about the muscular canal leading from the vulva to the cervix, you’re not talking about a vagina. Don’t call it a vagina. Period. (No pun intended.) Case closed.
To reclaim or replace?
But, what if you do mean to specifically and exclusively refer to the vagina? Well, the English language doesn’t currently offer a wholly un-oppressive alternative to “vagina.” One option, of course, is reclamation. Perhaps you can reclaim it as the sword-sheath for the proverbial sword you use to fight the patriarchy. Or, perhaps you’ll continue using “vagina,” just so that every time you use it, you can be like: “Oh, SPEAKING of vaginas…are you aware of the oppressive context behind this word???” Both are respectable strategies.
But, perhaps you can’t reclaim “vagina.” Or, perhaps you don’t want to. Perhaps you want to forge a new word in the fires of feminism! I mean, that’s what one woman did in Sweden, and it actually worked out pretty well. Anna Kosztovics helped coin a new word for female genitals that’s now widely accepted and even included in the Swedish dictionary. Since the existing words for female genitalia were largely sexualized, crude, or pejorative in some way (sound familiar?), there wasn’t the appropriate language to use with children.
As a social worker who often visited daycare schools, Kosztovics noticed how teachers would tell male students to “dry their willy” but tell female students to simply “dry yourself.” Realizing that the avoidance of discussing female genitalia contributes to societal taboos, stigma, and shame, Kosztovics saw the need for a new word. Thus, the movement for ‘snippa’ was born. In the wake of its success, Kosztovics has called for English-speakers to create new language describing female genitals.
A few new options
In my modest attempt to answer Kosztovics’ call, I’ve crafted a few alternative terms to offer you. While you don’t have to take them too seriously, I do hope they’ll catalyze your creativity and exploration:
For the rebels: “Non-Birthing Canal”
- The traditional “birth canal” obviously doesn’t make the cut for un-oppressive alternatives, since female humans and their bodies do exist for more than birthing children. But so long as the “canal” in question is not presently in the process of birthing…“non-birthing canal” is both accurate, and charmingly subversive!
For the tough types: “Muscular Canal”
- Want to sound as powerful and mighty as you are — on both the literal and figurative inside?Well, “muscular canal” might be just perfect. It boasts accuracy, muscularity, and a lovely, mildly intimidating ring to it.
For the minimalists: “Canal” or “Tube”
- This is for you minimalists out there – sleek, single word options, with no sacrifice of accuracy!
For the Latin lovers: “Tubus”
- If you’re a stickler for deriving anatomical names from an obsolete language, “tubus” (the Latin word for “tube”) has got you covered. In addition to its old-world charm and, of course, its accuracy, “tubus” has a similar phonological structure to “penis.” If that’s not #equality, I don’t know what is! Best of all, if someone tells you that “tubus” sounds absurd, it’s a perfect opportunity to enlighten them about what’s truly absurd…the oppressive, original meaning of vagina! This one’s sure to be a winner.
Of course, I won’t be offended if these terms don’t feel right for you, but I encourage you to explore what does.
What’s most important is that we each discover the language that honors our bodies and our beings — that recognizes our beauty and strength — that affirms our personhood and power.
That language might look different for each of us. It might include “vagina,” or it might not. What matters is we each stand in our power, authentically and unapologetically. It can be difficult to do so amidst a world that does not equip or encourage us for such endeavors. But where the world has failed and fallen short, we must take the wheel and pick up the torch.