Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Holy CRAP!  I Have a Daughter
Part 2
by Kim Lane

My husband and I have been in the throes of name confusion this month. I look at him and shrug. He looks back at me and shrugs. Shrugs abound.

With our first child it was so easy -- a piece of body-naming cake.

Penis, penis, penis.

Such a simple word, a strong word; a word that, as we all know, actually encompasses and represents several vital and intricate male parts all working together as one human… ahem… tool, neatly rolled up into two syllables.

Yep, there was not one ounce of hesitation from my husband or me in delivering the "boys have a penis" information to our first-born who quickly learned this new knowledge then loudly and repeatedly offered it to just about any old stranger.

"Excuse me, Ma'am? This is my PEEEEENISSSSS."

We were so proud.

Of course, we never avoided the reality that there are additional boy body parts involved when teaching the complete set of genitalia. Like the penis, those parts were correctly labeled and learned by my son as well. But for the purposes here, I'm going to be focusing on the penis as a genital…ahem… pivot point.

Now things are different. There's been a sudden shift in our confidence as body-part name-divulgers. My husband and I have reached a roadblock and our daughter is sitting on it.

The problem we're having is with the widely accepted terms for the opposing male and female sex parts. The old "boys have a penis and girls have a vagina" thing. This statement may be true in a literal sense but these body parts are in no way analogous. Yet this is how they are represented in many important facets of our culture.

Boys are told they have this amazing, sensitive organ that can do fascinating tricks such as feel pleasure, become erect, urinate and ejaculate.

And girls are told they have a tube.

Or worse: girls are told they have a place to put the amazing male sex organ.


Doesn't this smack of discrimination? Of repressed female sexuality and absence of validation?

The term, "vagina," when used as the anatomical definition for the canal that connects the outside of a girl to the inside, is fine. But, as a female, I can say with confidence that when this term is used to describe our sexuality opposite the penis, there's a bunch of stuff down there gettin' ignored.

Why, then, doesn't our society simply use the correct term that DOES represent and encompass the female's external genitals? You know: "vulva"?

Good question.

I recently asked a friend what she planned to call her daughter's genitalia (just girly coffee chit-chat, ya know?). When she replied, "vagina," I asked why. She explained that "vagina" is the socially accepted term and may avoid later confusion or possible embarrassment for her daughter, who might be the only one saying "vulva" among friends.

I certainly can understand wanting to protect our children from ridicule, confusion and heartache, but what message are we sending our daughters when we reduce their sexuality to a tube?

Maybe people are reticent to use the word "vulva" because it sounds like someone's crazy southern aunt -- the one that spreads lipstick all over her face and passes wind at the dinner table: "Oh… you know how your Aunt Vulva can be!"

And if we're going to talk about complimentary parts, maybe we should teach our daughters that boys have a penis and girls have a clitoris: a more logical anatomic coupling. But then again, "clitoris" sounds like the name of a girl who sits home playing checkers with her parents on prom night.

Someone in the Designating Human Body Parts Department needs a demotion.

One thing we WON'T be doing as parents is creating a false name for our daughter's genitals. My mother did this -- innocently I'm sure; it was the early sixties after all. To this day I cannot utter the word she used for my genitals. I can't even type it.

My own neurosis, I suppose. I was a shy child and we didn't speak much of sexuality or genitalia in our family. Maybe I interpreted the false name as a reason to be ashamed of my parts -- that they were so vulgar or repulsive that, unless in a clinical setting, their true names were to remain unmentionable lest I face severe smiting. I don't really know for sure.

By a weird coincidence, a boy I dated in junior high had a dog with a name incredibly similar to the word my mother had chosen to represent my girl parts. On my first visit to his house, his mother -- standing behind me -- happened to yell to the dog in a very loud voice. At that moment, I'm pretty sure my skeleton leapt from my skin while my body's complete supply of blood rapidly pumped into my face threatening a messy explosion.

No… making up a cutesy name for the genitals is not an option.

So we're back to square one. I suppose "vulva" seems the most likely and logical choice to describe the girl parts opposite the penis. At least both labia as well as the clitoris will have equal representation with this one word. My husband and I just need to make a decision and stick with it.

Ah…to vulva or not to vulva. That is the question.
Kim Lane's work has been featured at Salon.com, Oxygen Media, Mothering magazine and Pregnancy magazine to name a few.  She is currently a commentator for National Public Radio's All Things Considered and Publisher of AustinMama.