Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Vagina or Vulva?

This is important.

I'm not being puerile, prurient, or (worst of all!) pedantic.

I recently saw the Vagina Monologues for the first time. But I'm not here to discuss the horrific, heartbreaking stories of Bosnian, and, this year, Congolese women and girls. And I'm not going to speculate on or contribute to the controversy surrounding the play.

Instead, let's talk semantics.

Here's a vocabulary lesson: the vagina is the female reproductive orifice, which functions in copulation and birth. The vulva is the external female genitalia, including mons, clitoris, and labia as well as the vaginal opening.

The Vagina Monologues are, for anyone who hasn't seen them, absolutely and unarguably about vulvas, and are also committed to promoting accurate and open communication. For such a theatrical piece to abandon a precise, anatomically correct term in favor of an ambiguous, inaccurate one is nothing short of a disappointment. To me. Personally.

I am aware (and have become more so during recent discussions on this topic) that the colloquial usage of vagina has usurped the definition of vulva, and that vagina is in fact the word that most people learn first and use most often. E.g. on the playground: "Boys have penises and girls have vaginas!" Okay. I know that language is fluid, that vocabulary re-invents itself, and I realize that languages constantly adopt new words and meanings while shedding those that are obsolete.

But I'm not giving up vulva without a fight.

The word vulva fills a real need in the English language: to describe the female external genitalia. We have excellent and unambiguous words for male genitalia. No one says "penis" and means "penis and scrotum," or vice versa. Why can't we keep "vulva"?

Most of my friends are in the midst of their childbearing years. I make this plea to those who do, in fact, bear children: Let our daughters learn to name their vulvas (vulvae) at the same age they learn to name their elbows.

I did. Thanks, Mom.


Update

A friend lent me Vagina Monologues, the book. There are more monologues written than are presented in any single performance, so I knew I hadn't seen them all, but I didn't know that I'd missed "The Vulva Club". Eve Ensler introduces this piece by copying a letter she received:
As the honorary chair of the Vulva Club, we would be more than pleased to make you a member. However, when Harriet Lerner developed this club over twenty years ago, membership was predicated on the understanding and correct usage of the word vulva . . .

Hah. Apparently, the letter prompted Ms. Ensler to write another monologue, but not to make any concessions on her pre-existing usage of vagina.

If, as I was, you're wondering whether that letter is only a tongue-in-cheek jest on the part of a private disgruntled citizen like me, check out this article by Dr. Harriet Lerner.

2 comments:

  1. This is where birds and turtles have us beat. Both genders are in the Cloaca Club.

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  2. Not to mention marsupials and monotremes! Although I'm not certain I would say they have us "beat" exactly. I'm pretty happy with my three separate orifices.

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