“That’s her front bottom!” a woman told me, pointing vaguely at her daughter’s genitals.
This was a few months back, when my now 28-month-old daughter was having a playdate with another little girl, and the girl’s mother and I were talking. The woman had been shocked to hear me casually refer to a vulva, and she requested that I not use that language when her daughter could hear. So I asked her what she called her daughter’s private parts, and I was told “front bottom.” I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. Other mothers have subsequently mentioned using words such as “mouse,” “foo foo,” and “twinkle.”
Personally, I don’t understand the use of euphemisms for children’s genitals. To me, it smacks of shame and a lack of knowledge. My wife and I choose instead to empower our daughter by using the correct words for all of her body parts. She should know what she has and how it works, and she should feel able to talk about it.
For us, this includes differentiating accurately between the vagina and the vulva, which is something many people—including grown adults—simply don’t understand. In fact, recently in class, when I was talking to undergraduates about the difference between sex and gender, it turned out that not a single student knew the difference between the vulva and the vagina; indeed, some had never even heard the word vulva before.
What was almost as bad was that when I explained what the two terms meant, a student then said, “Oh, so the vagina is where the penis goes.” When I pointed out that vaginas do more than serve as places for penises to go, and that indeed not everyone wants a penis there, another student said, “Yeah, vaginas are for babies to come out of,” as though women’s bodies, and therefore women themselves, only exist for men’s pleasure or to produce babies.
The fact that 20-somethings didn’t understand their own or other people’s bodies strengthened my view that we need to start with young children by giving them accurate knowledge of their bodies. How can they feel comfortable with their bodies if they don’t even know how to talk about their parts? How can they ask their parents questions if they sense their parents’ discomfort regarding bodies? How would they be able to tell a doctor where they had pain or itching, or how would they be able to explain that someone was touching them inappropriately? And when they grow up, how would they be able to ask an intimate partner how to touch them—or how not to touch them—if they don’t have the vocabulary and the confidence?
Just because genitals are usually hidden by clothes doesn’t mean we need to keep them metaphorically invisible, too. If my daughter can point out her nose or her foot, why shouldn’t she be able to also point out her vulva, labia, clitoris, and vagina? Why shouldn’t she know what they do and how they look? They all belong to her, and she has a right to understand them. (And, of course, we have been teaching her about male genitals too, and as she gets older, we’ll introduce the concept of biological sex not always matching gender.
Some friends have complained that words such as vagina and vulva are too “formal,” or are even “ugly.” I don’t think the relative beauty of a word is relevant, and in fact I think it’s very telling that people would find vulva ugly but penis acceptable, but I do agree that it’s important to make children aware of register and synonyms in regard to all kinds of words.
So as our daughter gains in understanding, we’ll be sure to explain to her how people also use words such as pussy, cunt, and twat to refer to female genitals, and we’ll discuss the pejorative implications that such words have unfortunately been imbued with in society today. Indeed, it’s a personal project of mine to fight against negative uses along those lines. For example, when people say, “He’s such a pussy,” or, “You’re a twat,” to mean that someone is weak or objectionable, I point out the implications of what they’re saying. “Twats are wonderful things, so you must think that guy is great!” I might say, which naturally annoys people, but hopefully also makes them think a little. I hope, in time, my daughter will learn to recognize and argue against that type of language and to reclaim the words for her body.
As parents, our role is to prepare our children for adult life, so they can be independent, confident, and capable of taking care of themselves. In our household, that includes ensuring that our daughter has full knowledge of how bodies work and what the words are for body parts. Other parents may think we’re twats for using words like vulva and clitoris, and you know what—they’d be absolutely right.