June 2010 Note: This post reflects my thinking at the time it was written. Although I stand behind the message about language and the words vulva and penis, this post contains cissexist ideology and imagery, with only a dismissive parenthetical acknowledgment of transsexual/transgender ways of being. I apologize for any pain this post has caused, and assure you I would write vastly it differently today.
The Boychick is 21 months old. His vocabulary is not even trackable, it is so large and growing so quickly. Two of his favorite words are penis (“peenee”, which amuses me no end) and vulva. He knows mama wipes her vulva and her butt, and he knows he wipes his penis and his butt. He also likes to say he’s wiping his vulva, which near as I can figure means his perineum, that is, the bottom of his scrotum and the space between it and his anus. He really doesn’t believe us that he doesn’t have a vulva, that neither does his father, and that only mothers and women and girls have vulvas. He doesn’t yet understand the categories “male” and “female” as far as we can tell, though he knows there are differences between his mother and his father (his father’s breasts don’t have milk, for one!).
Interestingly, the idea of me having a penis has not come up. To my child, the default is having a vulva; penises are interesting extras, of course, but everyone has a vulva.
And here is an opening for one of my favorite rants: I loathe, loathe, LOATHE the saying “boys have penises, girls have vaginas“. Vagina isn’t a dirty word: it’s a great one (if we ignore its ignoble origins as a word meaning “sheath”). And barring infection, the organ isn’t dirty either, just amazingly useful (I conceived and birthed my child through mine! how cool is that?). But the analogue to the penis it ain’t, except in reference to PIV (penis in vagina) intercourse, where only the man’s orgasm matters.
Anatomically, the closest female analogue to penis is the clitoris. Say it with me, because it is just that beautiful a word: clitoris. It is the primary female sexual organ, not the vagina. Our vaginas are fabulously interesting passages, to be sure, but I know of less than a handful of women who can (or care to) orgasm exclusively through vaginal stimulation.
But perhaps I’m focusing too much on sex, with my championship of the clitoris (I am an American, after all, if a female one — and you will also note that I am speaking exclusively of female-born females, and ignoring female persons born with male-appearing bodies, and vice versa, and other gender variations; I beg you will forgive me my simplicity at this time, with the excuse that my little one is less than two years old).
Let’s take another tack: the vagina is an organ notable for its internality, invisible in all but sexual or gynecological situations. Boys must take it for granted that their mothers’ and sisters’ vaginas exist at all, much less know what they look like. We might as well say girls have uteri, for they’re about as visible to the average boy, and even more essential to anatomical female-ness. To say that boys have penises and girls have vaginas is to ignore all the beautiful external genitalia girls do have. Perhaps not the nestled-away clitoris, but the vulva as a whole, the external labia and pubic mons, are visible in casual situations, such as when on the toilet. So an argument could be made for the use of vulva, as the female external genital analogue to the penis, and indeed, that is what we use with the Boychick.
So, boys have penises and girls have clitorises. Or, boys have penises and girls have vulvas. But please, although factually true that boys have penises and girls have vaginas, it makes about as much sense as saying girls have clitorises and boys have prostates. So stop. Vagina is a beautiful word, one that we must not be afraid to use, but so is clitoris. So is vulva. And in this context, they make more sense. The use of vagina as the penis’s “opposite” is inherently male-focused, and ignores the hub (or nub!) of what it is to be female.