Penises, vulvas, and other interesting things

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.

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10 Responses to Penises, vulvas, and other interesting things

  1. omg, the whole penis and vagina thing has always been one of my pet peeves! we use the word yoni around here.

  2. Oddly enough, the conversation hasn’t come up in my household at all yet … “my bum” is about all the girl references (though I could write a whole blog post on her referring to menstruation as “ewwie”).

    I totally agree on which of the v-words make more sense, though.

  3. Lisa, yea, I’ve toyed with the use of yoni (in my midwifery studies notebook I have a section for “YBAC”), but ultimately decided against it for concerns over imprecision and cultural appropriation (as much as I’m drawn to the arguments in favor of it), and because I wanted the Boychick to use a word more widely known, and ultimately, vulva fills my needs and preferences nicely.

    Really, I don’t care, as long as one doesn’t use vagina (or anything cutesy or diminutive; but that’s another post!).

  4. Funny, I have the same instinctively negative response to “vulva” that you have to “vagina”. I was happy when I was able to move on from the word vulva to describe the parts of it, which have always seemed more relevant to me: clitoris, labia, vagina.

    The transitions of the vulva from frontward-positioned, cleft, fat padded unitary organ to an elongated, multi-layered organ that bridges externality and internality is a transition I just don’t see the penis making, however. The penis just gets bigger, while the vulva becomes a multiplicity. I don’t know. I just think it’s more complicated than vulva vs. vagina.

  5. So what do you use, if anything? Just the specifics? Do you have a word for female genitalia in general?

    The penis isn’t the entirety of even all external male genitalia (it excludes the scrotum/testicles), but it encapsulates the glans, the foreskin, the body or shaft of the penis itself, the urethra, etc. I want a word for the female genitalia that encompasses all of that — I use vulva because it encompasses all of the external portions, which is the more visible bit anyway (“penis” doesn’t encompass the internal male organs either).

  6. A very interesting post! What also is interesting is that people "circumcise" their boys and when the same thing is done to girls it is "female genital mutilation." The truth is the genitals are remarkably similar, and circumcision on both girls and boys are done for the same reason: cultural propagation of genital cutting and mutilation. There's a comparison here:
    In some cases female genital mutilation involves "only" removing the clitoral hood, which is analogous to the foreskin. This surgery is illegal in the United States when performed on girls, but inexplicably is legal when performed on boys.
    Boys have the same rights to genital integrity that girls do. There's a lot of info here as well
    I am not undermining the suffering of FGM victims in any way. EVERY person male or female deserves the right to a whole, uncut body. I just want to shed some light on the suffering of males; the male genital mutilation victims.

  7. great post, arwyn…I added this to my facebook.


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