Published on March 10th, 2020 | by Kira Garcia0
Call It By Its Name
Some people call pregnancy magical. I prefer another word: bizarre. I began to use it at some point during my fifth month, when my dimensions expanded and it was impossible to ignore that my uterus was housing a living being with legs, arms, a ribcage and a skull. Oh and a penis! There was that, too.
Around this time, I began to sing a chipper little tune to my wife. Its tone was mid-century Disney, but its lyrics were…not. “There’s ah-nother set of arms and legs inside meeeee!” I’d chirp, following her around the house while she cringed. If I had to bear the weight, literal and figurative, of this strange reality, so did she. Occasionally I also piped up with a cheerful reminder, “Hey, I have a penis!” because it was suddenly true.
Our son was born, messy and red and bewildered. His parts were all there, including his penis. Here we were, two cis women who had made only brief studies of penises, really—more out of boredom than real interest—and we were in charge of one!
We’d been a bit flummoxed by the possibility of managing a tiny body with supposedly male genitalia, having had the baby’s sex revealed early on in a blood test. I’m guessing that no one is less at ease with this prospect than two people who came of age reading Hothead Paisan, Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist. But once we announced our son’s birth with the assumption of his male gender (until and unless he tells us otherwise) and got on with the business of parenting, it stopped feeling relevant. In part, this was because we were both ravaged by sleep deprivation. And in part, it was because he was perfect. Absolutely perfect, every inch of him. His tiny feet, his tiny ears, his tiny testicles: they were, and are, equally lovable.
Babies are people. And yet so much of the time, they seem like screaming houseplants you’re trying to keep alive. They cannot speak, so it’s up to you to guess what they need. Best of luck!
Life with a toddler is something else entirely. If our three-year-old has one defining personality trait at this stage, it’s that he’s full of ideas and words—so, so many words. He talks like he is going to be struck mute tomorrow so he’s gotta hurry up and get it all out now.
“Mama, what does nothing mean?” “Mama, why is that a dog?” “Mama, does the G train stop at Grand Central Station?” “Mama, why will my life be over one day?” It’s a lot.
Given his passion for nearly nonstop conversation, it’s no surprise that his penis is sometimes the subject of discussion.We have always, and only, called it a penis—as has every other parent we know. And yes, sometimes vulvas come up, too. Vulva. There it is, that claustrophobic, damp-sounding word. It’s not my favorite (is it anyone’s?), but for accuracy, it beats the hell out of vagina. This opinion, in my parenting circles, is not universal. While no one calls a penis a “wee-wee” any more (thank god), a lot of us still get tripped up by v-words.
Why does this matter? Well…how could it not? Three-year-olds are not gynecologists (hopefully), so when they point to mama’s naked body and ask “what’s that?” the answer is not “a vagina”. They’re pointing to what they can see, on the outside. It’s a vulva.
We use the word vagina as a catchall for a whole landscape of body parts. But why did we choose this one? Why didn’t we nominate another part as a stand in for the whole gang—like, cervix, for example? Or the belly button, for that matter, if we’re going adjacent?
Simple. The vagina gets top billing because it’s the part that most straight cis men are interested in, and because it’s the passage through which most babies enter the world. There we have it. Like french fries and ketchup, or peanut butter and jelly, cis-hetero-sex and baby-making are an unavoidable combo in our patriarchal, hetero-centrist world.
This matters to everyone. Whether my son turns out to be a boy, a girl, or neither, I want him to know that our bodies belong to us and that language is important. This applies to names, pronouns, and of course, body parts. Even if he never sleeps with a person with a vulva, he should understand what human bodies do, and respect their differences and specificities.
My vigilance on this subject dates back to the 1990’s, whenI was a barely-pubescent high school freshman armed with a copy of Our Bodies Ourselves (a gift from my lesbian babysitter). Though I had no interest in sex with boys, I was happy to explain diaphragms, IUD’s, and ovulation to curious friends. I studied the diagrams of reproductive organs and babies in utero, and wondered how I could get my hands on a speculum. Meanwhile, over at my sad, warehouse-style high school, our sex-ed teacher put a condom on a banana. It failed as a lesson but absolutely killed as a comedy routine.
Like so many women in my generation, I’d been told that the whole area between my legs was my vagina. Using this word was a radical act for boomer parents, and was clearly preferable to the bizarre terminology they had been taught—Num Num! Fazoozie! Christmas Tree!* The mind reels. Still, as I studied Our Bodies, a phone-book sized guide to second-wave womynhood, I could see this was inaccurate. There was so much down there. And in fact, only some of it was visible from a forward-facing, closed-legged angle. That visible part was the vulva. A useful, if inelegant, term for the external genitalia that usually means you’ll be assigned female at birth.
I was puzzled. Why weren’t we all using this word? Even the smartest, most curious girls I knew used the word “vagina” exclusively to name their genitals. It bothered me. I mean, if you had a friend who referred to her ass cheek as her anus, you’d be worried, right?
As I got older, I had friends and lovers who were trans and gender non-conforming, and some used unexpected words for their body parts to affirm their identities. I saw the power of naming ourselves, for ourselves, as nothing short of radical. But, the vagina/vulva mixup is something else entirely. Its feels like a dodge, like a way of speed-talking through something uncomfortable. And too many of us play along.
So here I am, cusping on middle age, still lobbying for the vulva, albeit in a very different context. As a parent, accurate language supports a lot of my goals. First, it’s an important step in convincing my son that I’m comfortable talking to him about sex (even if I’m not). I also want to keep him safe from abusers, while preventing him from becoming one. And of course when he’s older, he’s going to need to get used to conversations about his partners’ bodies, their preferences, and their needs.
The word “vagina” is still used in our house, of course—mostly in books about birth and baby-making. I haven’t figured everything out yet, and my kid throws me curve balls frequently. Recently I had to gently explain to him why we don’t march around restaurants asking everyone to “take their penis out and walk around.” The line between body shame and healthy socialization is surprisingly narrow.
Eventually, we’ll have to move on from talking about genitals to talking about what people do with them. Which is…what, exactly? When I was little, my parents described sex in very simple terms: “a man puts his penis in a woman’s vagina because they love each other very much, and they want to make a baby.” That is no more universally true now than it was in 1986. But how do I improve on my parents’ definition for accuracy, without being too broad? Is sex just any adult touching any other adult for the sake of pleasure? Does necessarily have to involve vulvas or penises? What’s my next line? The clock to The Talk is ticking.
In the grand scheme of parenting, the vulva vs. vagina question isn’t the biggest battle I’ll fight. I doubt it will even crack the top ten. But specificity and accuracy are the foundation of respect So let’s call our parts what they are.
*Actual names people I know used for genitals