Half the People in the World Have a Vulva—Can We Please Get Over Our Fear of the Word?

A Michigan mother has become the latest person to complain that a blunt, accurate account of female genitalia—one that uses descriptive words and proper names—is too explicit for school. It’s an argument that we’ve heard many times recently about textbooks, sex education lectures, and even political speeches, but this one is a little surprising. This time the source of the “pornographic” material is the classic book about the Holocaust, The Diary of Anne Frank. Are we really so obsessed with women’s body parts that one paragraph about them is enough to cause a panic even when it’s in a book about far more serious issues?

The book, as most people know, features the first-hand account of a young Jewish woman who was forced to hide in an attic with her family and others during World War II. A new, less edited version of the book has been released. It includes passages in which Anne explores her own body. In the passage in question, Frank writes:

Until I was eleven or twelve, I didn’t realize there was a second set of labia on the inside, since you couldn’t see them. What’s even funnier is that I thought urine came out of the clitoris…When you’re standing up, all you see from the front is hair. Between your legs there are two soft, cushiony things, also covered with hair, which press together when you’re standing, so you can’t see what’s inside. They separate when you sit down and they’re very red and quite fleshy on the inside. In the upper part, between the outer labia, there’s a fold of skin that, on second thought, looks like a kind of blister. That’s the clitoris.

The Michigan mother complained that this was far too graphic—in fact pornographic—and completely inappropriate for school. In an interview with the local Fox affiliate, she explained that her daughter brought this too her attention: “I thought it was because she was concerned about the depressing aspects surrounding Anne Frank and all that, and she said no it was because they were talking graphically about Anne Frank’s genitalia.”

Although it is 2013, and about half of the world’s population is female, our body parts seem to cause constant kerfuffles. Recently I wrote about a biology teacher in Idaho who is under investigation in part for using the word vagina during his lecture on human reproduction. (As I said at the time, I’m really not sure how one could give a lecture on human reproduction without using the word vagina, given how many roles it plays.) Last year, I wrote about a report on sex education in New York state and was particularly horrified to learn that one textbook used in New York and other states defines the vagina as the “organ that receives sperm during reproduction.” This description is inaccurate (it’s not an organ) and offensive (a part of the female body should not be defined exclusively in terms of what it does for men). And who can forget last summer when state Rep. Lisa Brown (D-West Bloomfield) was banned from speaking on the Michigan house floor because she used the word vagina in a speech against an anti-abortion bill.

Things get worse the more specific you get. The word vagina is often used to describe everything between a woman’s legs, because, despite the controversies surrounding the word, it’s considered more socially appropriate than accurate terms like vulva, labia, or clitoris.

What struck me most about Frank’s description is just how accurate it is. Though she starts by laughing at her past ignorance, the passage provides a spot-on description of where everything is and what it looks like. She also knows all of the correct terminology (though obviously the book has been translated from the original Dutch). Frank was clearly a great writer, and her parents seem to have educated her well about her own body.

Unfortunately, many women growing up some 70 years later do not have this kind of education, at that, in my opinion, is what’s behind our obsession with female genitals. As Frank said, these parts are hidden between a woman’s legs. This makes them very different than penises and testicles, which are more visible and recognizable to most. If we don’t look at these parts and we don’t talk about them in any detail—or worse, if we insist on using nondescript or cutesy terms like “down there” and “vajayjay”—two things happen: ears perk up when you say vagina, and panic ensues if you even whisper the word clitoris.

My first reaction upon hearing this mother’s complaint was about perspective and priorities. The book starts conversations about a disgraceful chapter in human history. Kids ask questions about anti-Semitism, concentration camps, gas chambers, and the complete and utter disregard for humanity. On a personal level, they likely think about how they would react if their freedom was taken away and they had to live in hiding. How shallow do you have to be to be more worried about how they’ll react not to this horror and misery but to a description of some body parts?

In one way, the Michigan mother is right: Kids do not need to know about Anne Frank’s genitals to learn about the Holocaust, and they will likely focus disproportionately on this passage because they are in seventh grade and because they’re not hearing about this anywhere else. That said, had the passage been in any other book, be it a novel or a biology textbook, it likely never would have made it into a school in the first place.

The solution is not to ban this new version of Anne Frank’s diary. The solution is to make vulvas about as mysterious as elbows. No, I’m not suggesting that we walk around pantsless with legs splayed. I’m simply proposing that we do what we do with all other body parts: Call it by its proper name, define it clearly and accurately in school, and stop freaking out.

Half the people in the world have a vulva. Can we please get over the word already?

Correction, May 9, 1:10 pm Eastern: A version of this article incorrectly stated that The Diary of Anne Frank was written in German. It was written in Dutch.

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  • http://twitter.com/JenGStarr Jennifer Starr

    I can remember when a well-worn copy of Judy Blume’s ‘Forever’ was making the rounds in Junior High (7th-8th Grade) and literally being passed from girl to girl. I read it from cover to cover and I recall that it was very well-written, a good story with good lessons but we did think it was hilarious at the time, mainly because the guy in the story gave his genitals a name so there was quite a lot of giggling there.

    There seems to be an idea out there, mainly in conservative circles, that any discussion or mention of sex, body parts and the like will lead to kids running out to try sex right away and therefore we must keep it a secret to ‘preserve their innocence.’ Well it’s not preserving ‘innocence’ at all, it’s preserving ignorance. I am very grateful to my parents for allowing me to read pretty much whatever I wanted to read–and since my reading level was way above my actual age, I read pretty much anything that I could lay my hands on, which was a lot. And if I had questions, I wasn’t afraid to ask them. Our house was always full of books and magazines of all kinds. So thank you, Mom and Dad :)

    This is not graphic, nor is it explicit. It’s an accurate description of female body parts using the correct anatomical descriptions (labia, vulva clitoris) and so forth. A growing girl should know what her own body parts are called, and that they are not ‘dirty’ shameful or explicit. And if hearing the correct terms makes this mother uncomfortable, and if she can’t put it in context and see the value of this great piece of literature (I’m going to assume, like most would-be book banners, that she hasn’t read it), then perhaps she needs to deal with her own personal hangups.

    I think it was actually Judy Blume who once told parents to let their kids read what they want and talk to them about it. A very wise statement indeed.

    • cjvg

      So once kids learn about their body parts and become acquainted with the proper names of said body parts they will start using them obsessively?!
      That has not been my experience at all.

      My teenager is very well aware of her ears and knows all the correct terms for the inner as well as the other ear structures, however she rarely seems to use them (voluntarily) when i’m talking to her!
      Ditto for my teenage son.

  • BruceChris

    It may tak another Eve Ensler

  • dratman

    Of course it would be a big step forward if “vagina” and “vulva” became just ordinary anatomical term like “elbow,” but up to the present time, that has been impossible for most humans. (As it happens, for my wife, who is a gynecologist, those really are simple anatomical terms.) For most of us, the sense of shame around sexuality (and the interlinked sense of excitement), which we all seem to acquire to some extent, is difficult to overcome.

    I think there are good but complex reasons why sexual behavior is so embarrassing (and so exciting) for most adult humans. A key point, I think, is that when we observe nudity and sexual behavior, what we see often triggers sexual thoughts in ourselves. And that would lead to all sorts of problems, if, say, people frequently had sex at work in front of everyone, and others soon got into the spirit. At the very least, much less work would get done!

    I think about this a lot, as a sort of puzzle: why are we like this about sex? One thing I recently realized is that sexual behavior simply looks very different from almost anything else we usually see. Most of us do not wish to behave with full sexuality in public. Because of this reluctance of almost everyone to have sex in view of others, most of us are not at all accustomed to seeing sexual behavior in our daily lives.

    If we imagine naively observing sexual behavior, side by side with most of our daily, public activities, we have to admit that sex appears to be strange, inexplicable, and very yucky! And in fact, that is exactly the way children always view sex when first learning about it. “EEEEeeew! Why would anybody do THAT?” Direct sexual activity violates common sense. Your teacher will DEFINITELY not let you do ANYTHING like that at school!

    But kids, we adults only behave sexually because we often feel these incredibly powerful, indescribable urges — which we ourselves do not really understand and which, in the long term (decades), most of us absolutely cannot control.

    And that, I think, gives some hint of why talking about sexual body parts is not like talking about elbows. It really comes down to our overwhelmingly strong instincts to reproduce. Those instincts are most visible in our longings to engage in sexual behavior with another person, and eventually our wish to have babies! Most men and women are drawn irresistibly in that general direction over time — even if we hate to admit it.

  • http://preschoolsandnurseries.co.uk/ A Green