Content warning: this post contains offensive language of a sexual nature. As does the real world.
Ignorance and prejudice about women’s sexuality has a long and depressing history. When I was at school in the early 1970s, we were sure women didn’t have testicles*, but we weren’t entirely clear on what they did have. What passed for sex education in those days should really have been called ‘reproduction education’: it was all about wombs, ovaries, and the fateful encounter between the egg and the sperm. The parts of our bodies we could actually see and touch were either passed over in silence or shrouded in euphemism.
But that was 45 years ago: it’s a different story for girls growing up today, right? Well, maybe not. In a survey of a thousand British women carried out in 2014 , half of the under-35s could not locate the vagina on a diagram, and 65% said they had problems using the words ‘vagina’ and ‘vulva’. 40% of the 16-25s reported using vague phrases like ‘lady parts’ or ‘women’s bits’.
Let’s just pause to take this in. We’re talking about a generation of women who’ve learnt that it’s normal to remove all your pubic hair, and not unthinkable to have your labia surgically reshaped. They’ve grown up with internet porn, and magazine articles discussing blow-jobs and BDSM. Yet apparently they don’t have a functioning adult vocabulary for talking about the sexual parts of their own bodies.
The survey was done for a gynaecological cancer awareness campaign, so it only investigated the kind of language you’d use for talking to healthcare professionals. And of course, it’s important that women and girls should be able to do that. But you don’t always want to talk about your genitals in Latin. In some situations—informal ones, intimate ones—you might feel the need for non-clinical terms; ideally you might want these to be neither coy euphemisms like ‘lady parts’ or taboo words like cunt. For the male genitals, this middle ground is occupied by words like willy, knob and balls. But what are the female equivalents?
In an effort to find out, the psychologists Virginia Braun and Celia Kitzinger asked a sample of nearly 300 men and women to write down the names they knew for both the male and the female genitals. For the male genitals, four words appeared on most people’s lists: dick, willy, penis and cock. Other frequently-listed terms included knob and todger. There were also four words for female genitals which a majority of respondents listed: cunt, vagina, pussy and fanny (note for Americans: this was a British study, and in British English fanny means the genitals rather than the ass). Other popular choices were muff, beaver, twat and minge.
It’s noticeable that many of the female terms are more offensive than most of the male ones. Some of the male ones can be used as insults (‘he’s a total dick/knob’), but they aren’t up there with cunt. Pussy might sound as innocuous as willy, but one of its commonest uses is for referring to women collectively as sexual objects (‘he spends all his time chasing pussy’). You can objectify men in a similar way using cock, but not willy (or knob or todger).
The researcher Sarah Murnen investigated which terms English-speakers found degrading. Her subjects picked out only three male genital terms as degrading: cock, prick and meat. With the female terms, by contrast, the majority were considered degrading. Only two of the common terms on Braun and Kitzinger’s list—vagina and muff—were judged non-degrading (and in the case of muff that’s surprising, since it can be used in the same way as pussy, and also has form as a derogatory term for lesbians).
The dearth of non-degrading colloquial terms for the female genitals is an everyday problem in conversations between parents and children. A friend recently told me about an exchange with her small son, in which she answered a question he had asked by explaining that ‘girls don’t have willies, they have vaginas’. There’s a striking contrast of register here: what boys have is named using an everyday, familiar word, while what girls have is named with a more formal, clinical term. But what else could she have said? ‘Girls don’t have willies, they have front bottoms’? ‘Girls don’t have willies, they have pussies’? Even the least sexually explicit colloquial terms are still more explicit than willy: few people would feel comfortable teaching them to a child. So parents who don’t want to be coy end up using medical textbook Latin with kids who can’t even read yet.
Eventually, among their peers, those kids will acquire a more extensive slang vocabulary–and in the process they’ll be learning more than just words. Back in the 1990s I studied a game which I’d discovered my students played (it was popular with both sexes, who generally played it in single-sex groups of friends). It involved coming up with as many terms as you could think of meaning ‘penis’, and points were given for both the quantity and the quality. ‘Quality’ in this context meant novelty and ingenuity: some of the terms were original coinages which players came up with on the spur of the moment. But they weren’t just random inventions. Both the novel and the more familiar terms were variations on a well-worn set of themes. These included personal names (dick, johnson) and names for authority figures (the king, his lordship); fighters (purple-helmeted warrior ); animals, especially snakes but also ravening beasts (Cujo); weapons (pork sword, heat-seeking missile); power tools (jackhammer, hedgetrimmer) and food items, especially meat.
I didn’t investigate terms for the female genitals because my study was observational: I wasn’t asking people to do a task I’d dreamt up for research purposes, I was studying something they did in real life. And in real life, the game was about penis terms. But Braun and Kitzinger’s study generated terms for both sexes’ genitals, which they sorted into categories in much the same way I had. For the male terms, the results were pretty similar to mine. For the female terms, they found some overlap with the male categories (person names, animals and food items all appeared), but they also found significant differences.
The female list contained many more euphemisms (like down there and privates), and it also featured a large number of terms which were references to pubic hair (including hair pie, beard, brush and bush). Braun and Kitzinger argue that these are also euphemisms of a sort, since they allude to the genitals by way of what covers them. Apart from euphemisms and personal names (like fanny), the female genitals were conceptualized as holes (often dank and smelly ones, as in cave or stench trench), receptacles (dirt box, disk drive, spunk bin), dangerous places (Bermuda triangle, squirrel trap), wounds (gash, slit), hairy or furry animals (beaver, pussy), and money (Mrs Penny, tuppence).
These conceptual categories are known to both sexes, but what they reflect is a male rather than female-centred view of sex. A language that represents the female genitals as wounds, receptacles, slots to be filled or commodities to be purchased is not starting from the way women experience their own bodies, but from the way their bodies are perceived and used by men.
Another thing this terminology isn’t much concerned with is the details of women’s sexual anatomy. As they analysed the female terms, Braun and Kitzinger found themselves asking a very basic question. What, exactly, is being named by these words? What is a pussy, or a twat, or a minge? The female genitals are not a single undifferentiated entity: there’s the vagina, the vulva, the inner and outer labia, the perineum, the clitoris… and yet most of the ‘standard slang’ terms are completely unspecific about which of these they refer to. In that respect they’re as vague as ‘down there’ and ‘front bottom’.
Braun and Kitzinger decided to put the question to another set of research subjects. They gave them a labelled anatomical diagram and a list of 49 terms, and asked them to indicate which of the parts labelled on the diagram the terms referred to. They found a remarkable lack of consensus. The average number of different definitions per word was around four. Only two words were defined in the same way by everyone: beard (pubic hair), and clit (clitoris). Some of the commonest words were among the most disputed. Both pussy and fanny, for instance, were defined variously as meaning vagina, vulva, clitoris, vagina-plus-clitoris, pubic hair and ‘the whole thing’.
It seems that very often when we talk about women’s genitals, we quite literally don’t know what we’re talking about. And we certainly can’t assume we know what anyone else is talking about. It’s a vicious circle: sexism produces ignorance and shame, ignorance and shame lead to silence and vagueness, silence and vagueness reproduce ignorance and shame, and they in turn allow sexism to continue to flourish.
One way to address this is through education, both at home and at school. Everyone should know that there’s more to the female genitals than a vagina and some pubic hair; no one should be reduced to talking vaguely about ‘lady parts’ and ‘front bottoms’. You cannot have sexual autonomy and equality if you do not have sexual knowledge, and the words are part of what you need to know.
But the problem isn’t just ignorance. It’s also the sexism and misogyny which so many slang terms express, and the shame which leads so many women to avoid naming their genitals explicitly. If we are ever to have, in Braun and Kitzinger’s words, ‘a vocabulary which….allows us to communicate adequately with sexual partners, friends, family, and health care providers’, it’s not only our language that will need to change.
* The illustration shows a passage from a text by the French anatomy professor Nicholas Venette, published in English in 1707 as The Mysteries of Conjugal Love Reveal’d.