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Why Are We Afraid of the Word 'Vagina?'

Call it by its name.

Why Are We Afraid of the Word 'Vagina?'

We’re scared of the word vagina

Well, maybe we aren’t, but the rest of the world seems to be. Despite being the medical and appropriate term for genitalia that at least 50% of the global population has, vagina is one of the most censored words in the English language. Don’t believe us? A digital media study from the Center for Intimacy Justice found that many ads, even in the health category, that included the word “vagina,” “vaginal,” or “vaginal health” were automatically censored by multiple major social media platforms.

 Another study graphed the contemporary censorship of the word across multiple platforms, including print, radio, television, and film. The results were damning: ads have been blocked, television shows (including Grey’s Anatomy!) have been edited, book titles have been scrubbed, and students have been suspended—all for saying “vagina.” 

In today’s culture, the word vagina is non grata. It’s time to change that. 

A Long History of Censorship

Etymologists found that penis has been used to describe male genitalia since 1610—but it wasn’t until nearly 70 years later that vagina was first used as a clinical term to refer to female genitalia. 

Born from a Latin root, the word in question originally meant sheathas in a “scabbard for a sword.” And what is that sword, might you ask? Well… a penis.

If you’re already dry-heaving at the idea that even the language for vagina is male-centered and heteronormative, you’re not alone. Censorship experts have already noted it. 

Terms for the vagina prior to this time are a trail mix of absolute horrors. There were no shortage of slang terms: fanny, pussy, box, c*nt, and more have all been a part of the language since nearly the Dark Ages. But official terms? Very sparse. Before 1680, scientists tended to keep a wide berth around the vagina—and per the terms they used, it was seen as a largely shameful area. 

Don’t name it and we won’t have to learn about it! seemed to be the ruling principle.

So yes, the history of the word underlines what a lot of the world already thinks: vaginas are shameful and mysterious. Also, let’s not talk about them. 

Why Censoring “Vagina” is Bullsh*t

The effects of not talking about female genitalia in any terms other than expressly crude or innately sexual are widespread—and dangerous. 

We know that language has power. Simply put, the words we use to refer to something plainly reflect how we feel about it. And the fact that vaginas are almost never referred to by their medical term, in favor of “down there,” “private area,” curses, or even frantic gestures reflects only one sentiment: shame. And shame can be life-threatening. 

Refusing to use the clinical (and appropriate) term for the vagina has ripple effects in the health and wellness spheres. If part of your body is considered a source of embarrassment—something we can’t even talk about freely—how can you address concerns frankly during clinical visits? How can you identify an issue or consult with your medical provider about what’s happening around or in that body part? 

Hint: you can’t

And the issue is systemic: a meta-analysis found that there are disproportionately less studies funded around the vulva, vagina, and female reproductive system, even when it comes to cancer and other potentially fatal illnesses. Our hush-hush attitude about vaginas is keeping us in the dark.

In an interview with Salon Magazine, renowned urologist Dr. Rachel Rubin stated: “The more we can get clear on language and normalize [this anatomy], and that lots of things can change and go wrong with their medical parts…then [people] can actually advocate for themselves.” 

Abuse prevention specialists have theorized that describing the vagina (and other genitalia) in standard terms from a young age allows children to feel comfortable communicating accurately and honestly about their bodies—and any concerns they may have. Per The Atlantic, “cultures of silence” allow perpetrators of childhood sexual violence to hide in plain sight, and shame their victims into secrecy. 

The vagina is a body part, not a taboo. And when you tiptoe around its proper name, the entire area seems like a mysterious and forbidden topic of conversation. With less than half of U.S. students receiving adequate education on reproductive systems, a cultural refusal to call the vagina what it is simply doesn’t work. If we’re not talking about it frankly in schools, and we’re not talking about it anywhere else… how can we expect anything to change?

The Worst Ways to Say “Vagina”

Let’s take a brief moment to look at the worst things people have said in an effort to avoid calling the vagina by its true name. 

  • Bajingo. Is this a misspelling of banjo?
  • Minky. A name for a hamster, not someone’s genitals.
  • Foof. …There are no words. 
  • Vajeen. Sounds like a brand of soft cheese. And not what I’d want my vagina to be called. 
  • Flower. Wholly and completely unnecessary. 
  • Front bottom. ??!?!
  • Flange. Gross. 

How to Get Loud About the Word “Vagina”

Fired up and ready to embrace the vagina in all its glory? Here’s how to get loud and proud.

Say vagina as often as you can

Eliminate all the euphemisms from your vocabulary and call your vagina what it is: a vagina. Of course, Rome wasn’t built in a day (and the vagina wasn’t censored in just one century), so it’s going to take some time. But as much as you possibly can, use the actual term for this body part! There’s nothing wrong with a vagina—or saying, “vagina.”

Look at your vagina, if you’ve got one

That’s right! Pull a Charlotte from Sex and the City, grab a hand mirror, and take a look at your vulva and vagina. So much shame has existed around this body part, and a lot of us don’t look at it frequently enough. 

Liberate others

You may have to pay for brunch a few times, but tell your friends the news! The vagina—and its name—is not a taboo. Show them the data on the effects of stigmatizing language, read up on the vagina and its talents, and encourage them to celebrate and appreciate this amazing part of their body.
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