This blog post is in response to my friend and fellow playwright, Rachel Brody’s actions in getting Eve Ensler to assemble an all-star political cast to read her play, The Vagina Monologues, on the steps of the Michigan State House. Rachel will be holding a solidarity event in New York City tonight. Read about all of it here and read about how you can contribute to the solidarity event here. If you want to write your own post, be sure to tag it #vaginablogs.
It’s a vagina. Get over it. Respect it.
Right now, my fifth grade sons are in the middle of their Human Reproduction Unit at school, you know, the unit that makes the immature kids giggle, that makes kids feel squirmy and empowered at the same time. My sons come home feeling all knowledgeable about mysteries they’d always felt were part of a secret book of wisdom—what those pads are in their sisters’ bathroom, why boys can’t have babies, why their penises get hard. They’re fascinated and they want to talk about it. And they use all the right words, because they respect what they have just learned about what our bodies can do and because they’ve heard those words since toddlerhood. I’ve always respected men who have been able to discuss my body with me without turning fifty shades of red or resorting to slang. I’m glad my sons are on that track; some girl will appreciate it some day—especially if my son is a State House speaker who defends a woman’s right to reference her own body using proper terminology.
In the classroom is a question box, and when my daughters were in fifth grade, I exhorted them to tell me what questions the kids put in the box, because they were sometimes enlightening and always amusing. What happens if a boy pees in the girl during sex? If you do it a lot, will you have twins? And yesterday, will we always have to call body parts by their scientific names?
This really disturbed me. At eleven years old, this child—without even knowing what human reproductive parts do or fully are—already knew that there was discomfort associated with words like penis and vagina. If this child is a boy, when he was potty training, he was probably one of many kids whose penis was given a cute nickname by parents too uncomfortable to use the word penis. He probably heard other nicknames, too; heaven knows, parents of girls are equally guilty. We’ve even heard Oprah say va-jay-jay, and many more nicknames exist for the vagina as well, though many of them aren’t cute.
What comes from this inability to talk properly about our bodies is not only discomfort, but a sense that when the proper words are used—penis, breasts, vagina—we’re talking about something else. We’ve taken the conversation to a different level and, sadly, the perception is that it’s not one elevated by intelligence or decorum. So what happens is you get men who have no doubt thrown around words like pussy, bearded clam, beaver, love canal and much, much worse, but freak out at the word vagina like you’ve introduced a foreign language. That’s how deep the discomfort runs. After all, it was borne in childhood.
Which brings me to the Michigan State House. I figure that the speakers who barred her just like this child with the question. When Ms. Brown uttered that word, she was in taboo territory, so much so that these boys reacted defensively, and with horror. Surely, if she was saying “that word,” she was doing it to rile the floor, but truly, what would they have preferred?
They would have preferred her not to speak at all. I think “vagina” was an excuse to punish Brown for perceived disrespect and to silence her female voice. Given the discomfort that the word vagina evokes, it was easy to use it as an excuse and sell it to enough speakers to get a majority. And that’s just absolutely pathetic.
I hope this conversation changes the national dialogue. And it might seem ridiculous, but I do think it can start when our children are young and asking questions, and we talk to them openly and honestly and provide age appropriate information—using proper terminology. Respect for our bodies—and those of others—begins with knowing and using names that convey respect. There are politically correct words for every race on this planet, and we’ve had the politically correct words for our body parts at our disposal forever, but nobody has ever fought for their use as a show of respect.
So better late than never. It’s not too much of a stretch to think that if we teach our children to use the right names for their body parts, they will accord them the proper esteem. And if they ever find themselves in the political arena—because I fear even by the time my kids are grown, these issues will still be haunting us—they will do the right thing by those body parts, no matter whose they are.