Why We Need To Talk About Vulvas – Not Vaginas

Vulva is only a “stuffy” or “anatomical” word because that is where it has been kept, shuttered away and muffled by a thick slathering of shame and oppression around female sexuality.
Bowonpat Sakaew via Getty Images

Last night, Channel 4 debuted the third instalment in what artist Laura Dodsworth’s calls an “unexpected triptych” of projects on breasts, penises and now, vulvas. In interviews ahead of the release, Dodsworth said the more she thought about photographing women’s vulvas, the more necessary she felt it was: It is liberating to the participants in getting to know themselves, in a world that demands a lot of unrealistic things from vulvas, while at the same time knowing very little about female external genitalia.

“It’s also a part of the body we know relatively little about – historically, there has been a lack of scientific understanding; about the clitoris, about orgasms, sexual pleasure,” she told the Guardian.

So why don’t we know more about the vulva. For starters, Channel 4’s name for the series is #100Vaginas. Dodsworth’s arguments for getting to know the vulva are sound. It is in essence reclaiming a part of oneself in the name of health, wholeness and female sexuality. But we must point out the other fact apparent in Channel 4’s editorial license – “vulvas” feel so controversial to actually say, therefore they should be said. The very act of Channel 4 labelling this project as #100Vaginas is tone deaf to the times. The vulva must be shown. And the vulva must be said.

You wouldn’t name an Animal Planet show, “Chimpanzees” and then only show Tarsiers because you know your audience is more familiar with the term chimp. And you sure wouldn’t have an exhibition about testicles and only show casts of the penis. We must ask ourselves what a certain baseline of misinformation shelves in the service of entertainment, values and ideals.

There is the argument, one that writer and comedian Lindy West strongly makes, that in the entertainment business the world vagina has some aire of humor, some street appeal, some confrontational value. West also equates Vagina with “junk,” but men also get “package,” “the bulge,” and at least 100 more names, according to Professor of Linguistics, Penelope Eckert at Stanford University. (And the internet stands ready with over 400.) But using the catchall term “vagina”, before we achieve peak vulva knowledge and respect, is self-fulling obscurity. Lopping it all in under one term is utilitarian, but towards what end?

If convenience for the status quo is the answer, then, no thank you. The status quo is that people don’t actually know about the vulva. It is the absence of the clitoris from sex education. It is the orgasm gap. It is the medical research gap. It is the femtech investment gap. It’s lack of FDA oversight of products marketed to people with vulvas. It is FGM. It is incredibly high rates of female sexual pain. It is skyrocketing labiaplasties. All of these are due to misinformation and ignorance, willful or unintentional, and sometimes sinister ignorance of the vulva and its parts and its needs.

Our culture sees the vulva as a site without much agency. It’s a place to hold penis or birth a child. It’s a place to be waxed, cleaned, and smell nice for someone else. The ultimate metaphor of its relegation to serve others is being erased and called by another false name out of convenience for “taboo,” ignorance and aversion to embracing female sexuality.

Thirteen years ago, in 2006, Eve Ensler wrote about the why saying vagina out loud often enough was a political movement.

It is time to give birth another worldwide movement, one that does stop at ending violence, but goes further to explore and embrace pleasure. Vulva is only a “stuffy” or “anatomical” word because that is where it has been kept, shuttered away and muffled by a thick slathering of shame and oppression around female sexuality. As Ensler says, “freedom begins with naming things.” And for that, we need a collective public utterance of the word “vulva.”

Unfortunately, Channel 4 is missing a major opportunity to get fully behind the utility and power of Dodsworth’s work. Recently a man on the internet chose to mansplain to a gynaecologist that a vulva was actually a vagina. The people of Twitter didn’t stand to accommodate this one man’s ignorance, so why should Channel 4 be afforded a bigger platform to do the same thing?

Let’s see these missteps as evidence that the status quo of misinformation and vulva obscurity is not good enough. We can’t think deeper about what we can’t talk about. Let 2019 be the Year of the Vulva, the year of our collective relief at being able to name what exists before us.