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Reminder: Vagina Is Not a Dirty Word

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is the Health Editor at SheKnows. She is a bioethicist and writer specializing in sexual and reproductive health and the intersection of bioethics and popular culture. She is an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham ...

It's 2017 — 'vagina' should be a part of our everyday vocabulary

As the health editor of a publication called SheKnows, vaginas are my bread and butter. They come up a lot in terms of reproductive and sexual health, sexual identity and the pleasure gap.

Around half the population has one, but given how male-centric the entire field of medicine has been until relatively recently, it’s not that surprising that the subject — and word — has remained largely under wraps.

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But it’s not just old white dude doctors who are uncomfortable with vaginas. Different surveys have found that between 35 and 65 percent of women are uncomfortable saying the word “vagina.” Translation: We’ve been so conditioned to think of women’s bodies as shameful or inappropriate that we have trouble using the correct term for a part of our own anatomy. That’s messed up.

And again, that's 35 to 65 percent of women uncomfortable with the word, so I can't imagine what that figure would look like for men. A few years ago, when I had the endlessly unpleasant experience of reporting my sexual assault to the NYPD, the officer taking my police report was visibly uncomfortable when I used words like "vagina," "labia" and "vulva" to describe what happened — despite the fact that the questions he was asking required anatomical specificity to determine how to most accurately report the crime.

Then, of course, there’s the great vagina vs. vulva debate, with some people using “vagina” to denote the entire external genital area (when technically most of that is the vulva). That’s another discussion for another day, but if nothing else, I’m glad it’s a conversation we’re having, centered on actual anatomy instead of cutesy nicknames for some of the hardest-working parts of any bodies.

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Although I grew up in a generation and household full of vaginal euphemisms (one of the kids in my neighborhood growing up told us the polite term was “a girl’s front butt”), it’s heartening to encounter children of my peers who use anatomically correct terms without thinking twice.

Recently, I was spending time with my friend’s 4-year-old daughter playing nail salon. When one of the bottles of polish went missing, I asked if she was sitting on it. She stood up, saw that she was in fact sitting on the sparkly pink bottle and said, “Yes, it was under my butt.” She then paused for a second, reassessing the bottle’s position, then corrected herself: “Actually, no. It was under my vagina.” Then we went back to our regularly scheduled manicure — no giggling or embarrassment over using the word — it was, after all, just another body part.

We should all be like my friend’s daughter, shamelessly using the word in everyday conversation like it was normal — because it is. And that’s exactly what the Vagina Challenge aims to encourage.

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Despite what it sounds like, the #VaginaChallenge is a legitimate fundraiser for Planned Parenthood — not a contest concocted in a boys’ freshmen dorm on some Midwestern college campus.

Here’s how it works: Take a quick video of yourself shouting “vagina” in a public place, tag it #VaginaChallenge and nominate three of your friends to do the same. For each video shared, Vagisil will donate $5 to Planned Parenthood (up to a maximum of $25,000) to support access to women’s health care.

What are you waiting for? The vagina you save may be your own.

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