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If There Are 50 Shades of Grey...

Why are there no empowering words for vagina?

I read Fifty Shades of Grey because I wanted to see what all the fuss is about, and I hoped I might be titillated. The book didn’t excite me, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. The trilogy is written by a woman for women, and what excites some women doesn’t necessarily excite some men. I also hoped to learn something about the way at least some women really think. What I learned was disappointing. Specifically, if Anastasia Steele (the protagonist) is any indication, some women don’t know what to call their genitalia. Whenever the alpha-male love interest Christian Grey puts his hand or tongue into Anastasia’s nether region, she refers to it as simply “down there” or “my sex.” How lame! Now, Anastasia is a bit lame herself, modeled on Twilight’s Bella, but in her own mental monologue I’d expect her to have a better name for it than “down there” or “my sex.”

But perhaps I shouldn’t have expected more. What should she call it? Certainly not her “vagina.” The word is too clinical, “That’s definitely a word that a man came up with,” as one female friend said to me. Maybe, but the word still seems to make some male politicians queasy. In Anastasia’s defense, she does sometimes refer to her “clitoris.” But “clitoris” sounds pretty clinical too. Why not just call it her “clit”? That’s what a guy would call it. And of course guys would have no shortage of words for her vagina, such as p*ssy and c*nt. But despite efforts by some feminists to take back the word c*nt, the word seems much too vulgar to many women.

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P*ssy isn’t quite as vulgar; in fact it is becoming more and more common in everyday speech and on television. But, for some reason, it doesn’t sound authentic when a woman uses the word. I think of Gemma from the television show Sons of Anarchy who uses the word without hesitation. But Gemma comes off as if she wants to sound like a guy or a porn star when she uses the word. And really it’s not a very good word for women. P*ssy is not empowering, and neither is Oprah’s va-jay-jay by the way. Men have lots of empowering words for their genitalia, including d*ck, c*ck, and b*lls. We men have words that help us take pride in our privates. Women should have words that do the same for them.

In her foreword to The Vagina Monologues, Gloria Steinem mentions a group of nine-to-sixteen-year-old girls who came up with the term “power bundle” to refer to the vagina, labia, and clitoris. Steinem applauded their effort, as do I. But I haven’t heard any women speaking about their power bundles lately. Obviously the term hasn’t caught on. So what could women call it? In articulating your answer don’t worry about pleasing the Michigan House of Representatives.

William Irwin

William Irwin, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at King’s College in Pennsylvania.


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