Evident in our language is a deeply ingrained cultural silence surrounding women’s genital anatomy and pleasure.

We use the terms “sex” and “intercourse” as if they’re one-and-the same. We use the term “foreplay” for all that comes before the main event, intercourse. Such language reflects our cultural prioritization of men’s sexual pleasure. If women’s orgasms were most highly prized, then the clitoral caressing (with a finger, tongue or vibrator) that occurs before intercourse would be called sex and intercourse would be called post-play. Ian Kerner, author of She Comes First, suggests we prioritize clitoral stimulation by re-defining foreplay as “coreplay.” My proposal is more radical: Let’s hold men's and women’s ways of reaching orgasm as equal. Let’s consider both clitoral stimulation and intercourse to be “sex.”

Let’s also stop mislabeling women’s genital anatomy. To illustrate our cultural misnaming:

  • Consider what we tell children: Parents generally tell sons that they have a penis and daughters that they have a vagina. Many girls grow up never hearing the word vulva and many never learn they have a clitoris. They are told that everything “down there” is a vagina. According to acclaimed psychologist Harriet Lerner, this parental mislabeling stems from our cultural “dread and denial of female sexuality.”
  • Consider The Vagina Monologues: Again quoting Harriet Lerner, “Here was a play whose purpose was purportedly to restore pride in female genitals—including pride in naming—and it could not have been more confusing about genital reality… Shaving a vagina? Give me a break. Much of the play didn’t make sense unless you substituted the word vulva for vagina.”
  • Consider one of the most highly trafficked medical websites: Put “penis” into the search engine for WebMD, and you will be taken to an accurately labelled diagram of the penis and read that “the penis is the male sex organ.” Put “clitoris” or “vulva” into the WebMD search, and no picture will come up; instead you’ll be taken to articles on vulvar cancer and genital piercings. Put “vagina” into the search bar and you will be taken to a “picture of the vagina” with key parts labelled including the vagina, the inner and outer lips, and the fallopian tubes. Yet, strikingly, the clitoris isn’t anywhere to be found on this picture of the mistakenly-called vagina.

Some scholars contend that by relegating woman’s most important sexual organ to nameless invisibility, we are engaged in a psychological genital mutilation—a linguistic and symbolic clitoridectomy. Quoting from the online Tumblr site, V is for Vulva: “What isn’t named doesn’t exist, and every time someone uses the word “vagina” when they really mean “vulva,” they’re erasing some of the parts of a woman's sexual organs that give them the most pleasure!”

The clitoris is the organ of pleasure that is being erased. Like Voldemort in the infamous Harry Potter series—the clitoris remains She Who Must Not be Named. 

nomoresilence.com
Source: nomoresilence.com

Let’s name her. Like her male pleasure counterpart, let’s give her a nickname. Indeed, according to some authors, there are more nicknames for the penis than for any other word in our language. To name a few, there is Dick, Peter, and Johnson. In fact, one of these names (Dick) has become so synonymous with the word penis that it has made its way into online dictionaries. In short, we call the penis by people’s names and by doing so, we give it legitimacy as an entity onto itself.  

In my quest to bring similar cultural attention to the clitoris, I’ve come up with two nicknames:

  • Tori (short for CliTORIs)
  • Clio (short for CLItOris and pronounced Cleo).

I’ve run these names by friends, students and colleagues. A few react with shock (“You can’t just rename an organ!”). A few immediately take to one name or the other. Several embrace the idea of a nickname but wonder if I’ve found the right one. “I’m not sure it sounds just right” said one of my students. “How about Doris?” asked another, at the same time admitting that, while rhyming with clitoris, Doris really didn’t sound right either. Another suggested we call her “Samantha” for the infamous character on “Sex in the City.” One informed me that in Australia, some people call the clitoris Marcia. Another told me that the Mexican Spanish word for clitoris is Pepita.

While I initially took such uncertainty as a cue to continue my name search, I’ve since realized that the problem isn’t related to the names I've chosen.The problem is the reason a name is needed: There is discomfort and silence around women’s sexuality in general, and women’s most orgasmic organ in specific. After all, calling the clitoris Tori, Doris, or Pepita is no stranger than calling the penis Tom, Dick, or Peter. Calling her Samantha is no more nonsensical than calling him Johnson.

No nickname for the clitoris has penetrated popular culture because language reflects culture. We label “sex” as the act in which men reach orgasm. We elevate men’s sexual organ with countless nicknames that no longer seem strange to us. We label the whole of women’s genitalia by the one internal portion (the vagina) through which most men, rather than most women, reach orgasm. This is a cultural problem, not a word problem.

This cultural problem—the devaluing of women’s ways of reaching orgasm—is one of the reasons that at least 25% of women say they have problems reaching orgasm with a partner. For 90 - 93% of women, reaching orgasm requires clitoral stimulation, and requesting clitoral stimulation during partnered sex requires comfort in naming.

Let’s use language to shape our values around women’s orgasmic response. Let’s have a linguistic sexual revolution. Let’s start naming the clitoris openly and proudly. Let’s call her by her real name (“Clitoris”), her shortened name (“Clit”), or Betty Dodson’s pet-name (“Clitty”). Perhaps best yet, let’s use a nickname so frequently that it makes its way into online dictionaries.

Let’s spread the word about women’s sexual pleasure by picking THE WORD. Use this link to anonymously vote for Clio or Tori (or another name you like better). Ask your friends to vote. See the votes displayed in real time.

Let’s bring the clitoris into cultural consciousness. That starts with naming.

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Sculpture pic via Sewanee Women's Center Twitter account
Source: Sculpture pic via Sewanee Women's Center Twitter account

Readers: You also might be interested in this article about an artist who created a golden clitoris statue for similar reasons as I am writing this blog: To encourage a cultural embracing of female sexual pleasure.

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