How Nameless Invisibility Harms
By calling women's genitals "vagina," we're erasing their orgasmic center.
Posted Aug 14, 2017
Do you recall the old saying, "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me?" Well, psychologists know this isn't true. Names can cut like a knife and leave permanent psychic scars. Yet, something else can hurt just as deeply, and that is rendering something or someone to nameless invisibility.
In Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel, The Handmaid's Tale, recently adapted as a Hulu TV series, the handmaids were a group of women enslaved for their reproductive capacity. The handmaids' real names were taken away, and they were re-named in relation to their Commanders — the men to whom they were enslaved to reproduce for. The narrator of the story, once named Jane, was re-named "Offred" — short for "Of Fred." In other words, the handmaid's essence was stripped away, and she was named in terms of her relation to men.
We do the same thing to women's genitals.
Before explaining, a brief anatomy lesson is in order. Women have visible (outside) and invisible (inside) parts of their genitals. The visible part is called the vulva, which includes the inner and outer lips, the tip of the clitoris, the opening to the urethra (where urine comes out), and the opening to the vagina (where the penis goes in and babies come out). A woman’s inside parts include her inner clitoris and her vaginal canal (her vagina). The vast majority of a woman's touch sensitive nerve endings are on her vulva, not in her vagina. That's why, depending on the study, researchers find that anywhere from 80-95 percent of women need external vulva stimulation (usually the clitoris) to experience orgasm. Only 5-20 percent of women orgasm through internal vaginal stimulation (e.g., intercourse) alone. Despite this, we call everything "down there" a vagina. As aptly stated by Rebecca Chalker, we are thus calling all of women’s genitals by the part (the vagina) that’s sexually more useful to men than it is to women themselves.
Several scholars have pointed out how this harms women's sexuality and orgasmic potential. Some scholars have referred to this as a "linguistic genital mutilation" or a "symbolic clitoridectomy." A bit more softly stated on the now defunct 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 It’s time we stop making ourselves—and parts of our bodies—invisible, and that starts with using the right language.
In my new book, Becoming Cliterate, I go into this argument in more detail and suggest we start using the correct language (vulva, clitoris) when talking about women's sexual anatomy. Taking this a step further, based on the fact that some linguists say there are more nicknames for the penis than any other body part in the English language, and almost no common nicknames for the clitoris, I also suggest we nickname the clitoris. In the same spirit of naming the penis after a person and thereby giving it legitimacy as an entity unto itself (e.g., Dick, Johnson), I suggest people's names like, Tori (cliTORIs) and Clio (CLItOrs).
Despite this being my own favorite part of the book, it's the part that's been both misunderstood and critiqued. A New York Times Book Review called the idea of nicknaming the clitoris "too cute" — thereby diminishing the serious nature of this cultural linguistic analysis, as well as missing the psychological and sexual harm of not naming.
Also, when I posted a quote from this section of the book (to the left) on my professional Facebook page, it went ugly viral. I was called a "slut" for talking about my clitoris (underscoring the slut shaming analysis in another part of the book). One comment stated, "Women are being stoned to death and you're worried about what you call your clit?!" Truth be told, the latter comment resulted in a lot of self-doubt. I began to wonder if what I am trying to do (i.e., bring the clitoris into the cultural limelight and thereby enhance women's pleasure) is meaningless and unimportant, given the many human rights violations and horrors in the world. In the end, thanks to some wise friends, I realized that women being stoned to death and the fact we linguistically erase women's most essential sexual organ are both tied to the same root cause: A fear and hatred of women's sexuality. I also realized that women's sexual pleasure is not frivolous. Sexual health — including access to pleasure — is, in fact, a right discussed by the World Health Organization. As stated in a post I saw on social media, "Access to Sexual Pleasure is a Fundamental Human Right."
The totalitarian regime that captured the handmaids relegated them to "Of Men." Let's not do the same thing with our genital anatomy, either in terms of sexual agency (i.e., sexual assertion around what brings us pleasure and orgasm) or sexual linguistics. Names matter — including not naming.