Viva la vagina

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Stylist Team
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From the downright insulting ‘clunge’ to the sickeningly twee ‘flower’, Naomi Wolf argues that it’s time to revisit how we talk about vaginas

Picture credit: Rex Features

Punani. This six-letter word used to denote the vagina is the glorious and lasting legacy that Ali G bestowed upon the modern idiom. And then 10 years later The Inbetweeners unleashed the schoolboy word of choice, ‘clunge’, onto an unsuspecting nation. Did either word cause widespread outrage among the female population? Hardly. We giggled along at the childishness of it all, shrugged with indifference when it was adopted into everyday lexicon, and got on with life. Colloquialisms for female genitalia are part of our daily language – as are men’s – and have been so for time immemorial. Often, it’s just the awkward British habit of finding a roundabout way to talk about human sex organs without using the correct medical words. Because, let’s be honest, what’s easy about the word vagina? Using that in conversation just makes people shuffle awkwardly and conjures up either medical journals or painfully funny sex ed classes when you stifled giggles for 40 long minutes.

More than that, talking about sex needs the softening effect of humour. Yes, it no doubt casts us all in a rather pitiful, puerile light but, hell, sex is funny. Sexual organs are funny, and the actual deed is always laced with embarrassment and potential life-long humiliation – so what do we do about it? Well, we make a joke of it.

But, while you can no doubt count the various terms we know to describe women’s genitalia – some quite amusing, some, admittedly, pretty horrific – did you ever consider that something deeper and more injurious is at play when words for the female form are used alongside nuances of sexual violence? For instance, how did terms for the vagina become pejorative – slung around now as insults? Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth and firebrand of third-wave feminism looks to explore such questions in her new book Vagina. It’s certainly thought-provoking. Here, writing exclusively for Stylist, she argues that some words to describe female genitalia have taken on such undertones of violence that their regular usage can, in fact, undermine the confidence and self-belief of a woman by affecting the entire nervous system.

So, prepare yourself to think about how we talk about vaginas in a more serious light. Oh, and stop laughing…

“Do rape jokes really matter? Does the c-word have any real bearing in how women feel about themselves? Should we all just lighten up? The vagina is called all kinds of things, and over the past 5,000 years it has been targeted with hostility by such Church Fathers as Tertullian [a second and third century Christian author] as ‘the gateway to hell’, affectionately named ‘queynte’ by Chaucer and ‘that seat of women’s delight’ by a Renaissance anatomist named – unbelievably – Columbus, who discovered the clitoris. It’s also been deemed ‘the golden lotus’ and the ‘jade gate’ by Han dynasty poets in China. Today, there are so many slang terms for vagina. Many of them, as I note in my book, are apparently derived from fast-food (‘pink taco’) and few of them are words that women themselves embrace with much enthusiasm. (I was startled to find in a list of UK slang for the vagina what must be the ugliest word in the language, ‘clunge’, before finding my favourite contemporary English slang term, ‘the force’.)

The words we have to describe the vagina, in this culture, tend to seem ickily medical – or tackily porn-y. And rape jokes, as one of my readers mused after thinking about her years watching the Edinburgh Festival’s comedians, are everywhere. And we are all just supposed to laugh along.

Word play

But does language about the vagina actually make a difference, in ways we have just begun to understand? The answer is yes. If you feel strangely uneasy around rape jokes, or try to shrug them off but find you are still angry or upset, or if you wish that ‘gash’ or ‘slit’ weren’t quite so aggressive sounding, or if you notice that when men don’t want women in the workplace in a male-dominated profession, someone might post a piece of porn that makes fun of women as mere ‘pussies’ – you should know that there are real reasons for your discomfort. Targeting women’s vaginas – even with language – can affect their bodies and minds in subtle ways.

Science of sex

The new science about female sexuality reveals that women are much more dependent on states of relaxation and feeling safe for arousal than men are. This is because so much of female sexual response, as the new data shows, has to do with the workings of the autonomic nervous system. So, ‘bad stress’ directly and negatively affects the aspects of her whole being, which a woman needs in order to stay optimally responsive.

For obvious reasons, language that is sexually threatening and insulting – like the young Yale men who chanted, ‘No means yes and yes means anal’ at young women at a Take Back The Night March [an internationally held annual march against rape] – are making a joke but they are also using ‘joking’ language that contains an echo of sexual violence.

The female arousal cycle is so dependent on relaxation, or feeling safe in an environment, that all aspects of a woman’s life, even the most intimate, can suffer when she is working or studying in an environment that regularly exposes her to the stress of sexually hostile language or imagery, which targets the vagina.

The young women who brought the suit against Yale for allowing a ‘hostile environment’ – tolerating such ‘jokes’ – are right on the science: it is hard for women students to concentrate, and for women workers to achieve, when their bodies are forced to react to the ‘bad stress’ of sexually demeaning language. There is yet another effect; women need relaxation to have truly powerful arousal and orgasms, let alone get completely aroused at all. Desire and orgasm in turn boost dopamine, oxytocin and opioids in the female brain, which gives a woman access to mood states that, in turn, can boost her confidence, creativity and sense of intimacy, as well as having other positive benefits. So upsetting a woman at work or in a social setting with sexually hostile language can actually negatively affect other areas of her life outside of that setting over time.

What do we do about this? Ban rape jokes in comedy clubs? Of course not. But it should make the issue of low-level harassment – what Roseanne Barr called the ‘stinky pussy’ jokes that were ritualised in the all-male writers’ room, the ‘who put a pubic hair in my Coke’ from the Hill-Thomas hearings [a ground-breaking sexual harassment case in 1991], and the spray-painted word c*** that women miners found on their locker rooms in Pennsylvania when they started to integrate the mining industry – have a more serious dimension than we think.

Perhaps the new science can reinforce the fact that creating workplaces and universities – and social interactions – in which women and their sexuality are treated with respect, is an essential, not a trivial, part of respecting them as workers, students and people.”

Vagina: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf is out now (£12.99, Virago)