Using the “proper words” for body parts- a gendered issue?


A year ago I wrote this for the New Statesman and on Tuesday the Sex Education Forum published this blog.

retweeting them yesterday @itsmotherswork asked in response

Which prompted this post as I needed to write a longer response than twitter allows for.

Personally I wouldn’t ever say any word to describe a body part is improper as it is just not a word I use (sounds a bit Victorian!), but obviously there are correct or scientific terms for body parts (penis) then colloquial accepted terms (willy) then slang or offensive terms (cock). That doesn’t mean the latter two are incorrect (if used about the right body part) but depends on context used in.

I have absolutely no objection to “bottom” being used instead of “anus” or “gluteus maximus” or “tummy” being used instead of “abdomen” as words to describe parts of the body for young children, children can build on the scientific terms for body parts as they grow up and tummy and bottom are widely accepted and pretty much universally known in English speaking countries.

I have HUGE OBJECTIONS to the fact that while “Willy” is a perfectly acceptable universal term to use for young children for the penis there absolutely no universal acceptable term for the vulva for children (terms range from the cutesy Fairy, NooNoo, Minnie, Twinkle*  to the rather cool Yoni (sanskrit for Vagina) frankly ick Front Bottom or Split).  This is about erasure of female sexuality, female identity- we are taught from a young age that our body parts are not even deserving of a proper name, they are either to be cutesey or shameful and mustn’t be discussed.  Have to be honest even I as a sex educator initially I was really not keen on the word vulva for a long time but in the absence of a better alternative**  it is what I use with my children***

Nowadays I am totally comfortable with the word vulva but I am 100% sure that the reason the DfE are completely refusing to specify Penis and Vulva and Vagina in the Science National Curriculum is because of a fear of the word vulva. Penis is not the problem. Vulva (and possibly vagina) is. But in the absence of a universal accepted colloquialism for vulva then vulva is what we must use- to do otherwise is a potential route to confusion, worry, stigma and shame.  It is a safeguarding issue not to have a common language of a body part that might be touched inappropriately****. It is also a health issue to be able to talk about where itches or is causing problems and it a sexuality issue about learning to communicate about your own body so that as a sexually active adult you know your body is not a source of sniggering or shame.

So vulva is a proper word- embrace it, say it with me. vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva, vulva

*Twinkle  always makes me think of the phrase “twinkle in your father’s eye”- Shudder.

** I decided against vagina as not anatomically correct as refers to the internal genitals.

***Whilst being respectful of any made up slang words they choose to adopt for their own body parts – but must admit I did gently steer away from “front bottom” which was picked up at nursery!

**** I read somewhere about a dad investigated at length by social services after a child was crying about “Daddy hurting my NooNoo”- NooNoo being her toy rabbit he had put in the washing machine- maybe an urban legend but makes a point.

The Obsession with Penis in Vagina (PIV) Sex


A discussion tonight on twitter about Gina Ford and her postnatal sex advice got me thinking more widely about societal obsession with “penis in vagina” sex as the “be all and end all”.

*rant alert* that’s a very narrow definition of what sex is. The wonderful Scarleteen have written many a marvellous article about this (which I will try and come back and link to when I get a moment) but I just wanted to highlight to those teaching sex education in schools that solely offering such a narrow perspective on sexual activity does your students a disservice (also is not very inclusive of LGB students). Also here is an interesting report from Kinsey exploring what sex is to different people.

Remember your lessons should always cover the foundations of a healthy sex life- trust, communication, respect etc. but I really think it is really important that teachers try to address this narrow perspective on sex where PIV sex is the only type of sex discussed. Not least so any budding Gina Ford’s in your class can be more informed 😉

Happy Educating!

Have you got a Vulva? No I drive a Volkswagen.


Am musing on terminology of “women’s bits” given that I came across a very interesting scarleteen article on the artist formerly known as the “hymen” (and henceforth known as the vaginal corona).

You can read it here:

Now as a science teacher originally, it used to drive me wild that when teaching the female reproductive tract, schools often only ever used diagrams of the internal organs.  I always ensured my students learnt about the external female genitals too including the clitoris and labia and explaining the difference between a vulva and a vagina.   It always struck me as so important especially as so many girls don’t appear to realise they have three holes down there! “no love you don’t wee and have a baby out of the same place” Sigh!

But I have to be honest I never realised the hymen was a patriarchal invention and that technically it was the “vaginal corona” . Now I have always explained that contrary to popular belief the “hymen” doesn’t cover the vagina  and that the idea of “cherry popping” wasn’t really true and that sex should never hurt but on the first time someone who is tense may feel discomfort etc etc (solutions being lube and foreplay and being comfortable with partner and 100% ready to have sex etc etc.) so I was a little cross to read this on the likeitis website under “sex”, “does it hurt?” ) “No, Though sex for the first time for a girl can be painful as the penis breaks through the hymen, the hymen is a thin membrane that covers the vagina”.   What!?  This is a well respected Sex Education website. ( Not to mention its heterosexist approach).  but really!  I may have been wrong to call it a hymen and not a vaginal corona but the rest of what I was saying was correct, so come on you sex ed peeps- lets get this right for our girls…..

….Lets talk about the clitoris as the only organ in humans whose function is solely pleasure, lets talk about the vaginal corona and not “hymen breaking” and lets distinguish between vulva and vagina. I mean I am not going all vagina monologues on you and wanting to shout “c***” in the street (that sort of thing could get you fired in a school!) but really we do need to be doing something to educate our girls FACTUALLY about their bodies. And you know what?- we should also be de-stigmatising female masturbation while we are at it.  Maybe then when women know and understand their sexual organs they can reclaim their own bodies as a source of sexual pleasure and to be quite honest I wouldn’t be surprised if that had an impact on unwanted pregnancy and STI rates.

Happy educating.

P.S In the interests of factual accuracy I have to admit I actually drive a Corsa