"That's his penis, isn't it, Mommy?" squealed a preschool girl pointing to a naked baby boy in the YWCA locker room. The mother answered in the affirmative.
"And what's that?" the girl asked, pointing now at the crotch of a naked little girl standing nearby. "That's her vagina," her mother answered with that false brightness adults reserve for addressing the very young and the very old.
I cleared my throat to speak--but then bit my tongue. I wanted to lean over and say, "Hey, I think I know something that you don't know." Or, maybe, "Vagina! You must be kidding! Do you have X-ray vision, lady?" But who am I to correct other people's language?
In truth, I've been correcting people's language for more than two decades, although I restrain myself in public places. More specifically, I've been raising "vulva consciousness" since the early '70s, publishing and lecturing on the importance of accurate labeling of the vulva, which includes the labia and clitoris. I had reason to believe I was making progress.
But when I saw "The Vagina Monologues" with my husband, Steve, in New York City, I felt I had fallen down the rabbit hole in "Alice in Wonderland." 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.
Amazingly, women and men watched this play and pretended, even to themselves, that nothing is amiss--that the mislabeling of female genitals wasn't happening or didn't matter. Of course, many folks did notice.
"Is there a sudden mass feminist amnesia about the difference between a vagina and a vulva?" my dear friend Emily Kofron pondered. "I doubt that men would tolerate a supposed celebration of their sexuality that confused a scrotum or testicle with a penis. Are we women so accustomed to subordination that we remain pathetically grateful for any acknowledgement of our female genitalia no matter how inaccurate?"
Although some of the stories in the play were actually about the vagina, usually you had to substitute the word vulva for them to make any sense of it at all. Apparently, we still haven't solved the what-do-we-name-it problem for women.
Language can be powerful
The widespread denial of female external genitalia (and thus of female sexuality, if not female reality) is a subject worthy of serious discourse. It is true that Americans do not excise the clitoris and ablate the labia, as is practiced in other cultures on countless girls and women. Instead, we do the job linguistically-- psychic genital mutilation, if you will. Language can be as powerful and swift as the surgeon's knife. What is not named does not exist.
Most of us were raised on some variation of "boys have a penis and girls have a vagina." To quote from a popular book of the day: "A girl has two ovaries, a uterus, and a vagina, which are her sex organs. A boy's sex organs are a penis and testicles. One of the first changes [at puberty] will be the growth of hair around the vaginal opening of the girl." Such partial and inaccurate labeling of female genitalia might inspire any pubescent girl to sit on the bathroom floor with a mirror and conclude that she is a freak.
My first serious attempt to raise vulva consciousness was directed toward my professional colleagues. After joining the staff of the Menninger Clinic, I published a paper called "Parental Mislabeling of Female Genitals as a Determinant of Penis Envy and Learning Inhibitions in Women."
A case example illustrated how the failure to accurately label the girl's external genitalia contributes to shame and confusion about sexuality, as well as to inhibitions about looking and learning. The article appeared in 1974 in a prestigious psychoanalytic journal and was met with a dignified fraternal silence. I received only two reprint requests, both from West Germany. My colleagues continued to say "vagina" when they meant "vulva."
I've now interviewed hundreds of mostly white, middle-class parents and the vast majority misused the word vagina to refer to "everything girls have." Many educated parents reported they had never heard the word vulva. And the many parents who were knowledgeable about the correct words gave the most imaginative reasons for not using them: "Telling my daughter about her clitoris is like telling her to go masturbate." "Vulva is a medical term, and I don't want to burden her with words that her friends don't know." "Vulva and clitoris are technical terms" (this one from parents who taught their young daughter about ovaries and fallopian tubes).
Misuse creates shame
Surely we need to look beyond such excuses and get beyond our discomfort with female anatomy and sexuality. The persistent misuse of the word "vagina" for everything "down there" impairs the girl's capacity to develop an accurate and differentiated representation or "map" of her internal and external genitals. The fact that the girl's own exploration of her genitals is not corroborated by accurate language also creates body shame and anxiety about sexuality.
I founded the V-Club in the 1980s with a group of New York feminist scholars. As president of the club, I invite all of you to become members. The criterion for membership is to use the words vulva and vagina correctly, and to encourage others to do the same. There are no membership cards, T-shirts or buttons. But, if you meet the criterion for membership, you'll have more holes punched in your Feminist Heaven card. You'll be giving more power to women, which is also a gift to men.
The challenge brings each of us back to the little girl in the locker room who asked her mother, "And what's that?"
How specifically would you answer her?
It's her vulva. We can say it out loud. And we owe it to ourselves, to women of all ages, to distinguish internal from external and to use the right words.
Harriet Lerner, a Lawrence, Kan., resident, is an expert on the psychology of women and family relationships. She is the author of "The Dance of Anger."