What's wrong with the word vagina?

Why does the word 'vagina' make us uncomfortable?
Why does the word 'vagina' make us uncomfortable? Photo: Getty

Growing up, the words vagina and penis were never uttered in my household. And the only euphemisms I remember being used among siblings and friends was dink or crotch, which was interchangeable between boys and girls. Today, I would be far more embarrassed to use those words over vagina or penis! I cannot hear or use the word dink without laughing. I know, real mature. 

I have a son and my husband and I have taught him the proper words for genitals from a young age. He uses other names but mostly, it's penis.

Penis seems to be more socially acceptable, but say vagina and eyes descend and faces glow.  

I have friends raising girls who have taught them to call their genitals whoz-it or mini.

My friend who uses the term mini (and did not want to be named) says she picked up the word from another friend. “I just think it sounds better than vagina and I feel it's inappropriate for a child to be yelling out the word vagina in public,” she says.

Inappropriate? 

If the word is inappropriate, what about the area itself? And how is this message impacting on girls' sexual health, knowledge and confidence?

When Melbourne mum, Anna Spargo-Ryan's nine year-old daughter came home from school suddenly referring to her genitals as 'her inappropriate area', she nearly lost it.

“We have always used proper names, but she came home recently and talked about her 'inappropriate area'. I don't know who's taught her that, but I am mighty upset with them,” she says.

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Turns out, when Anna talked to her about it, she learned that her child was embarrassed to use the “real” words. “We talked about why that area isn’t ‘inappropriate’. I'm trying (hoping!) to raise sexually empowered daughters and teach them about the difference between inappropriate and private.” 

Dr Kathryn Berry, clinical psychologist at The Quirky Kid Clinic (www.childpsychologist.com.au) says it's important to discuss these important body parts with your child and let them know that it is a private part, one they wouldn't show off at the park. 

She also says it's common to have inherent fears or embarrassment with this topic because it's become “ingrained to not openly talk about the vagina or penis.”

Dr Berry agrees that the word penis is more socially acceptable and known about than the vagina. According to studies she has read, statistics shows that more three-year-old boys know the correct name for their genitalia then girls. 

“The research concluded that only half the girls in the study knew the name of their vagina or vulva whereas almost all the boys knew the word penis,” says Dr Berry.

Dr Berry says using euphemisms for genitalia, especially for girls, can lead to feelings of guilt and shame about their body.

“I don't think it's helpful for girls to use euphemisms because the long term consequences are feelings of shame and embarrassment, which may prevent them from talking about any problems or concerns they have about their genitalia. You'd never tell a child to not talk about their nose because it's too embarrassing. Parents need to leave their own fears behind so their child can have a healthy view of their body,” she says.

Anea Bogue, self-esteem expert and author of 9 Ways We're Screwing Up Our Girls and How We Can Stop agrees. She says research has shown that girls who become informed about their bodies early, including the accurate names for their genitalia, have better body awareness.

“There is no reason to call female genitalia by anything other than its name because when we do, it implies that we are not supposed to call it what it is, know about it, talk about it, be informed about it and stay connected to it. When we create fear in girls about their bodies, they become much less likely to stay connected to it and believe they are in charge of it,” she says.

So, is vagina the correct word to be teaching our kids? 

Not exactly.

“Though the word vagina is commonly used, the vagina is actually the area that extends from the vaginal opening up to the cervix, not the entire area, including the important parts on the outside, like the clitoris, labia, etc. That said, it's certainly much better than the many cutesy names we often come up with as parents,” says Anea.

Like many of us, Anna uses the word vagina to describe the entire, and let's face it complex, female genitalia but she has taught her daughters all the correct terms.

“It's important to me to help them understand their body and what it does and will do. We use vagina in the non-biologically correct way, incorporating every part of the inner and outer reproductive area, though I’ve taught them the anatomically correct names for each of the main parts of the system: ovaries, uterus, cervix, fallopian tubes,” says Anna.

In all honesty, I'm glad I have a son but that doesn't mean these female issues do not need to be addressed in my household. Just as Anna Spargo-Ryan wants to raise sexually empowered daughters, I want to raise a son who respects women, especially their vaginas. 

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