In a world dominated by patriarchy every aspect of an individual’s being gets distorted through the patriarchal lens. Simone de Beauvoir, the iconic feminist, wrote, “Humanity is male, and man defines woman, not in herself, but in relation to himself”. The act of defining women in relation to men extends to the conversation or the lack of it around female biology. In popular culture, there are many terms such as “lady bits”, “vajayjay”, “hoohas” that alludes to vagina, the term is hardly said out loud because of the shame and taboo attached to it.

A brief dive into the history of the term vagina will quickly reveal its patriarchal foundations. The term vagina in Latin meant a sheath, which is the outer covering of a sword. This is in relation to gladius which is means sword in Latin, was a common term for penis. Hence, vagina is the sheath to the sword of a penis. Historically, women have been viewed as passive counterparts who need to balance out their hyper-active male counterparts. This patriarchal binary of passive for female and active for male extends to the conversation of biology and the way female anatomy is viewed by male gaze.

Brief History of Misunderstanding the Vagina

In medieval times the belief that women and men had essentially the same reproductive organs was a common belief. It was believed that a woman’s genitals are a man’s genitals but turned inwards. Hence, the scrotum would be the uterus, the penis would be the vagina and the testicles would be the ovaries. Nobody asked the pressing the questions that if men and women essentially shared the same genitals then why couldn’t men reproduce? Or what was the clitoris doing in this problematic analogy? Nobody and by that I mean, men deciding about women’s bodies, were not concerned about these questions. They had a point to take and that was women are imperfect men.

This belief was common in the till about the 18th century. 19th century saw the rise of modern medicine and visiting doctors became a common phenomenon and then awareness about women’s genitals started to spread. Even today women’s bodies and sexuality is heavily policed and controlled through patriarchal laws and norms. Perhaps that is why the term vagina, despite its patriarchal history continued to persist to define and connote female genitals. But is this usage accurate?

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Vagina or Vulva: What Should the Female Genital be Called?

Vulva is the Latin term for wrapper. It was used to mean uterus being a wrapper for the embryo and foetus. In contemporary usage, vulva implies the external female genital. Hence, while the term vagina is used to denote female genitals what they actually mean is the vulva.

Vulva is the part of the genitals which is outside the body and includes the labia, clitoris, vaginal opening and the opening of the urethra. Vagina is the tube that connects vulva with the cervix and uterus. It is through this tube of a vagina, the babies and the menstrual blood leave our bodies. Even then, in everyday conversation, we refer to vulva as the vagina.

Why it is that vagina is commonly used and vulva as a word has been sidelined? The reason for this usage as well is patriarchal. Male gaze has viewed women’s body either for male pleasure or reproduction. The conversation around female pleasure continues to be a taboo topic. In such conceptualisation, male pleasure and reproduction is carried out through vagina, not vulva. Hence, a patriarchal construction of female anatomy would reduce female genitals to the vagina which furthers the cause of patriarchy. Vulva slowly became a quiet word, written in biology textbooks and not brought into common conversation because it is the site of female pleasure, the clitoris. Hence, vulva, that furthers the cause of female pleasure, continues to suffer a linguistic annihilation. Whereas vagina continues to be a part of our conversation because discourse around female health, anatomy and pleasure continues to be sites of patriarchy.

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Vagina to Vulva: The Crucial Shift in Language

Language shapes the way we think. Patriarchal language has one agenda, which is to further the cause of patriarchy. However, a feminist understating of looking at female anatomy must make us wonder if we can continue to afford using the word vagina anymore. The history of the term vagina is rooted in male pleasure. If we want to claim sexual agency and control over our bodies, we perhaps need to gain control over the language which is used to label the body and its various parts.

Vulva, the site of female pleasure, is what needs to become a part of our everyday conversation around female genitals. We need to be able to speak of women’s agency in a language that is empowering. Hence, perhaps it’s time we claimed the vulva!

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