I recently sat down with Jessy Schmidt to discuss her upcoming workshop The Oyster and The Pearl: How to Pleasure the Vulva. One of the issues that became immediately clear was that we were having a very difficult time figuring out what language to use when discussing female assigned genitals in mixed company. This came down to the fact that many words that refer to the vulva and vagina are divisive, alienating, misleading, technically incorrect, or a combination of all of the above.
For example, many of our favorite words for our own genitals are commonly offensive to others. I personally like the word "pussy," but many people have very negative reactions to that word. They may associate it with a certain kind of porn they hate or the fact that it is used derogatorily or for some unknown visceral reason. As Schmidt pointed out, a word like "cunt"—or "the 'C' word which one dare not utter in polite company"—is even more divisive and is potentially interpreted as "the most offensive possible insult." According to Inga Muscio, in her book Cunt: A Declaration of Independence, it is not a coincidence that words for typically female assigned anatomies, specifically the parts whose primary/only purpose is pleasure, have become derogatory. She points out that the word "cunt" was neither demeaning nor taboo during the Middle Ages. It simply referred to the whole vulva/vagina package in pretty matter of fact, and even complimentary ways.
Also, the distinction between "vagina" and "vulva" is very important, and the fact that "vagina" has become an ubiquitous term while the word "vulva" is still mysterious and unrecognized- is very telling. As Muscio points out, etymologically "vagina" means "sword sheath." This implies that it exists to sheath the sword. It is the internal canal between the vulva and the uterus whose functions include being a passageway for birthing infants, pleasuring penises, and in many cases, providing pleasure for the body it belongs to. Contrast this with vulva. Vulva refers to the clitoral, labial, and other external erogenous tissues in that vicinity—a part of the body, which provides no benefit for others, but provides pleasure to the body it belongs to. In fact, 70 to 80 percent of women require direct clitoral stimulation in order to achieve an orgasm. Is it a coincidence that vulva is the more obscure of the two words?
As a result, we get cringe-worthy moments in The Vagina Monologues where she talks about "shaving" her "vagina." Not to mention that almost the entire monologue is actually about vulvas. (PSA: don't ever shave your vagina. Pussy haircuts should be restricted to non-mucous membranes.)
The challenges of finding the appropriate terminology to describe our junk are further accentuated by the heavy gender associations our culture has with specific genitalia. That is, gender is caricaturized and desperately packed into two neat dichotomies of "female" and "male." There are people born with anatomy that is neither typically female or male, and there are those that are assigned a certain gender at birth based on the anatomy that they were born with but in fact do not identify as/are not that gender. While referring to a certain guy's anatomy as a vulva may be technically accurate, it is a word loaded with feminine implications.
In an effort to remain gender-neutral, Schmidt has referred to different sets of genitals as "innies" and "outies." In our discussions, I confessed that I took offense to "innie" describing my genitals. I felt that it was another dichotomous word that implied a receptacle. On both a physical and energetic level I experience my genitals as having external mass with a two-way sexual flow. It both receives inward and projects outward pleasure. Her beautiful reply was this: "... language is alive. There is no perfect word. Being open to new things and trying them out is important, as is constantly trying to find ways to honor what folks feel and need."
Join Schmidt this Sunday to learn a thing or two about how to actually go about pleasing this multi-layered work of anatomical art referred to as the vulva!
Ally Booker is a pleasure activist passionate about educating herself and others on cool sexuality related things like communication skills, creating and respecting boundaries, sexual self-determination, destigmatization, gender and sexual expressions, sex toy use and safety, and all the other mechanics of pleasure. You can often find her at her Tucson shop, Jellywink Boutique, 418 E. 7th St. You can reach her at 777-9434 or AllyBooker@Jellywink.com.