How do you feel when you hear the word “vagina”? Does it make you squirm? Does it bring to mind a region of the female body that is to be guarded and unexamined unless necessary? Are you comfortable with your vagina, or at least talking about it? Were you taught to call it something else?
What if I were to tell you, that the word vagina in latin means “a sheath or scabbard”, as in “a sheath for a sword”. How do you feel now? Better? worse? indifferent?
I’ll tell you how I feel. Angry. I only recently learned of this etymological definition through a midwifery textbook, and I’m not sure why, but it really shook me up to acknowledge that the word we have been given (by men) to call one of women’s most sacred and beautiful elements, is literally in relation to how it can serve the penis of a man. I don’t know about you, but that thought has me on edge. Yes, no one recognizes the root of the word anymore or thinks of it this way (at least not that they will admit in developed countries) but in my mind, thousands of years of female subjection, abuse and disregard are wrapped up in this one small word.
But really, it’s a big word. Harsh on the tongue, loaded with cultural images and history of a time that women had to protect theirs fiercely in order to retain their value. And yet what is revealed in this word that has been chosen for us and perpetuated as medically accurate by an arbitrary system? That its (and women’s) function has for far too long been little than that of a covering for male ego.
But why be so angry? I questioned this of myself in response to my own reaction. And I concluded that my strong emotion lies in not only my own issues with a male dominated medical system and style of health care, but in my desire to do something about it. My textbook, written by a similarly opinioned woman, suggests that we stop using the term and replace it in practice. Seems simple enough, and even reasonable. Why not start small and see where the effort takes us? But even in what I’ve seen come out of the institution that is providing my curriculum, there is no trend to take the well respected author’s suggestion. And I have to wonder why. Why is it so hard to go against something so degrading by its very nature? Why can’t we stand up and release this term from our vocabulary? Honestly I don’t know. I’m sure it has something to do with our adherence to uniformity and our unwillingness in general to be so different that we stand out and appear “weird”. And I’m sure it has something to do with our lack of desire to challenge the male centered medical perspective that we give such deference to.
But these reasons don’t seem like enough. As I have thought about what to do in my own life, teaching my children seems like a good place to start. Yes, I know the stereotypes of parents that choose to give their children alternate and vague names for body parts, but really, there’s an equal stereotype for parents that teach early and correct anatomy, physiology and terminology. Both seem strange to the other side. And what is interesting to me, is that in the absence of direct teaching, children come up with their own names anyway. (My oldest began calling her’s “front bum” until we corrected her) So what can we do? Is it worth the risk of people not knowing what we’re talking about? Would it affect children socially? Should they ever be talking about it outside of the home anyway (at least not until sex ed)?
Of course, there was the natural question of what to call it instead. Anne Frye, author of Holistic Midwifery Volumes 1 and 2 suggests that we use the word “yoni”. Out of all other languages, the only one that didn’t further degrade female genitalia, was the sanskrit term for vagina. But even more than that, yoni is the “origin of life” in Hindu Tantric philosophy, and also referred to as the “divine mother of all”. Isn’t that a lovely image? A spoken and written connection to our divine mother as the giver of life? A symbolic break with centuries of patriarchy that attempted to control women down to their very sexual identity and terminology. Yes, I could continue to go with the flow and call it a vagina, but something in me feels the need to step out of my comfort zone and make a real change in perception, and maybe even offer a sense of greater empowerment to the women I serve.
What do you think? Do you think it’s weird to try and change the name for our genitals? How would you feel if you heard someone refer to a vagina as a yoni? What do you think of the word ‘yoni’ as a replacement?