Welcome to my first guest post by Meryl White:
Your daughter has a vulva and a vagina. She should know these words.
Sounds simple, right? Yet a couple of weeks ago a Facebook photo supporting this sentiment generated a surprising amount of discussion and controversy. (Yes, I know that’s equivalent to the Jurassic period in Facebook time. In my defence, I have a mean case of the flu ). OK, so the photo shows a girl of about eight or nine holding up a placard saying Dear Grown-Ups, It’s Not a Pee-Pee or a Wee-Wee, It’s a VAGINA – Pass it On! Someone asked, “What’s the big deal with just calling them girl parts and boy parts or privates? I don’t get it, anybody want to explain?” Well, you don’t have to ask me twice. Here’s why I think it’s important that children know the anatomical names for their genitals.*
*As a side note, I’ve written this mostly with the presumption that your child is cis-gendered. Cis-gendered means that an individual identifies as the gender and sex they were assigned at birth[i]. Sometimes you teach your kid that girls have vulvas and then your child who has a vulva grows up to be a man instead. Or your child with a penis grows up to be a woman. So just be aware that the arguments connecting genitals and gender identity aren’t quite as simple as I’m making out. I’m also writing mostly about girl’s genitals, but this applies to boys too – more on that later.
Alright. Are you ready? Here we go.
First up, using vague euphemisms to describe body parts can create body shame – the idea that these parts are too dirty and taboo to even mention. This isn’t just a myth: women who’ve grown up using euphemistic terms for their genitals experience more shameabout their bodies and, of course, their genitals and reproductive health in particular[ii]. Children become aware of genital differences around fifteen to nineteen months of age[iii] – other researchers suggest even earlier. Irene Fast[iv]argues that children learn to think positively about their own gender by developing a positive view of genitalia and having knowledge of their own genitals. This seems like common sense: teaching your child that their genitals are normal, interesting and nothing shameful encourages him or her to develop a positive gender identity, which in turn promotes healthy body image. A review of child abuse research recommends “Teaching children the correct names for their genitals provides the necessary foundation for subsequent sexuality education and also helps children develop a positive body image.”[v]
Secondly, non-anatomical genital names don’t promote body knowledge. How else do girls learn they have a vulva with a vagina, clitoris and labia – and what the parts do – if not taught by their parents? A 2008 study found that while nearly 90% of English-speaking three, four and five year olds could correctly label body parts such as arm, leg, and eyes, only 11% of children could label a vulva and 16% could correctly label a penis[vi]. Boys are also far more likely than girls to know the correct names, even for female genitals.[vii]
Nor are the nicknames that replace proper names benign: they take away real naming power and instil negative ideas about genitalia. One study found that genital nicknames used for girls are more likely to be sexualised[viii] than terms used for boys. Another study found that girls’ genital nicknames were more often derogative[ix] and so vague that even the users of the nicknames weren’t sure exactly what they were referring to. So why do we bother? Given that for most of us, our genitals play a role in both our gender identity and sexuality, I would argue that being able to identify your genitals is a lot more important than being able identify your nostril or belly button.
Third, teaching incorrect genital names doesn’t promote open dialogue between a child and parent. If a child isn’t receiving open, honest and accurate information from their parents they will find it elsewhere (for example: television[x]). And they will stop asking you. I want my daughter to be able to come to me with her questions about her body (and later, sex) and know that she’ll be able to get a frank answer in return. I want to have that dialogue with her long before magazines, media and friends tell her what her body should look like and do.
In fact – the earlier you start, the easier it is. Parents who wait to begin anatomical and sex education find it more difficult as there is no knowledge base on which to build slowly.[xi]And parents who wait until they think their children are considering becoming sexually active have often already missed the boat[xii]. In contrast, family education about sexuality increases your child’s knowledge and facilitates informed decision making[xiii].When parents talk to their adolescents about sexuality, adolescents are more likely to delay intercourse and if they have intercourse, to use contraception and have fewer sexual partners.[xiv] Researchers Rosenthal and Feldman[xv]concluded that “if parents start the communication process early in their child’s life, and include sex as one of many matters worthy of discussion, they can establish a pattern of reciprocal openness, closeness, values and beliefs before adolescents confront the twin tasks of integrating sexuality and dealing with issues of autonomy and independence.” I reckon that’s pretty spot on.
Finally, it’s a safety issue. I realise this isn’t a nice topic to think about, but please bear with me for a bit. Paedophiles use pet names for genitals, so if your child suddenly starts referring to her vulva as her “flower”, you can take that as a warning sign. For young children in particular it is important they are able to explain that abuse is happening and not be misunderstood or have any possibility of misinterpretation. Child sex crime researcher David Finkelhor argues that “Children may be able to prevent some or much sexual abuse. Even if difficult, children themselves would undoubtedly prefer to have the knowledge and skills to try. We give children skills for other challenging and unequal prevention situations such as stranger abduction….”[xvi] So, we need to be equally unembarrassed in giving our children the knowledge to circumvent potential abuse situations. Child sex abusers avoid children who know correct genital terminology, because they usually have more knowledge about body safety and inappropriate touch.[xvii] Other research has found child sex abusers avoid children who demonstrate genital terminology knowledge because they have a better ability to tell adults about abuse[xviii]. So teaching proper names helps keep your kids safe.
One more thing. Girls versus boys: Why is this stuff is especially important for girls? To start with, girls’ genitals just aren’t as visible as boys’. We have to have a good look with a mirror to see all of our genitals. Because we have less opportunity to see our genitals, we need frank and honest education about them even more. As adults, women’s bodies are subject to much more medical scrutiny than males: we have gynaecological appointments and pap smears. We get pregnant and experience maternity and perhaps labour interventions to varying degrees. Rodriguez and Schonfeld argue that
Lack of precision in terminology runs the risk of reducing all female genitals to the vagina, and this in turn perpetuates a narrow view of female bodies, the role of female body parts, and female pleasures…. Referring collectively to women’s genitals with a vague “down there” does not encourage women to understand their anatomy and its proper functioning state; as a consequence of not knowing, women may have difficulty identifying both normal features of their body and indicators of pathology and subsequently communicating with their health care providers.[xix]
If we want women to make informed decisions about their bodies and their health, that has got to start with our girls. Women’s bodies are also subject to more intense social scrutiny and sexualisation. Genitals aren’t exempt from that – genital modification trends run the gamut from waxing to cosmetic labia reductions. If women knew their genitals were totally normal, would they still have genital surgery? If everyone talked about vulvas and vaginas when necessary instead of using sexualised slang, would the sexual objectification of women be turned down just a notch? Contrast all this social and sexual pressure with the fact that girls are less likely than boys to even know the proper words for their genitals, and it’s no wonder body shame is so common among women. Because the social ideas about girls’ bodies and the stigma about their genitalia are so much stronger, we need to work that bit harder on promoting genital knowledge for girls.
Of course, it should be clear by now that I think that knowing the correct names for genitals is important for everyone. By using the correct names we’ll lay aside the negativity and shame that surrounds genitals, help keep our kids safe and improve everyone’s bodily knowledge. Viva la vulva!
[ii] Martin, K., Verduzco Baker, L., Torres, J., & Luke, K. (2011). Privates, pee-pees, and coochies: Gender and genital labeling for/with young children. Feminism & Psychology,21(3), 420-430.
[iii] Honig, A. (2000). Psychosexual-development in infants and young children. Young Children, 55(5), 70-77.
[iv] Fast, I. (1999). Aspects of core gender identity: Psychoanalytic dialogues. The International Journal of Relational Perspectives, 9(5), 633-661.
[v] Wurtele, S., & Kenny, M. (2010). Partnering with parents to prevent childhood sexual abuse. Child Abuse Review, 19(1) 130–152.
[vi] Wurtele, S., & Kenny, M. (2010). Partnering with parents to prevent childhood sexual abuse. Child Abuse Review, 19(1) 130–152.
[viii] Martin, K., Verduzco Baker, L., Torres, J., & Luke, K. (2011). Privates, pee-pees, and coochies: Gender and genital labeling for/with young children. Feminism & Psychology,21(3), 420-430.
[ix] Braun, V., & Kitzinger, C. (2001). “Snatch,” “Hole,” or “Honey‐pot”? Semantic categories and
the problem of nonspecificity in female genital slang. Journal of Sex Research, 38(2), 146-158.
[x] Kelley, P., Buckingham, D., & Davies, H. (1999). Talking dirty: Children, sexual knowledge and television. Childhood, 6(2), 221.
[xi] McGuire, C., C. Hogg, and R. Barker, eds. (1996). Health promotion and the family: Messages from four research studies. London: Health Education Authority.
[xii] Eisenberg, M., Sieving, R., Bearinger, L., Swain, C., & Resnick, M. (2006). Parents’ communication with adolescents about sexual behavior: A missed opportunity for prevention? Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 35(6), 893-902.
[xiii] Walker, J. (2004). Parents and sex education – Looking beyond ‘the birds and the bees’. SexEducation 4: 239–54.
[xiv] Schuster, M. A., Corona, R., Elliott, M. N., Kanouse, D. E., Eastman, K. L., Zhou, A. J., & Klein, D. J. (2008). Evaluation of Talking Parents, Healthy Teens, a new worksite based parenting programme to promote parent-adolescent communication about sexual health: randomised controlled trial. BMJ: British Medical Journal (International Edition), 337(7664), 273-277.
[xv] Kesterton, D., & Coleman, L. (2010). Speakeasy: a UK-wide initiative raising parents’ confidence and ability to talk about sex and relationships with their children. Sex Education, 10(4), 437-448.
[xvii] Elliot, M., Browne, K. & Kilcoyne, J. ( 1995). Child sexual abuse prevention; What offenders tell us. Child Abuse & Neglect, 19(5), 1995.
[xviii] Sprengelmeyer, M. E., & Vaughan, K. (2000, October 8). Stalking children. Denver Rocky Mountain News, pp. 5a, 41-45a.
[xix] Rodriguez, S. B., & Schonfeld, T. L. (2012). The Organ-That-Must-Not-Be-Named: Female Genitals and Generalized References. Hastings Center Report, 42(3), 19-21.