Laurie Toby Edison

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Vagina Drama, and Why It Matters

Laurie and Debbie say:

Everyone is probably aware that Michigan Democratic State Senator Lisa Brown had a one-day gag order imposed upon her for using the word “vagina”  in a comment about state abortion clinic regulations. What she said was, “I’m flattered you’re all so interested in my vagina, but no means no.”

This has led to all kinds of political responses, from a reading of The Vagina Monologues (by Eve Ensler) starring Brown on the steps of the Michigan capitol building to a tongue-in-cheek proposal by Dahlia Lithwick recommending a law “providing that any women who seeks to use the word vagina in a floor debate be required to wait 72 hours after consulting with her physician before she may say it. It will also require her physician to certify in writing that said woman was not improperly coerced into saying the word vagina against her will.”

The leader in the fight to silence Brown, Rep. Mike Callton, R-Nashville, said, “What she said was offensive. It was so offensive, I don’t even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company.” Our experience is that men who say “I would not say that in mixed company” are often the ones who say “cunt” in unmixed company, and in front of women, act like we don’t have bodies, unless they’re trying to get into the parts they won’t mention.

“Cunt” is a word a lot of people have trouble with, because in the United States (except in some radical circles), it is used almost exclusively as a negative description of women–not our bodily parts but all of us. “Pussy,” on the other hand, is used as a negative description of men. “Vagina” is effectively never used as a slur. It’s a formal, medical word, perhaps the only one that can be used without a lot of sexual innuendo.  And it makes lots of people uncomfortable. (This paragraph edited based on the comments, which have more information about different word use in Australia.)

Kayt Sukel, an author who writes about neuroscience and sexuality, has given lectures around the country on the issue. And there’s one word, she finds, that never fails to make some in her audience squeamish.

“There’s just something about the word ‘vagina’ that startles people — I don’t know what it is,” says Sukel. “People sit back a little bit. Sometimes they start giggling. I end up using euphemisms just to make them more comfortable, and more receptive to what I am saying. And we don’t seem to have the same problems with the word ‘penis.’”

We’ve seen the history of public use of medical terms in the media played out in our lifetimes. “Anus,” and a host of other sexual words, became acceptable because of the serious talk about safer sex required by the AIDS epidemic.  “Penis” made an extra jump to the national news when Lorena Bobbitt cut off her husband’s in 1993. Eve Ensler gets the credit for bringing “vagina” into common usage in the media.

Of course there was a time when no one would say any of these words in a legislative setting. Brown probably, at least to some extent, meant to be shocking. She probably expected some reaction. But she wasn’t just criticized, or asked to behave differently, she was actually, legally silenced from saying anything in her official capacity for 24 hours. And the implication is clear that if she continues, they (the men/Republicans in the Michigan legislature) can do this for longer.

It’s not about the word. It’s not even about vaginas. It’s about men (and, horrifyingly, women) who believe that their right to legislate women’s bodies extends to their right to legislate our mouths, our minds, and our very existence. It’s about who gets to decide what words are dirty and which dirty words can be said where.

Vagina. Vagina. Vagina. Vagina. Penis. Vagina. Vagina. Vagina. Pussy. Vagina. Vagina. Vagina. Cunt. Vagina. Vagina. Vagina.

Oh, and by the way, Representative Callton? We’d like you better if you were a penis instead of a dick.

6 Responses to “Vagina Drama, and Why It Matters”

  1. Jesse the K Says:

    Your blog is always educational and well-written.

    But this post makes me want to stand on a rooftop and shoot off Roman candles! Go! Go! Go!

  2. lilacsigil Says:

    Ugh, that’s a horribly correct point about not saying certain words in “mixed company”, meaning that he’ll happily talk about women’s body parts to men.

    It might be a national difference, but in Australia, New Zealand and the UK, “cunt” is used as an insult to men far more than it’s used for women (and can also be used as a friendly term). Not that this makes it better, but it’s certainly not “almost exclusively” used as an insult to women.

  3. Debbie Says:

    Jesse, thanks!

    Lilacsigil, once again we (mostly I) am caught out in thinking America is the whole world, although of course I know better. I do know from Australian friends that “fanny,” which is a pretty mild word in the U.S., and refers to the rear end (though historically it has had other meanings) means what “cunt” means here. But I don’t know how “fanny” is used outside of its basic meaning. Thanks for catching that for us, and I’ll fix it right now.

  4. Jill Says:

    Yes, ‘cunt’ has a very different feel (hehehe, ‘feel’) in the USA than in the UK or Australia or New Zealand. It is definitely obscene in all of them, but it’s far, far more taboo in the USA.

    Lisa Brown’s comment was provocative and rude; she wasn’t speaking medically. The response, though, was far beyond her mild rudeness. It was outrageous.

  5. Debbie Says:

    Jill, I agree with “provocative,” but I don’t see “rude.” Can you elaborate?

  6. Lizzie Says:

    I see the comment as rude as well – intended to be provocative because it’s a bit vulgar in US usage.

    I like the word “cunt” as a good old Anglo-Saxon word and use it both to describe my own, and in the UK sense. I’ve listened to a lot of “Derek and Clive” recordings on YouTube which have kind of anesthetized me to the hateful US meaning.

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