WOMEN

Let's Clear Up The Vagina vs. Vulva Debate Once And For All

Does it really matter which word you use?

29/10/2015 1:14 AM AEDT | Updated 29/10/2015 1:32 AM AEDT
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One of the most consistent corrections HuffPost Women gets comes any time one of our writers uses the word "vagina" to refer to a woman's entire genital area, as opposed to the more anatomically accurate "vulva."

Look, we get it. There is a difference between the vagina and the vulva (and indeedy, loyal readers, we know what it is). There's a very good argument to be made for why terminology matters, especially when it comes to issues as important as women's bodies, their personal authority over those bodies and their sexual health. There's also quite a valid argument to be made for using vagina colloquially, and accepting the fact that when it comes to public discourse, the great vulva ship hath sailed.

With all that in mind, here's the 411 on the vagina-vulva divide, and why you might (or might not) want to care more about it:

So really, what's a vulva?

While vagina has emerged as the term of choice for women's genitalia (excluding, of course, many of the ickier euphemisms, like vajeen and cooter), vulva is actually the correct term for all of the external organs, including the mons pubis (pubic mound), the labia majora and minora, the all-important clitoris, the external openings of the urethra (a.k.a, the hole you pee from) and the vagina.

It, in other words, is the whole shebang.

Um, then what is my vagina?

The vagina is the muscular canal that connects the uterus to the vulva. It's what babies pass through during childbirth, as well as a woman's menstrual flow. 

Here's why you might want to differentiate between the two in writing and conversation:

"There's a feminist analysis for why this matters, that is by calling all of a woman's anatomy the 'vagina,' we're [referring to] our sexual organs by the part that gives heterosexual men the most pleasure," Laurie Mintz, a professor of counseling psychology at the University of Florida and author of "A Tired Woman's Guide To Passionate Sex," told The Huffington Post. Most women need clitoral stimulation in order to orgasm, and far too many say they aren't getting enough of it during intercourse. Embracing the incorrect terminology may play at least some role in that.

"Every time we use the word 'vagina' when we really mean 'vulva,' we're erasing the part that gives us the most pleasure," Mintz added. "Does it matter? I think at a very unconscious, subtle level, it really does." 

At an even more fundamental level, knowing the specific and correct terms for body parts empowers women to take full ownership of them. And that may not happen if most women really only hear the word "vulva" in whatever sex ed they get in school -- if any --  then rarely again.

"If we cannot use the correct terms," Martha Lee, a clinical sexologist based in Singapore, told The Huffington Post, "then how do we make sense, for ourselves, [of] what we know and feel in our bodies? Also, how [do] we explain and express ourselves to our partners or healthcare providers?"

Cool. I'm still going to keep saying "vagina." Is that okay?

When studies suggest that two-thirds of young women are too embarrassed to even say the word "vagina" to their doctor -- and cutesy euphemisms abound -- one could certainly argue that we, as a society, have bigger fish to fry. "Without knowing what is 'down there' and resorting to using pet names or blushing every time we refer to our private parts, just how comfortable can one be with one's sexuality, much less sexual expression?" Lee asked.

On the flip-side, there's a certain linguistic power in embracing the word "vagina" in writing and conversation for the very reason that it packs a confrontational punch the more clinical-sounding "vulva" lacks, as the writer Lindy West once argued in Jezebel

Then there's the fact that the meaning of words is fluid (just ask the ever-aggrieved "literally" purists). Meaning shifts as people use words in new contexts, and those new usages sometimes become widely adopted. There's a lot of talk about how semantic change works, but luckily, West summed it up nicely: "At this point in our linguistic evolution [vagina has] become a general term for the general lady-area."

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