gender, language, sex, vulva, womb

Vulvagate: why the words we use for our bodies matter

13 February 2019

This week Twitter has been merrily (and not so merrily) engaging with a chap nobody had previously heard of, one Paul Bullen, who tweeted in the aftermath of a Guardian piece, ‘Me and My Vulva’, based on 100 photographs of vulvas by Laura Dodsworth. Unsurprisingly, the photographs led to further discussion of the point that people confuse the vulva and the vagina. It’s a common problem. The Shoreditch Sisters WI created the vulva quilt (which I’ve used as the image for this blog post) as a way of drawing attention to FGM, and the images by Laura Dodsworth resemble a photographic version of that quilt. After a 2011 day at the Women’s Library sewing these patches, the blogger for the Sisters observed, ‘I have honestly never said the word vagina so many times in one day, only to be reminded afterwards that the vagina is technically the inside bit and we were making vulvas, the exterior bit.’

Enter Mr Bullen. He argued that there is a ‘legitimate usage’ of ‘vagina’ for the whole assemblage and that dictionaries are failing to record this. Mr Bullen noted that there’s a difference between language use and anatomy, and between dictionary definitions and popular usage: fair comment, except I’m not so sure that anatomy is a fixed object, when the history of medicine shows us how many different words have been used and how many ‘parts’ distinguished – more on that shortly. So why has he been so widely ridiculed (for a summary, try here)? It’s partly that he’s a man, telling women what the correct words for their sexual organs are, and partly that he’s been going on, and on, in making the same point. Also he’s not an ‘expert’; someone who is one, Dr Jen Gunter, has used the saga to repost links to her wonderful Venn diagram of the vagina and vulva. However, Mr Bullen’s point, such as it is, was worth making. It’s the same one as the Sisters’ blogger made: that today people can use ‘vagina’ to cover both the inside and the outside parts. Where the Sisters’ blogger noted that ‘technically’ such a usage was incorrect, however, Mr Bullen seems to think it’s fine. He does rather miss the point that the Guardian feature was on the external parts, the vulva, alone.

In the twitter storm over what has become ‘vulvagate’, Victor (@Victbarraz) from Chile came in with the brilliant comment, ‘Wait. Isn’t the vagina the actual vulvagate?’ This reminded me of the long history of change in naming these parts. While ‘vulva’ was at one time a Latin word for the uterus – is that OK by Mr Bullen? – that changed, because words are not tied to objects but shift over time. That ‘gate’ image, however, is remarkably relevant to this discussion.

Let’s go back a bit. Andreas Vesalius published On the Fabric of the Human Body in 1543. He was an anatomist poised between classical and modern approaches to the body. Analogy had a long history as a way to understand the world; Geoffrey Lloyd’s 1966 book Polarity and Analogy: Two Types of Argumentation in Early Greek Thought is the classic work on this. Parts could be named by analogy (a vagina is a sheath or scabbard; a scrotum is a purse or quiver) plus a range of analogies between various parts of the male and female organs of generation was sometimes drawn upon. For example, like the second-century CE Galen in his treatise On Seed, Vesalius linked the appearance of the womb to that of the scrotum, and he commented that the mouth of the womb resembles the opening in the glans of the penis. He considered that ‘Nature has given the substance of the neck of the uterus something in common with the male penis, or more specifically with the substance that forms the two bodies and the glans of the penis as described earlier’. But we need to be cautious with that term the ‘neck’ of the uterus (uteri cervix); here, it’s not what we today call the cervix, but rather what we think of as the vagina; in the words of Karl Whittington, writing on a late thirteenth-century English manuscript illustration of the womb, it is both entrance, and chamber. In some Renaissance printed images of the womb, the entire structure from the womb to the external genitalia (in Latin,  pudendum, literally ‘part to be ashamed of’) is shown as the collum, or ‘neck’.

In the 1990 book Making Sex, Thomas Laqueur argued for an eighteenth-century ‘watershed’ in views of the body: before, women were just a (colder, wetter) variation on men and after, men and women were two different sexes. I’ve written about the problems with this dichotomy elsewhere. He attributes the naming of female parts to the post-eighteenth-century side of the divide, saying that it was only then that ‘Organs that had not been distinguished by a name of their own – the vagina, for example – were given one’ (p.149). The naming of ‘parts’ is a difficult matter: where do you place the dividing line between one and another? This suggestion that modernity involves giving women’s sexual organs ‘names’ is often repeated; for example in European Sexualities 1400-1800 (2007), Katherine Crawford claimed that in early modern history ‘Female parts were not distinct enough to merit separate names’. But that really doesn’t work: some were, some weren’t. Some that we don’t talk about now had names in the past. But ‘vagina’ – which is simply the Latin for ‘sheath’ – in fact appeared before the eighteenth century; in the sixteenth century Realdo Colombo used it in a metaphorical sense, noting that the penis is placed ‘as it were’ into a vagina, or sheath. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of ‘vagina’ in English texts was in Thomas Gibson’s 1682 The Anatomy of Humane Bodies Epitomized. But Gibson’s use was just as metaphorical as Colombo’s, and he included other similarly metaphorical names: ‘It has its name Vagina or Sheath, because it receives the Penis like a Sheath. It is called also the door of the Womb, and its greater Neck…’ Outside the specific chapter on the vagina Gibson continued to use ‘neck of the womb’; the 1703 edition shifted from this terminology to ‘the vagina of the womb’ to set it apart from other ‘sheaths’ in the body.

It’s just wrong to say that the vagina previously had no name in English; it had many, but – as in the label ‘the vagina of the womb’ – they linked it to other parts, simply because that was how the vagina was seen, as part of something else. In Raynalde’s The Birth of Mankind, for example, the vagina is the ‘womb passage’ and the cervix the ‘womb gate’ or ‘womb port’. Aha! ‘Wombgate’! Vesalius’s ‘neck of the uterus’ (Latin uteri cervix) translates Galen’s ‘neck of the wombs’, in Greek, ho auchên tôn mêtrôn; literally ‘the neck/gullet of the wombs’ as, like many of the Hippocratic writers, Galen used the plural term for womb, as part of his belief that it was ‘double’. In On the Usefulness of Parts of the Body (14.3) Galen described the ability of this neck to straighten and to stretch during intercourse; ‘Nature made the neck of the wombs quite hard, so that while it is stretched and at the same time expanded during the entrance of the male seed, it will be sufficiently straightened and dilated both to be able to give an unblocked road for the semen and to close the orifice afterwards’. Vesalius, similarly, discussed the flexibility of this part, observing that ‘When we pull up the uterus in the course of dissection the neck stretches out to an astonishing length’. Thus our vagina and womb were here seen as a single organ, womb-with-neck, terminating in the external genitalia: the vulva. In the seventeenth century, Jane Sharp’s The Midwives Book provides a rich source of alternative names: the cervix is ‘the rose, the garland or the crown’. The ‘lips of the privities’ are ‘a double door like Flood-gates to shut and open: the neck of the womb ends in this’. Neck, gates, doors: this is another model of the body, about passages but also about closure and opening.

Does it matter? Yes. This isn’t the Humpty-Dumpty scenario in which

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all.’

What we define as a separate ‘part’ and what we call our parts still has power. Today, there are parts of the female sexual and reproductive organs which have names most of us never encounter: for example, we rarely need to consider the difference between the endocervix and the ectocervix, or the presence of the ‘transformation zone’. Clearly, terminology for the body has changed and continues to change. Currently, there are different degrees of differentiation according to whether we’re talking in general or working in gynaecology. However, I still think it’s dangerous to follow Mr Bullen in insisting that ‘the correct word’ for the vulva is ‘vagina’. I can see no context in which this can be helpful to women today. Such confusion about what is called what isn’t helpful in terms of women’s health, whether that’s about reporting symptoms, having smear tests or applying treatment, or their sexual agency.


2 thoughts on “Vulvagate: why the words we use for our bodies matter”

  1. Until the age of print and the rise of scientific anatomy, anatomical terms for female anatomy were local and varied by region. In France, midwives allegedly used these terms when called upon by a court of law to examine a rape victim’s genitalia. Midwives’ depositions that the physician Laurent Joubert claimed to possess described “the neck of the womb cleaved, the lady of the middle (hymen) in retreat, the nymphs (labia minora) destroyed or sundered, the back ditch (cervix) opened, the neck of the womb split, the edge of labia peeled or flayed, the os pubis bone crashed, burst, broken to pieces, bruised, and crushed, and the clitoris flayed and skinned” in local dialects. See Alison Klairmont Lingo, “The Fate of Popular Terms for Female Anatomy in the Age of Print.” French Historical Studies 22, no. 3 (1999): 335–49. (p. 341)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s