Let’s play a game: black/white, yes/no, good/bad, right/wrong, penis/___ Did you say “vagina”? I bet you did.
Does it matter that our society uses ubiquitously, daily, the entirely wrong word for the female sexual center? And does it matter that many women (we expect you guys to get it wrong) appear not so much to use the wrong word knowingly, as slang, but to think that the wrong word is, indeed, the right word for this most vital part—after the brain—of themselves? How—and why—has this happened in a supposedly sexually educated country that rarely calls a man's testicles his penis? And what effect, if any, does this miseducation have on women’s actual sex lives? Most interestingly, what does this widespread fallacy tell us about the current state of 25th-wave feminism? I am not interested in this not because I am a writer obsessed with words but because I am a woman.
The DSM-V has recently redefined FSD (Female Sexual Disorder) and given us the honor of an extra letter—FSAD (Female Sexual Arousal Disorder)—while adding some titillating “comorbidity” to our complexities; meanwhile, intrepid sexual investigator Daniel Bergner in his terrific new book, What Do Women Want?, has lifted the great rock under which resides not only the penultimate mystery to the founder of modern-day psychology—Freud didn’t know what women wanted because it was not what he wanted—but to every man since Adam met Eve. I’m talking about female sexual desire. But that rock is ever so heavy, and since this subject only gets about six minutes of serious study per century (unserious speculation is perpetually rife), I thought this would be a good time to pile on with my own personal peeve.
Bergner has uncovered such worrisome wonders as the fact that we women tire of you chaps faster than you tire of us (and you thought we were just faking that orgasm: we’re faking breakfast, lunch, and dinner), that women are just as sexually visual as men, that female orgasm’s elusive, and yet, paradoxically, multiple qualities, promotes, even demands, promiscuity—both to find the elusive one and then to prolong the party—and thus that monogamy suits women even less than it suits men. So Don Juan, put that in your pipe and smoke it. And then there’s my personal favorite, which should put a real dent in Big Pharma’s desperate search to profit from our displeasure with that billion-dollar little pink pill: that there is virtually no female sexual problem—hormonal, menopausal, orgasmic, or just plain old lack of interest—that will not be solved by—ta-da!—a new lover. Monogamy is the great pachyderm in the bedroom, the virus that has produced our much-documented “epidemic” of FSAD. Pfizer would do better to invest in gigolo bordellos (red velvet and lace please) while women could start adding notches to their garter belts. Oh, brave new world!
These are scary findings—not only will they underscore already rampant male sexual insecurity, but, if embraced by women as their biological destiny and moral right, would produce total sexual anarchy. Female monogamy would be history, the walls of patriarchy would crumble, and the world would flip upside down. But I have little hope of such glorious deconstruction. I am just interested, right now anyway, in one little word.
Why in this time of such relentless sexualization in the media, and ever-more detailed discussion and research on female sexuality, do women themselves persist using the wrong term for their own sexual arena? From sassy in-the-know Lena Dunham to Oprah Winfrey, mother to us all, to Naomi Wolf, feminist extraordinaire (she dedicated an entire book to the wrong place), to that smart lady Eve Ensler, they are all calling her their “vagina.” As a woman I am embarrassed by our ignorance.
Now, of course, one can indeed refer correctly to the vagina, meaning the relatively short, but expandable, passage of a woman’s sexual anatomy that connects the outside world to the inside one, its main purpose being impregnation through intercourse and, then in return, as the birth canal. But the vagina is only one of our many parts—it really is Grand Central down there —and while vital for reproduction it is somewhat secondary for female pleasure. How on earth did the poor little vagina, a single cog in the great female wheel, become the catchall for the whole shebang?
The correct word for the entire area of the external female genitalia is “vulva”—you can say it, “vuhl-vuh.” How bad was that? Not hot enough for you? Of course not, it is the correct medical term—the only word even less sexy is “vagina.” Psychologist and bestselling author Harriet Lerner, who has published widely on the subject, calls this pervasive misuse of “vagina” for “vulva” “linguistic genital mutilation.”
This far-reaching misidentification is, I suspect, yet another sign of the insidious unconscious collusion by women in their own diminishment—of their sexual power and, thus, of any kind. So now we get to the heart of the matter and an even more onerous word, the one that denotes the hard drive, the control room of Enterprise Vulva—the clitoris. In conflating the clitoris into the erroneous “vagina,” women are literally sidestepping themselves one more time, while, knowingly or not (both are bad, bad, news), toeing the male line. Men are so damn proud of their penises so why are women so seemingly afraid, so shy, of their powerhouse clitorises and back away with a vaginal stand-in? Why keep advertising the family room when the boudoir is just up the hall?
If you are concerned that in shifting the focus—thus emphasis and supremacy—to such a very miniscule organ, that the clitoris will not bear up under such scrutiny, have no fear. It has, finally, been scientifically established—mapped out in the lab and all that, as Bergner reports—that the clitoris, in fact, displays in itself the very essence of female guile in having two extended, internal reaching, four-inch (!!) wings, each curving around and behind the labia minora like a butterfly, culminating their massive reach around, yes, the vagina. So while this overused highway has relatively little feeling (necessary to mediate the pain of childbirth) for most of its length, it is a terrific co-conspirator and will happily participate with pom-poms from the bleachers in a sustained orgasmic victory. But, alas, the oversold vagina is only a lady-in-waiting at the court of the clitoral Queen. So while the clitoris has often been lost to both history and many a man, she is, in fact, not a small, hard to locate ingénue, but a large winged being. Is it not time to let her fly, orally, manually, even, er, verbally? If not now, when?
With her more than 8,000 nerve endings, twice as many as on an entire penis, and a higher concentration of pure feeling than in any other part of the human body, male or female—which, given our so-called higher consciousness, makes her the most sensitive organ in the entire universe—there may indeed be reason to fear the clitoris, not because she can’t be found but because of what she might do once unleashed. (If by now you guys are feeling the strange inklings of clitoris envy I say, man-up and get with the program.)
If every woman started living her life with the knowledge and know-how of this immense sexual authority she has, well, some things might really start changing and the suggestion to merely “lean in” would be seen as the anemic, rather pandering, notion that it is. How long, girls, are we going to wait to get ours? Language, as our feminist forebears have stressed from day one, is important. You name it, you own it.
So how did penis/vagina become our accepted sexual model? It’s simple: this dynamic is the reproductive model for human sexuality that, by chance, conveniently, includes male gratification. But it excises female pleasure in its equation, a conceptual clitoridectomy, an act we condemn in actuality as barbaric. It’s the old yin-yang sans ying—just a bang for the yang but no ding for the yin.
Penis/clitoris is the homologous duo of actual equals in the house of pleasure. “Vagina” is a cop-out: avoid your vulva, avoid your clitoris, and you void yourself. While I don’t have big hopes for the fast amelioration of the economic, political, medical, or relational issues facing women, is it too much to propose that we might, at least, move the whole discussion one inch forward?
Toni Bentley danced with Balanchine’s New York City Ballet for 10 years and is author of five books, all named New York Times Notable Books. Her essay “The Bad Lion” appeared in Best American Essays 2010, edited by Christopher Hitchens, and she is a Guggenheim Fellow. The one-woman play adaptation of her erotic memoir, “The Surrender,” will premiere this August at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.