Back in my university days, I emceed a 21st birthday party for a friend of mine. One of the games I got everyone to play was the peg game.
The premise is simple enough. Everyone gets a clothes peg at the beginning of the party, and whoever had the most pegs at the end of the party was declared the winner. In order to get other people’s pegs, you had to catch them saying certain words that I arbitrarily chose to be forbidden. The words I banned just happened to be “Happy”, “Birthday” and “Craig”, the name of the party boy. It made singing “Happy Birthday” at the end of the night more challenging, but everyone still had a great time.
The peg game on a cultural scale is the modern scourge of political correctness. Terms like ‘manhole’ are replaced by ‘personal access units’ to avoid upsetting women, while ‘baba black sheep’ has been changed to ‘baba rainbow sheep’ in some schools, in case the nursery rhythm could be deemed racist. Meanwhile, ‘brainstorming’ is unacceptable because it may offend epileptics.
Proving that the centuries-old terminology of medicine is not immune from the PC plague, the Journal of Sexual Medicine has published an article in which the authors declare that the term ‘vulvovaginal atrophy’ should no longer be used because the word ‘vagina’ is not publicly acceptable .
Perhaps I’m just old and inflexible now, but to me this smacks of puerility and paternalism (sorry … authoritarianism, just in case I offended fathers). Lets face it, lots of medical terms have stigma attached to them, or are in some way publicly unacceptable. Lets rename herpes for a start … how about ‘Blistering of the Reproductive Parts’ or BoRP for short, unless someone is offended by the term ‘reproductive’. Maybe, ‘Blistering of ones bits’ … damn it, that’s shortened to BooB, which is an offensive reference to mammary glands. ‘Blistering of bits’ … but then that’s shortened to BoB which is offensive to people named Robert. I guess we’re stuck with ‘herpes’ then. In the end, it doesn’t matter what term you use, because the connotation or stigma is in the meaning of the word, not the word itself.
And how childish is it to be offended by the word ‘vagina’ in the first place. Half the planet has one for goodness sake. Refer to it by any other word, and no one cares. Va-jay-jay, flower, pussy, muffin, her ‘Downton Abbey’ … there are too many euphemisms to list. To me, they all sound like they belong in either the playground of a kindergarten, or a high school boys locker room (depending on the term, of course). And yet somehow the neutral, anatomical term is apparently less acceptable.
What really worries me is the example this sets for our children. I went to great pains to teach my children the anatomically correct words for their body parts from an early age, and answer their questions about their ‘private parts’ openly without embarrassment. Why? Not just because I’m a doctor, but because they’ll grow up to view their bodies as normal and natural, not shameful or taboo. This is beneficial for their health and for protection from child-sex predators. From The Atlantic magazine, “Teaching children anatomically correct terms, age-appropriately, says Laura Palumbo, a prevention specialist with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), promotes positive body image, self confidence, and parent-child communication; discourages perpetrators; and, in the event of abuse, helps children and adults navigate the disclosure and forensic interview process.” 
What sort of example does it set when, as has happened in the US, a biology teacher was suspended because he said ‘vagina’ in class, or a Michigan State politician was removed from their parliament because she said ‘vagina’ on the floor of the chamber? What sort of example does it set when major medical journals are advocating that neutral, anatomical words are considered offensive? A poor one, I’d wager. All it achieves is to further stigmatise our bodies while impeding good communication, “reinforcing the culture of secrets and silence perpetrators rely on for cover.”
Rather than stop using the word, we just need to get over it. I’m not suggesting that we go around yelling ‘vagina’ at the top of our lungs, or gratuitously slip it into conversation at every opportunity. Lets be mature adults instead. Lets talk about any parts of our body in an appropriate context, without shame or condemnation. That’s how we protect our most vulnerable, and live in a truly progressive society.
- Portman, D.J., et al., Genitourinary Syndrome of Menopause: New Terminology for Vulvovaginal Atrophy from the International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health and The North American Menopause Society. J Sex Med, 2014 doi: 10.1111/jsm.12686
- Buni, C., The Case for Teaching Kids ‘Vagina,’ ‘Penis,’ and ‘Vulva’. The Atlantic, 2013, Atlantic Monthly Group, Washington USA