“When one deals explicitly with sex, we are forced to choose between the language of the nursery, the gutter, and the anatomy class.” C. S Lewis
Pseudonyms, euphemisms, and cutesy nicknames are often used to describe female sexual anatomy. Little girls are rarely taught the correct terminology for their body parts or provided with adequate information about sexual anatomy.
Instead, words such as tuppence or nunny are used. When parents leave out correct anatomical names they’re indirectly saying “we can’t talk about that”. When I was growing up I used to wince at the words vagina and vulva. I was forced to address this discomfort continuously through my training and sex therapy work and luckily words like vagina, vulva, labia and clitoris roll of my tongue as if I am describing hands, knees and ears.
I learnt to become aware of the power of language in the way sex and sexuality is expressed and so therefore I always use the correct terms with my children. With experience and hindsight, it does now seem preposterous that we would invent words such as pee pee or fanny when we don’t call our elbows bendy boo boo’s or our hands clappy claps! I do believe that had I taken a different career path I would have held on tightly to my discomfort in using the words vulva or vagina and my children would have inherited that disposition. I am lucky in some ways that my vocation forces me to continually confront which aspects around sex that make me uncomfortable and upon reflection and with a great amount of hindsight the subject of female genitalia was my biggest hurdle to overcome, but I am very grateful that I was forced to overcome it.
Talking to our children
Our children interpret our hesitance to use correct terminology as a means of covering up something dirty or bad instead of teaching them that they are healthy and acceptable and perfectly formed just the way they are. Research suggests that using euphemisms or nicknames is linked to enhanced body image, self-confidence and openness, without communicating accuracy we are instead communicating shame and stigma. Passing on from one generation to another our own awkwardness about body parts in the same way our kids may inherit our eye colour or hair colour.
The American Academy of Paediatrics noted that “In early childhood, parents can teach their children the name of the genitals, just as they teach their child names of other body parts. This teaches that the genitals, while private, are not so private that you can’t talk about them." (Matthews, 2017). When children are taught to feel embarrassed or ashamed, they are less likely to ask question about their bodies or speak up when something bad is happening. There is a general consensus among clinical experts that children who know the anatomically correct names for their genitals are better able to avoid abuse, or to talk about it if it happens.
“Without proper terminology, children have a very hard time telling someone about inappropriate touching,” Dr Wurtele said. “If a child says someone touched her cookie, it would be very difficult for a listener to know.” (Klass, 2016).
It may feel uncomfortable or even alien, but we can help end genital shame at home by giving our daughters the gift of knowledge, so she may feel informed and empowered enough to pass it on to her daughter.