Last week on NPR I heard Eve Ensler reading her essay on the "This I Believe" segment of Morning Edition. Ensler is the author and playwright of The Vagina Monologues . In her essay, called "The Power and Mystery of Naming Things," she said:
"Think about the word 'vagina'. I believe that by saying it 128 times each show, night after night, naming my shame, exorcising my secrets, revealing my longing, was how I came back into my self, into my body."
Vagina. Vagina vagina vagina vagina.
When I was a girl, I didn't know the names of my private parts. I don't think we even called them "private parts". It was all vaguely referred to as "down there". Until the day one of my elementary school classmates, who had an older sister versed in These Things, informed us knowingly that the word was "vovey". So we called it "vovey", when we called it anything, when we dared to even speak about it, which was never, and only in a whisper, and only to each other, of course. One bold day, a friend and I revealed to each other that our "voveys" produced a secretion, which we gigglingly dubbed "vovey goo".
Twenty years later, I was a licensed physician with my own little girl. I knew the human body inside and out, and I was damned if my daughter was going to grow up without words for all of her body parts. I taught that kid "vulva" before I taught her "elbow". I wanted her to be proud of her body, to be comfortable with all of it. Naming was the first step.
[I knew that I had succeeded beyond my wildest dreams when she once shocked a Texas church potluck by standing in the middle of the room, pointing at each grey-hair in turn, and correctly identifying their gender by announcing, "YOU have a penis. YOU have a vulva." She was three years old. ]
In medical school, we learned anatomy the first semester, in the lecture hall and in the dissection lab. It was presented in an orderly fashion, head to toe. Where there were gender differences, the male anatomy was always presented first, followed by "the female version of this is..." Sure, it bothered me, but it fit in with the sexism that pervaded medical education.
When we got to the genitals, we learned the male anatomy first, as usual. I was amazed at the quantity of labels on the drawings, the number of named parts men have. Corpus cavernosum. Corpus spongiosum. Root. Bulb. Crus. Shaft. Corona. Prepuce. Glans. Four different named segments of urethra. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I took notes dutifully.
Next slide. Female anatomy. Far fewer labels. Much briefer rundown by the teacher. As he prepared to switch slides, I raised my naive hand. "Excuse me. What are the names of those muscles?" I pointed to the striated bands surrounding the vagina at varying angles.
The professor looked confused. "What muscles?"
I showed him again.
"Oh. Those...uh, that....that's Vaginal Wall." Click. Next slide.
Now, wait a minute. I'm a woman, and half of my readers are probably women. Ladies, you KNOW that is not just one big muscle there, and it's not only useful for "holding your bladder" either. I was shocked that there weren't at least three different muscle groups in the vagina. Come on! The male urethra, a single tube, has four different named segments. But one single catch-all label for the mysteries of a woman's depths? Puh-lease!
That was a long time ago, now, and I've (clearly) gotten over it. But that morning, hearing Eve Ensler, it all came back to me again, and got me thinking some more about this male/female naming discrepancy. I remembered "vovey goo" and contemplated the fact that there still isn't an official medical term for vaginal secretions. I'm not talking about slang. There's plenty of that, from "smegma" (sounds like Gollum's sister) to "honey" (nice, but not unique). I mean an unambiguous, descriptive, neutral word of it's own. Like "semen". That's a word that can't be mistaken for anything else. It only has one meaning, as far as I know. It's only a noun, and calls up a distinctive mental picture. Nobody gets confused about what you're talking about when you say "semen."
But what is the "female version" of "semen"? The closest I can come up with is "discharge." But this does not meet the criteria of specificity that "semen" does. No, "discharge" is a word that can be a noun or a verb, can apply to a vagina, a retiring serviceman, or a firing cannon. Not only that, I was taught in medical school that a vaginal discharge is abnormal. Part of the Patient Interview is called the Review of Systems. When you do this, you verbally list the body systems, asking if there are any abnormal symptoms in each. (headache, double vision, vomiting blood, etc.) One of the questions is, "Do you have any vaginal discharge?" This is usually asked while shaking one's head and frowning slightly, subliminally communicating the right answer to the patient. Oh, no, ma'am. No vaginal discharge. Yuck, no!
Whereas in truth, feminine secretions are as normal as tears or saliva, or mucus.
I submit that we need a new word. A unique word for the entirely normal, benign, useful secretions that are produced in the vagina. What shall it be? We could call it "vuliva" (vuh-lye-vuh) or "vugucus" (vuh-joo-kus) , echoes of its cousins at the "other end. " We could even stoop to "vovey goo", although that doesn't sound quite neutral to me. Or, come to think of it, we could have several words. The stuff changes, you know, throughout a woman's monthly cycle and lifetime. The eskimos have their myriad words for "snow". The male urethra has four separate words for one little tubule. Why shouldn't there be a different word for each variety of hormonally-influenced natural feminine product?
The devil is in the details. I can't think of a good word. I just know we need one. I'm open to suggestions. Once we get a good one, we can submit it to the American Board of New Anatomical Terminology, or wherever one submits these things. Then all we'll need is for Eve Ensler to say it 128 times a night for six years, and voila! Equal time in the anatomy lectures, and a new addition to the church potluck repertoire.