Quiet please. The vulvas are talking.


In a revelation that will shock exactly zero readers of this blog, I must confess that I’ve always been obsessive about using words correctly. About knowing both literal and connotative meanings. About finding le mot juste for every occasion.

Add gender into the lexical mix? At that point, “obsessive” becomes, well…

Lemme put it to you this way. I still feel pissy about the idiotic joke made by some fellow Unitarians when I was 11 and the UUA was revising the official church hymnal to remove gender-exclusive language: “Maybe we should just call this new HYM-nal an IT-nal, since you hate men so much.”

[Picture here a tween-sized Alice, hands on her hips, fuming at her male peers. . . and more than a few grownass male grownups.^]

In those days, if I heard you call someone a “girl” who was clearly a grownass female grownup? Them were fightin’ words, far as I was concerned.

I’ve since mellowed on this particular issue, though violators still risk getting called out as asshats on my blog. It’s not that final victory has become ours [isn’t that right, Dr. Asshat?], but the gendered-language battle, like language itself, moves as a constantly flowing river. Besides, now that “You’re a girl?!”/”No. WOMAN!”-style exchanges have reached the status of TV cliché indicating “strong female character ahead,” it’s clearly time to set my sights elsewhere.

Like crotches.

That’s right, folks. It’s time for the grand showdown of vulva vs. vagina.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Otherwise, consult your gynecologist.

It’s become almost a handshake by which feminists recognize one another online. A coded knock that earns entrance into the speakeasy. A password that enables members of the resistance to distinguish friend from foe.

“That’s not a vagina. 

[Deep sigh.]

“It’s a vulva.”

It’s the primary reason I wish webpages could be corrected with sharpies. So I could send you pictures of the Great Wall of Vagina Vulva. Or laugh with you at how Snopes pixelated the vagina vulva cookies purportedly brought to snack time by a 2nd grader’s mom. Or pick out our favorite vagina vulva cupcakes together.

Dr. Jen Gunter, OB/GYN extraordinaire, recently channeled her own irritation at how the word “vagina” gets used as a stand-in for everything in the lower reproductive tract of people with uteri by creating this super-useful, highly-technical diagram:


As Gunter points out, there are substantive reasons [namely, health and pleasure] why this distinction matters. But even if there weren’t—even if we were talking about nothing more than semantics, and “jeez lighten up / you know what I meant / why does it matter”—I’d still be riding my high horse on this one. After all, people don’t constantly mislabel the other guy’s sexual anatomy the way they do mine.

Nobody goes around defining intercourse as testicles-in-vagina [you mean ‘penis’ / aw jeez lighten up] sex.”

Which is why, when I shared this story about Flirtmoji’s new set of fun, definitely-NSFW emojis a few weeks ago on Facebook, I prefaced my post with a brief “yes, we all know these are vulva-not-vagina emojis” disclaimer, and my friends mostly commented not about the language but about which cartoon vulvae we liked best. (I’m partial to the blue-and-purple chubby one in the top row, myself!) I didn’t think any more about it until a week later, when the story changed.

One of the changes? In the new round of press, every headline now refers to them as “vulva emojis.”

It’s the age-old story of eggplant meets taco, eggplant loses taco…

Launched in 2014, Flirtmoji designs and distributes copy-and-paste-able “sex emoji” intended to “empower people of all sexualities to communicate their desires, concerns, and flirtations.” While I don’t know much about the groups of designers and self-described “hornballs” behind the work, the blue-lipped, purple-haired chubby vulva I liked so much seems right in line with much of their artwork*. If I were someone aiming to Have better sext!, as their tagline goes, Flirtmoji’s catalog does put to shame the barely-suggestive eggplant ‘n’ taco options of standard texting packages.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, calling vulvas “vaginas” was not the only—nor the biggest—mistake made with these images. Because Erin Tobey.

Tobey, a multimedia artist based in Indiana, saw the emojis in a story on Facebook and, as she told The Verge, recognized six of the fifteen designs as visual ‘quotes’ of her own artwork. While I am happy to report that after a tense few days, Emoji-gate came to an amicable and respectful conclusion — with Flirtmoji taking down all six images and compensating Tobey financially for the inadvertent plagiarism — I found quite telling some of the details that came out during that initial reporting about how each side saw the situation.

Tobey’s insistent use of “vulva,” in her initial tweet and throughout her communications, changed the discourse in the reporting. She first created her vulva artwork as part of a project—a “vulva-positive mission,” no less!—explicitly designed to “celebrate female genital diversity” and to promote women’s sexual health and pleasure by helping them to feel more positive about their own genitals. One of the drawings copied by Flirtmoji, Tobey had originally illustrated by working off photographs of her own anatomy.

In contrast, Flirtmoji designer Jeremy Yingling (who initially agreed that only two of the designs appeared substantially copied) suggested in an email to Tobey, “Perhaps there’s only so many ways to draw vaginas.”

[I’m about to take a deep sigh here, but hold up! It’s probably not over what you think.]


The thing is: in this situation, I—proud possessor of both vulva and vagina! since birth!—am closer in spirit to Yingling than Tobey. And not just because my ability to imagine drawing genitals reaches a hard limit pretty darn quick. (Well before Yingling and his team, that’s for sure—didj’all notice the awesomely alien looking one on the bottom row, second from the left??)

It’s because I, too, resist using the word “vulva.”

Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Pussy

In fairness, a large chunk of my resistance is just about the word itself. Vulva manages to be one of the ugliest-sounding words I know. I hate hearing it. I hate saying it. I hate the feel of the word in my mouth.

I hate vulva almost as much as I hate moist.

When it comes to “moist,” I refuse to describe anything I aspire to make in my kitchen with a word that conjures up the image of a newspaper left out for too many dewy mornings on the stoop. And “vulva”? Let’s just say I ain’t real thrilled about describing my sexual anatomy with language that ends up sounding better when bestowed upon a would-be Seinfeld girlfriend.

But as I think about a story like this, I also have to wonder: how positive do I feel about my own genitals?

[Answer: not very.] 

Truth is, we do not have nearly as tight a friendship—my genitals and I—as my writing and social media activity might make it appear. Making peace with my own fleshy, sexual body is something I have struggled with most of my life.

I know I am not alone in having this issue. Far from it. [Admittedly, I might be alone in wanting to change my Twitter handle to this.] Some of my discomfort is the result of rape and sexual trauma. Some comes from being raised by parents each struggling with their own issues around bodies, sex, and consent. And, as shockingly graphic as Unitarian sex ed may have been, focus remained squarely on the facts and mechanics of anatomy, never addressing the complexities of feelings and desire. Of communication or mutuality.

I learned all the words of sex. . . and none of the syntax.

I now talk (and write, and study) about sexual topics as much as I do because I am trying to find all of the broken places and disconnects between my self and my sexual body. I hope finding them will help me heal them.

Divine Secrets of the Vul-Va Sisterhood

In all this talking here today, have I healed anything? Have I moved myself any closer to claiming the beauty and pleasure of my own vulva? Have I moved you?

Understand: I have no illusions about reducing the frequency with which vagina misappropriates vulva‘s anatomical real estate. The Toast asked me long ago to stop trying to make “vulva” happen. “Vulva” is never going to happen.

Maybe so.

But I know—and now you do too—that vulva emojis are become a Thing in the World. I find that a beautiful and pleasurable fact all on its own. Who knows, maybe I’ll even find myself inspired to sext someday! There must be one perfect person out there, just right for me…

…to text alien vulva with purple pubes to.

# # #

^For the record, this comment did not incense tween-Alice because she hated men—no more so than I do today—but we do both of us abhor the idiocy of claiming the syllable /him/ as identical in meaning to the word “him.” I mean, c’mon, UU sexists. That was some pretty darn weak tea, even for 1982.

*And I certainly prefer Flirtmoji’s pink handcuffs to these.

Image credit: By TheCulinaryGeek from Chicago, USA (Taco Uploaded by the wub) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

43 thoughts on “Quiet please. The vulvas are talking.

  1. I once did research on girl vs. woman–ah the good old days. And that was before you even brought WomYn into the conversation. (But I have to say, I have a particular fondness for knocking diminutives from the language “ette/ess”and such). I’m to the point where I will happily shout stay the fuck off my vulva, out of my vagina, out of my uterus, and just back off from me in general. Just tell me where and when and I’m happy to show up to the party.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Next invite I get, I will happily add you as my plus-one. And after the shouting is finished, you and I shall drink plum wine from goblets made from the skulls of our enemies.

      Dibs on Ted Cruz’s skull, btw. I’m such a lightweight, I need the smallest glass possible.


      1. Lol. I however, am not a lightweight and imbibe copious amounts of wine on a near-daily basis. I shall need a bigger skull. Have you checked out Periods for Pence (which is now Periods for Politicians). Grass roots Indiana movement starting to pick up speed nationally. Good stuff. Lots of pissed off women. My kind of crowd.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Nice! Y’know, in college when anyone suggested that literature was a…less-than-entirely-practical major, shall we say, my standard response was simply: “I know words; I can do anything.”

          Liked by 2 people

  2. Reblogged this on coffee and a blank page and commented:

    I spent my afternoon, as one is wont to do, getting interviewed on my thoughts regarding vaginas and vulvas. (As one is wont to do, WHEN ONE IS ME, I should perhaps have specified.) I’ll share that piece with y’all when it’s published—but in the meantime, an observation: ain’t it wonderful how brains are pliable, and how writing plies them?

    See, I wrote this post last fall about our cultural reluctance—and my own personal resistance—to using the word “vulva.” Today, what I found? Personal resistance gone! Another plank of internalized misogyny fallen! Appears I am now fully aboard the vulva-train.

    And so I invite you to join me in raising a glass to the liberation of sexual bodies and sexual vocabulary alike, and to tell me about a time you wrote yourself into a different way of thinking?

    Just please refrain from using the word “moist” in your comment.


    “Moist” is never gonna happen.


  3. Probably shouldn’t have opened this post while at work…and a church headquarters. I just about died when the vulva emojis popped up on the screen. Fortunately, everyone else is busy actually working. Fun, if visually startling, read.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love the way you write WOMAN (sorry I couldn’t help myself, I wanted to take a moment to understand what it feels like to be a misogynist and now I’m back to burning my bra) and I love how you’ve discussed an issue that I’ve spent my whole teenage years trying to work out. Sadly when you google ‘what is the whole vagina bit called’ you get a combination of labiaplasty websites and images of porn stars so my education was minimal. Until now. Your blog is everything I want mine to be.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh dear. Yes, cosmetic labiaplasty — NOT the thing one wants to come across on the interwebz. Unless it’s to read a snarky takedown of a advertising brochure for the procedure. (Which is an awfully fun post to write, btw!)

      Welcome! Glad to have you here. 🙂 If you wanna pull up a chair, I’ll throw another Playtex underwire or two on the fire. We’re having s’mores tonight.


  5. “There must be one perfect person out there, just right for me…

    …to text alien vulva with purple pubes to.”


    I hope I don’t wake my husband up laughing at this. If I mentioned alien vulva he’d either think I was losing my mind or coming on to him.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. haha! Your comment reminds me of something I read many, many years ago in a book of short lesbian erotica. (I personally found the collection more weird than arousing — in one of the stories, the author fantasized a sexual encounter with Marge Simpson, to give you some idea — but since I happen to prefer literary oddities to literary orgasms, this worked out fine for me!)

      In the story you made me think of, the narrator picks up a woman at a bar and takes her home, only to discover during the disrobing that her new paramour is actually an alien. What kind of alien? Why, the kind whose labia are actually tongues, of course! Tongues that she can move and extend and control just like the one in her mouth! Scissoring will never be the same again!

      GAH. *shudders* Gives me the heeby-jeebies all over again, just imagining it now. And since I hate having the heeby-jeebies all by myself, thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to pass my “tongued-vulva” memory along…

      I hope it was as good for you as it was for me. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    1. You should know by now: I take my Genital Anatomy Vocabulary veeeeery seriously. Like, seriously-seriously. Like life-or-death seriously. Do I take it “choked to death on a pumpkin seed”-seriously? YOU BET. Glad to hear you do too!

      I mean, it’s sh!t like this that separates the men from the boys.



  6. So many things right about this post…however my least favorite bit (although I completely see the point of including it) is the opening pic. I sorta get that teeth-on-edge-grind-em-until-they-hurt reaction when I see the whole ‘taco’ metaphor being used in conjunction with the vulvular area. I have never seen a female who’s external genitalia look like lettuce, shredded cheese, and diced tomato, and I hope that I never do. In fact, most of the external female genitals I have been privileged to ponder over have been involved in some pretty amazing work
    For the record, I cannot hear or read the word vulva anymore without thinking of that Seinfeld episode 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, well…sorry about causing you any teeth-grinding! The taco-thing is so Beyond the Pale Ridiculous to me, that I end up kinda liking it. Certainly more than I like clams, fish, and other cold-n-slimy metaphors of things that tend to smell bad!

      I’d say “damn Seinfeld for ruining a perfectly good word!” EXCEPT: 1) it was NOT a perfectly good word before, either; and 2) I have this sneaking suspicion that that episode significantly increased the population of “people who have heard the word ‘vulva'” from what it was before. [Siiiiigh.]

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Let’s just say that you have the power to create and implement the use of a new word for this region…What would you name this interconnected network of female pleasure, function and reproductive outlet?


        1. oooh, high pressure!

          In all seriousness, though, this is not a question I could ever answer. Should ever answer. I really meant it when I said I do not know how to hold positive feelings about female sexual anatomy. I can only discuss it in one of two modes: heavily researched and sarcastically funny [cf. this post], or cruel and dismissive.

          The word I generally use when I’m not actively cracking jokes or pontificating? “Cunt.” Which I admire in the same way that I prefer self-identifying as a dyke. Both terms give off a strong vibe of “YOU DO NOT WANT TO FUCK WITH ME” that I quite like. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Well, how about we just say here’s to the day (perhaps) when positivity is achieved, or at least closer, and you can have your day to wipe VULVA from every dictionary on the earth while still holding that “DO NOT FUCK WITH ME” attitude in any form you wish.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. For the record, I love the word vulva. Thanks for this post. When my daughter begins menstruating, we’ve got big plans to make vulva cupcakes (perhaps made with a marbled delicious (& moist) chocolate & red velvet cake). My four year old & I love the vulva cupcakes. She will probably also enjoy these emoji.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am so glad to know the word “vulva” has at least one champion in the world! And your cupcake plan sounds delicious…

      …”moistness” notwithstanding. 😉


  8. Alice… you absolutely made my day… perhaps even the whole year ! =)

    I too never cared for the term “vulva”; way too icky and medical for my tastes… erm… no pun intended. =) My fav is the party-in-your-pants-sounding “ba-jingo”… just sounds capital FUN with streamers and unicorns, right ?! =) Of course, when discussing anatomy with a member of the betesticled set, one has to give WAY more detail… and I will stop myself there. There should be wallet cards we can carry, to be whipped out on a moments notice, for those “see this is what I want you to do just there” luncheon conversations… luckily I found a partner who has a deep and abiding love for pussy, and from my screams he knows what he is doing is right…

    Aw hell, this reply is about 100 miles south of inappropriate, so I will shut up for a change… have a great day, thanks for the belly laughs following the heartfelt sighs. “only so many ways to draw” one… srsly ? =)

    ps- used the P word up there, following your lead… and SINCERELY hope this does not offend you or your gentle readers… =)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. My gentle readers and I are a pretty hardened crew; I think we’ll all survive a p-bomb or two. 😉

      On a related note — and I mean this TOTALLY SERIOUSLY, though it may not come across as such! — when you use or hear the slang terms (thinking mostly of Top Tier Slang, like “pussy” or “cunt,” though background players like “ba-jingo” probably qualify as well), do you think of those words as referencing the vagina, the vulva, or the whole undifferentiated package? Or does the slang’s meaning shift across all of the above categories, depending on context and intonation to convey different anatomical structures?

      I was pondering this question late last night. But then it got later, and the post got longer…so I decided to save asking it for later. (Which just became NOW, apparently!)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You do tackle those tough questions that other bloggers would be afraid to even whisper… lmao ! =)

        Btw, I despise the C word, sounds so guttural and harsh on the back of my teeth. I have no idea why; probably because it is one I heard often growing up by men, always used negatively to describe some woman or other.

        As you can tell by now, I am a complete weirdo who tends to look at things outside the box… preferably from atop the remaining box rubble, surveying the dying embers with a sense of enormous satisfaction… therefore for me, “ba-jingo” refers to basically everything between tummy-button and ass, front to back. =) My girly bits, as it were, and the whole playground… and again, I digress…

        After a particularly energetic week with Paul, I have been known to tell him “I need a bath because my ba-jingo feels like it’s gonna fall off”, in which case I mean internally, but usually I just mean everything outside. I know, I am a grown woman who should not have silly names for my girly bits… but this is much better then in my 20’s when I called my vajayjay “Grace Kelly”… as you may have suspected, I suffer from no small amount of self esteem and appreciation for the way I am put together… I am not perfect, but I do love myself. =)

        I like pretty, or funny words, but not self-depricating terms for that most wondrous of places… I think there is so much depressingly unrealistic expectation out there, for all of us, that any way we can find to empower ourselves, or love ourselves a little bit more can only be a good thing. If for me that means using silly words and naked 30second dance party while telling myself how awesome I am makes me smile at myself and be happy, then so be it… just always knock before coming in my front door… =)


        1. Thank you! I really appreciate how you took my question at face value and really answered it. (I learn the *most* fascinating things when that happens!) And I never would have guessed that’s what ba-jingo meant, if I hadn’t asked.

          [I’m also really glad for you, that you are happy in your sex life right now, btw. 🙂 ]

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Thank you so much… those unsatisfied marriage years left me feeling like Moses wandering in the desert… and now I’m all like… YAY !!!!!! =) =) Feast or famine, gotta love the sense of humor those Fates have, lol ! =)

          Liked by 1 person

      2. And I am SUCH a spaz sometimes… I just saw your comment to another reader and thought “Dyke? Alice? Nah, she’s so sweet… a little opinionated like me, but not that word”… apparently I have been living under a rock and words do not mean the same thing they did all those years ago in that small, whitewashed, middle-class hell that was my family and town… thank all that ever was holy for small favors. =)

        All I know is whatever makes you look in the mirror and love what you see is perfect. And I think you totally rock who you are, no matter what word you like. I’d be proud to call you a dyke… erm… if you wouldn’t kick my ass for it… !! lol =)

        Liked by 1 person

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