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.
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.
“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.
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