Medical Examiner

The Word for Anatomy That Shouldn’t Be “Vulgar”

There’s a better term than vagina and vulva, both of which are confusing and also kind of wrong.

Peaches.
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The word pussy used to sound jarring to me. I know it sounds jarring to most people. It did the day I heard that Donald Trump had bragged that he habitually assaulted women by “grab[bing] them by the pussy.”

I happened to be trying to name a project I had in the works at the time—a bilingual, free, inclusive, heavily fact-checked encyclopedia about all things vagina-related. Importantly, my encyclopedia aimed to spell everything out in plain easy-to-understand language. As Trump’s comment went viral, I must have heard pussy uttered a thousand times, first by people relaying what Trump had said, and then people rallying against him. There were all those “Pussy Grabs Back” signs at the 2016 Women’s March. No way can Trump have that word, I thought. We all need it too much. My project would eventually become pussypedia.net, and now a book, Pussypedia: A Comprehensive Guide.

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But I would like to go one step further, and point out that pussy is useful not just as a memorable name for a book, but as a broader term. Pussy has no prior super official, scientific definition, and can therefore still adopt one. So, my collaborator María Conejo and I propose a new definition of the word pussy that means: some combination of vagina, vulva, clitoris, uterus, urethra, bladder, rectum, anus, and even testes (which some intersex people with pussies have).

Yes, there is no formal word for all this stuff, as a collection. There’s vagina which refers to the vaginal canal, and there’s vulva which refers to the parts you see on the outside (which is commonly called vagina, too). Some people include the little glans of the clitoris that sticks out in the definition of vulva and some don’t; regardless, that little vulva-faring nub hardly encompasses the whole clit or even most of it. The clitoris is made of the same tissues as a penis, about the same size as one (9 centimeters flaccid, on average), and responsible for our orgasms. (I really wish I didn’t have to compare the clitoris to the penis to make the point that it’s important.)

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Most people are shocked, as you may be, to learn that the clit has this huge internal structure, because clitoral anatomy has been historically erased. We learn the “reproductive system” in school as kids (because in the patriarchy, reproduction is a person with a pussy’s main function), and we’re given images of pussy anatomy in which the clitoris has disappeared. That’s because it’s considered too profane to teach kids. Because you know … God forbid little kids should know their bodies are capable of experiencing pleasure. Society would certainly implode. Anyway, this erasure of the clit needs to end. As Sophia Wallace, inventor of the cliteracy movement, has said, “democracy without cliteracy is a phallusy.”

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Why do we need a word for vulva, vagina, clit, everything altogether—how does that help? Without a word that describes the interconnected pussy system, it’s harder to conceptualize it. It’s like if we had words for foot, shin, calf, knee, and thigh but no word for leg. A leg works as a system to walk. A pussy works as a system, too. Plus, we already colloquially use a general purpose word for, roughly, the whole system: vagina, which, again, is technically incorrect. I know language evolves and shifts and popular uses should be acceptable stand-ins for official definitions. (I am trying to exploit this fact). But what happens when I am trying to talk specifically about the inner canal, and not the whole region? Vagina should just mean that. Plus, I just don’t really like the word vagina, which comes from the Latin word for sheath, as in sword holder. We literally call an internal, sensitive, wonderful bit of flesh, “that thing that holds a penis.” This is an issue because vaginas do not exist to be objects of service to penises; in fact, many never interact with them at all. We certainly shouldn’t refer to the whole system casually as a “vagina.”

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I’ve adopted the word pussy fully. In the five years since I started using it first in pussypedia.net and now in Pussypedia the book, I’ve grown very fond of its sound. You smile when you say it. I love that it’s an international word that rarely needs translation. I’ve pretty much forgotten that it’s a bad word and sometimes, when people ask me what I do, and I start with pussy this, pussy that, I see their faces get red—as maybe yours is, now? Good news: The embarrassment rarely lasts long. What’s left when it fades is just a useful term.

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