What’s the big mystery? It’s my vagina, not the sphinx! — Miranda on Sex and the City
We were at Target, a store Jane hits up an average of three times a week. While Jane and I perused cosmetics, my five-year-old niece Bella entertained herself by climbing in and out of the red shopping cart. I was comparing two shades of lipstick when I heard the little girl shout, “Ow! That hurt my vagina!” This is Bella’s new favorite word. She knows it’s a naughty word by the way adults react when she says it. She realizes this naughty word holds a power most profound, for even though adults wince and giggle in embarrassment when she utters it, she is never reprimanded, as when she speaks the other handful of forbidden words she’s gleaned in her short life.
The exclamation had so caught me off guard that my first reaction, before establishing that my niece was okay, was to swivel my head to check if anyone had been within earshot. Jane rushed to her daughter’s aid, helping Bella swing a leg over the edge of the cart. Then my sister met my wide-eyed gaze, and we shared an uneasy chuckle. As we hurried to finish our shopping, I caught a glimpse of Bella’s satisfied smile.
You’d think it would not be so jarring for two grown women to hear the anatomically correct word for female genitalia. I was disturbed by my reaction to my niece’s innocent reference to what, for her, should be no more than a word for the area of her body that she had inadvertently bumped. I wasn’t about to correct her, but I did have the thought that if she’d wanted to be more accurate, Bella would have said “vulva,” not “vagina,” for the latter refers only to the inner canal portion of a girl’s whoozy-whatzit.
It was only a few months ago that I first saw a production of The Vagina Monologues, the Eve Ensler play that debuted over ten years ago. The only reason I went was to support my friend Kristen, who was performing in the show. Kristen was shocked that I had never seen the piece — not because I’m a woman but because I’m a strong woman. I don’t mean strong as in I can lift heavy things, but dominant, not meek, the kind of woman who takes the word “bitch” as a compliment because it denotes one who doesn’t pussyfoot around. Bitch is bold. Maybe that’s why I’d never gone out of my way to see the show — as a dominant and sexually liberated lady, I didn’t feel the need to confront my femininity.
Kristen was to play a dominatrix. I loaned her a selection of femme domme books to help her get into character and a red-and-black riding crop to complete her ensemble.
The show was mostly what I expected: a lot of raunchy, vivid descriptions of female genitalia mixed with a handful of heartbreaking tales of abuse. The most overwhelming part of the show was when performers asked all victims of sexual abuse to stand. I remained seated and swallowed the lump that rose in my throat as I watched a shocking number of women rise to their feet, both on stage and in the audience.
Aside from the sorrow I felt at the harsh realization that so many have suffered, all I took away from the show were graphic mental images of OPP that I was not exactly “down with.” Between my freak-out at my young niece’s eloquence and the Vagina Monologues material I’d found borderline unpalatable, I had to wonder if it was possible that I’d somehow turned prudish. As soon as the question entered my head, however, I recognized its silliness: anyone who knows me would guffaw at such a suggestion. As if a woman whose license plates broadcast her prurience could ever be considered a prude.
So why was I put off by all the crotch talk? While pondering an answer, it occurred to me that in my day-to-day life, I rarely have cause to refer to my womanhood. I don’t think I avoid the subject so much as it’s not relevant to most of the topics of conversation in which I find myself engaged. As my friend Jen says, “I don’t think many people want to talk about their junk.”
Once the proverbial Eve pasted a leaf to demarcate a “private” area, talk about our genitals was relegated to reticence. Aside from informing my sexual partner or my doctor where attention is required, any mention or reference to my vulva is superfluous, intended only to amuse or disturb others.
References to one’s nether regions made for the sake of throwing people off balance is not solely the province of children. Like a grown-up version of my niece, my friend Kimberly wields the wand of words. The other night, Kristen was enjoying a glass of wine in my kitchen when Kim called from outside. After I buzzed the front door to let her into the building, I turned to Kristen for a quick rundown of what to expect. “My friend Kim, she likes to bust out the word vagina.”
Kristen smirked at me. “Hello, I was in the Monologues, remember? I can handle it.”
“Right, yes, of course, I forgot,” I said. “Still, just FYI. She uses it a lot. It’s, like, her vadge of honor.” I giggled at my pun. David rolled his eyes, demonstrating how above my potty humor he was.
Kim and her husband Shawn were at the door. Ever generous, they’d brought with them not one, but three bottles of wine, a rack of ribs and sausages for our new grill, and a gorgeous bouquet of red-orange gerbera daisies. I’m not sure why, but I made note of the time displayed on the microwave. Perhaps I was curious to see how long it would take Kim to bust out the V-word. When she did, just over one minute after walking through the door, I couldn’t help but share a look with Kristen to communicate a silent “Told ya.” I could see on Kristen’s face that, despite her experience on stage discussing all things vaginal, and regardless of the warning I’d given her of Kim’s blunt crotch commentary, she’d been taken aback, just a little. On Kim’s face, as I’d seen on my niece’s, I noticed a certain sly, satisfied smile.