Say vagina ‘til you don’t giggle

By Kathi Linehan

“She’s here!” announced one of the boys. I smiled and put my fingers to my lips indicating he should shush, because Mr. P was teaching in the front of the room. All the 5th graders began fidgeting at their desks, some casting furtive glances at me, some smiling, but all of them noticeably activated.

Graphic supposedly created for a 2004 special presentation by PBS and Oregon Public Broadcasting about the history of sex ed in public schools.

Graphic supposedly created for a 2004 special presentation by PBS and Oregon Public Broadcasting about the history of sex ed in public schools. Sadly, according to an OPB spokesperson reached by phone, no such program ever aired.

Like a rite of spring, it was time for the separate girls’ Reproductive Health class with Nurse Kathi.

Do you remember yours? Was it a nurse talking with you, maybe a gym teacher, or ‘the movie’ like it was for me in the ‘60s? Did you, or could you, say vagina or penis in class? Back then it was called Sex Ed, but we are more politically correct with our title now — if a child lives in a state that even allows a factual presentation about the changes of puberty.

I was lucky enough to be working in New Mexico, one of the 22 states in the U.S. that mandate sex education, at a K-8 school of primarily middle-class kids. As their school nurse, I was deemed by the Public Education Department as best suited to teach 4th through 8th graders about their body changes. I was especially grateful that this was NOT one of the three states that mandate only negative information about same-sex relationships. I could only imagine the feelings of anxiety, shame or isolation such a presentation could cause for any gay or lesbian students, or those with gay or lesbian parents.

Knowing that he had lost the students in this 5th grade class (one of three), the teacher instructed the boys to go to Mrs. K’s room across the hall and the girls to stay with me. One of the boys said jeeringly to a girl, “Have fun!” as he walked by me to exit; I couldn’t resist cheerily saying to him, “See you boys at 2:00.”

The smile fell off his face, as if he had forgotten that his boys-only class followed the girls’. Had he enjoyed embarrassing her about the thought of learning about her body, and then realized he was embarrassed as well?

I cherished my hour with this age group of girls. In 4th grade the girls watched a cartoon movie with me and I showed them how to put a sanitary pad on underwear, as some of them would need to know that at age 9, but that was about all they could handle. But by age 10 to 11, hormones can burst forth like daffodils in spring, and they are eager and ready for real information.

They want to understand why that boy is pushing them on the playground, or they feel a ‘zing’ with someone who, until then, had just been a friend. Hormones are powerful and at this age the attractions of puberty can come out ‘sideways’. They aren’t equipped to handle the feelings; they want to be close or touch someone, but are often misdirected in their attempts.

The students had been taught in previous life-skills classes that they were in control of their bodies, and with that personal responsibility they learned that yes means yes, and no means no. It was my role to reinforce the concept, especially now that they were older and could soon be in an increasing number of situations where they may not have a parent or adult readily available to intervene. These girls weren’t dating yet, but a parent might drive a group of them to the movie theater, and knowing some of these girls, I could be assured they would text a group of boys to meet them there.

We talked about what they could do when another person pushed them at recess. They had the ready answer of “Tell an adult,” like the yard-duty staff or their teacher, which was how these conflicts were usually handled in the school setting — focused on finding a resolution with the involved students. But, if they weren’t at school, how they could advocate for themselves by saying, “I don’t like you pushing me (or touching me) that way, and I want you to stop now”?

Being able to let someone else know what is not okay at that age could only grow into a great skill to have as an adult, and hopefully lead to healthy relationships. And what if that assertion was followed by a question such as “Why were you pushing me?” I can imagine a moment of introspection, followed by the honest answer of “Well, because I like you.” I may be a dreamer, but I was planting seeds of hope for a new generation in which transparency about feelings could be the norm.

We were just sitting and talking together, so when I pulled forward my flip chart to talk about their bodies and the changes of puberty, no one seemed overly concerned. But when I turned to the drawing with an internal view of ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus and vagina to discuss the cycle of menstruation and used the word vagina, screams and laughter filled the room.

It wasn’t my first time teaching this class, so I just waited for it to subside. I pointed to my elbow and asked what body part that was, and they said, “elbow.” I pointed to my nose, and they said, “nose.” I pointed to the vagina on the picture, said “vagina,” and they lost it again.

Now I got to do my second favorite thing when teaching 5th grade girls’ reproductive health: to normalize the names of body parts related to the reproductive system and sexuality. I talked about growing up in America today and how in our culture the real names of our body parts related to sexuality are uncomfortable even for many adults to say. On top of that, each of them had family, cultural and perhaps religious values that could shape how they think about anything related to sex.

Just as a topic for pondering, I asked the students what it says about us as a society when we consider the number of euphemisms we have for male and female sexual anatomy.

This was recently demonstrated on The Daily Show when Jon Stewart was interviewing Dana Perino. She was talking about a picture of herself and her dog on the cover of a magazine.

This grown woman, a former White House press secretary accustomed to daily verbal parries with the most direct of reporters is also a current talk show host — therefore most likely familiar with the rules surrounding what words can and cannot be said on TV. Yet she was cringing as she tried to describe being questioned about her dog’s leg.

As Perino put it, the dog’s leg was “directly covering, you know what; the junk thing.”

When Stewart went on to clarify what she was referring to, her answer of “well, not that part, the other part,” was filled with as much trepidation. I really think she would have been just as uncomfortable had she not been on TV, and just talking with a friend.

In the classroom I explained that, for me, the reproductive system is no different from the respiratory or cardiac systems of the body, with organs that had names and functions. I reminded the girls that in addition to deciding what they would allow another person to do with them physically, no one could force them to say anything, either. I said that if they wanted to, there was something I’d like to try together that could help them.

I said, “Let’s all say the word vagina together until we can do it without giggling.” They agreed they could try, and we kept saying “vagina” together. At first the laughing was more uproarious than before, but by the 7th or 8th time, there were just giggles, and finally they could say it in a normal tone.

“Woohoo, you did it!” I praised them for trying that exercise. I’d posit that saying vagina without giggling is not only a step toward accepting our bodies, but necessary for learning to love our bodies — and ourselves.

The class continued and at the end I told them that if they had any more questions they could always talk with me in my office, or could talk with a parent or other trusted adult — that we are waiting for them to ask questions, because many times adults just don’t know how to bring up the subject of sexuality. I reminded them that talking with their friends is ok, too, but that their friends may not know any more than they do, and an adult might have better answers.

Of course, I wish I’d had more than only an hour with those girls, but I can find comfort in the knowledge that there are about 50 girls born in the year 2003 or so who can say the word ‘vagina’ without giggling. If only I could spend some time with Dana Perino so we could practice saying the word ‘penis.’

What about you? Have you had to work at saying ‘vagina’ or ‘penis’ without a giggle, without feeling awkward? Have you ever thought about why?

Personally, when I’m aware of a feeling or apprehension that does not seem situationally appropriate, it’s a signal to delve into my past to find the root cause. Generally, there has been a judgment or shaming that I have internalized that requires excavation. Brought to the surface, it can be examined and truth can shine its healing light. Given how taboo it is to speak of sex and genitalia with anything like relaxed candor, and how lacking the sex education is in most states, we might need backhoes to excavate the whole country.

21 thoughts on “Say vagina ‘til you don’t giggle

  1. Eric Francis

    So, this is a point of beginning. The very, very beginning. The external female genitals are not called the vagina, however; that is called the vulva. Vulva includes something called the clitoris, which has a unique purpose and needs to be explained. To say vagina and only vagina is to avoid many topics at once.

    So where are we really, if kids learn to use a euphemism, and that is considered an achievement? This is material that needs to be covered in biology class as scientific fact.

    I think this story more than anything reveals a lot about the state of the sexual discussion. We are far from relaxed candor; and far from the more intricate aspect of the sexuality discussion, that of intimacy.

    This article raises more questions than it answers, or asks directly. Why the shame, and how do we get to a place of an actual discussion?

    1. Amanda Painter

      Hey Eric — Kathi uses the word “Vagina” in this piece because she is, as far as I can tell, ACTUALLY REFERRING TO THE VAGINA:

      “But when I turned to the drawing with an internal view of ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus and vagina to discuss the cycle of menstruation and used the word vagina, screams and laughter filled the room. ”

      (Emphasis mine.)

      The proper use and discussion of “vulva” is important, too — but this is a registered nurse speaking anatomically about the vagina and its biological functions in terms of menstruation and sex.

      1. DivaCarla Sanders

        My comment from yesterday followed Mercury out the door… didn’t post 🙁
        What Amanda said.

        It is possible that vulva, clitoris, and labia don’t enter the curriculum till 8th grade, if at all.
        Pleasure is not a concern of public education, in any area.

        What I applaud is that this school nurse is giving girls an empowering first step: The girl who can say vagina with confidence and ease, owns her vagina with more confidence. When she owns her vagina, she owns her clitoris, vulva, labia, and pleasure. When it is time to make decisions about contraception, pregnancy, and birth, she owns her uterus and ovaries.

        We can hope that somehow these girls can have open minded guidance through all the stages. If this is the best they get, these girls in Nurse Kathi’s class are miles ahead of their peers who never learned to say vagina at all, and shift the shame the giggles mask.

        Now I would love to be a fly on the wall in the boy’s class. What is she talking to the 5th grade boys about? Are they ready for erections, wet dreams and masturbation, or are they talking about confusing feelings around girls, or boys… or what?

        In other words, do children with penises have different education about pleasure and sex, and children with vaginas learn about periods and ovulation?

        Nurse Kathi? have you written that article?

  2. pam

    (She possibly brings up vulva and clitoris with the 10-11 year olds? ‘…by age 10 to 11, hormones can burst forth like daffodils in spring, and they are eager and ready for real information.’)

  3. Eric Francis

    Why do we need slang? That’s most of our problem. Imo labia, clitoris, vulva, penis, testicles and the rest of the old fashioned accurate words are just fine with me. Vagina works as long as we’re talking about an internal aspect of anatomy. I am also fans of old English like cock, cunt, fuck and ass, which actually mean what we think they mean at their basis. Fuck is the only way to say fuck in English without using slang, euphemism or a foreign word or phrase.

    1. pam

      Calling a spade a spade. And then (too?) sometimes there are places (moments/times) beyond words? Or humour – love trunk and trouser snake always struck me as a sort of friendly ‘wit’?

  4. pam

    Foreign words. I agree, except these days (14 years in) some french words seem a ‘better fit’ than english ones. What about colloquial phrases even in english. it is ineteresting is’nt it – where the lines are between colour and fake and factual accuracy.

    I’m not really arguing except for a little movement for levity, fun and colour sometimes, not enough to skew or perhaps enough to skew in the right company. Like music impro?

  5. pam

    or what sort of games (tensions?) appeal to you, verbal (or spatial)

    perhaps more simply pet names that begin in childhood with mispronunciation or creativity, anything not just body parts, and the laughter (return to innocence?) around these things. Belonging. Ease. Peace. Place.

    or I was reading a biography of david hare today – apparently of the actors he is directing he says discipline and then freedom – which might be the same here as getting your terminology right and after that not worrying anymore (except if you are explaining to someone who isn’t clear?). ie roots and wings!

    Or just anything that is playful – playful isn’t necessarily misleading, just fun?

    And the language thing is just personal isn’t it – partly everyday use, partly ‘sound’ and meaning.

    The french examples are also simple zizi is the child slang for penis, bit is an adult word, chatte for vagina.

    I hesitated to emphasise it before and I don’t think I’m being sloppy, but awareness is often beyond words or more immediate than words? Of course you need clear vocabulary to communicate at need?

    Living in the countryside all the kids are up on sex education from very small – in spring there are any number of courtships to stumble across, the geese who mate for life, various bulls/rams/stallions who have a harem, snakes that hatch out by themselves and ?don’t know their parents, the tom cats who do a sort of short fling and aren’t there at the birth, the cocks who jump on any hen that moves if they can, birds who pair for at least the summer. The eagles who migrate to Africa in the winter and come back in the spring to nest (every other year? does the young one fly with them the first year and come back with them and only leave the second year – i’m not sure), and then the people all around who couple up and some have a child or more.

    The mystery of birth of any sort

    Then casualties/vulnerabilities – a fledgling that fell out of a nest that my husband kept until it could fly, a friend left his incubator with us the WE the chicks in it hatched, and the chicks we help (pen with their Mum because the other hens would eat them), the geese i bought at a fair, (also from incubated eggs) because they were a month old and I couldn’t bear it. i would put my arms over them in the evening trying to simulate wings before I left them to sleep, and they would groom my hair. This year they have their own babies and seem to be doing alright so far, tho we only left the goose with 3 eggs, and shut them in at night unless they stay on the water and won’t come in. A friend found a baby magpie (shunted out of the nest by a cuckoo?)

    What are the things that make the difference in any given case. Sometimes who can make the difference… (ie has the gift/competence)

  6. Kathi

    Hello Everyone, and thank you for such a lively discussion about this blog! Please accept my apology for not responding sooner. This weekend I went on a trip with my husband and we decided to unplug from electronics – great for us, not so great for having my first Planet Waves publication! I appreciate every comment and the climate of support in this role of educating students honestly as their school nurse.

    Amanda – thank you for clarifying the content of this discussion around the organs involved in menstruation, and why ‘vagina’ was so important.

    I agree with Eric that the external genitalia are as important to know about and be called their proper/true names, but as others postulated, that was covered with an older age group. I would explain to the students that just as the math they were learning at the grade they were in wasn’t the same they had learned in Kindergarten or 1st grade, the information they learned in Reproductive Health would become more detailed as they grew older. This is supported by (Sexuality Information and Education Council for the United States) in their Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education, where depth of information for a given topic are grouped according to developmental ages in four Levels, from Early Elementary to High School. And, it was my answer to the question “Why are you back, you talked with us LAST year!”

    DivaCarla – as you suggested, the terms for external genitalia were covered in the 7th and 8th grade classes. I WAS part of Science class, and had a whole week of classes (one hour each day, 5 days – I could actually cover some topics well!) with the boys and girls together, a few days with guest speakers. I especially liked what you wrote about owning their vagina. As for 5th grade boys – I do need to write that article, because they just couldn’t see to wait to get started with their questions, and yes, about wet dreams, ejaculation, why a girl would act different (friendlier) when her friends weren’t around, and more.

    Elizabeth – Thank you for reminding us of beautiful slang words from other cultures, and your apt perception that I was fenced between science and shaming suppression. I embraced my role to blend the scientific facts with the beauty of human life, and attempted to instill a critical thinking mentality for beliefs the students may have, as they have been transmitted to them from so many aspects. I will definitely ponder your question of Who Does This Suppression Serve – do you have thoughts on that? Anyone else?

    Pam – When you used the term sacred gateway, I thought – if only we could embrace a goddess attitude on earth, for the vagina is the gateway for life to be conceived and where we exit to begin a life. (Well, unless there is a C-section.)
    I like your mention of discipline, and then freedom. First, know the correct terms and be able to use them. Then allow freedom – I can appreciate the idea of two consenting lovers using terms they have that are special for them and can be a part of their intimacy. Kurt Cobain was poetic in his use of the term Heart-shaped box….
    PS. Thanks for correcting the spelling of my last name, though I have to admit, it isn’t often gotten right. I’ve even had it written as Monahan, which told me they just weren’t even trying. 🙂 

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