The Vagina (and Penis) Dialogues

It was a perfect afternoon for a bike ride, breezy and springtime bright. My husband, Bill, and I unloaded our bikes and passed them to our children, who stood waiting by our side.

“I need a new seat,” I said nonchalantly, handing my bike to our daughter, 11. “This one really hurts my pubic bone.” Last season, we had switched the offending seat from Bill’s bike, because, well …

“… it made my penis numb,” Bill jumped in.

“Daaadd!” our son, 14, whisper-shouted.

“Yeah,” I said, seizing the teachable moment — casually, of course. “I remember you saying you felt uncomfortable having a numb penis.”

“Mommm!” Our kids scanned the busy parking lot for earwitnesses.

I’ve always considered speaking naturally about our bodies — despite our clunky linguistic options and, these days, a budding pair of eye-rolling adolescents — a parenting basic. But that day, saying the word “penis” in a parking lot also felt vaguely like protest.

It’s no secret that child-sexual-abuse educators believe teaching and confidently using universally applicable anatomical terms is good prevention, one very small piece of a complex puzzle we’re working hard to put together. With awareness of the problem of child sexual abuse at a post-Penn State high, you’d think we’d be putting the simple practice right up there with buckling seat belts.

But in lots of places, saying anatomically accurate words spells trouble. In June, Michigan State Representative  Lisa Brown was banned from speaking on Lansing’s state house floor after saying the word “vagina.” One day this spring, in an elementary school near our home in Vermont, a girl was pulled from a series of prevention classes called Care for Kids after being taught the word “penis.” During a Care for Kids training session not long after, a prevention educator described the incident, saying the mother had shouted at the school counselor, “You’ve destroyed her innocence.”

Curious, I called Shonna Trinch, Ph.D., a  professor at the City University of New York specializing in linguistic taboo. What gives?

“Linguistic taboo is born out of three categories,” Dr. Trinch explained, “fear; illness, death or criminality; and decency and propriety.” In American culture, adults load human genitalia with all three. But children don’t. For a healthy young child, the penis or vagina is simply another part of the body, one that looks and feels just as it does, as does an ear, a nose or a kneecap. When adults freight genitalia with negative meaning and shut down communication as a result, the message to children  is unhealthy: be quiet, we don’t want to hear it.

This is a problem. Allison Schumacher of the Committee for Children, whose pre-K-3 program, Talking About Touching, is taught in 25,000 American schools, said, “When children think using accurate language is wrong because their parents won’t say the words in front of them, or don’t have the ability to use accurate language, it puts them at risk.”

Without shared language, communication becomes more complicated. “If a child says, ‘He diddled my winky,’ usually an adult is required to translate,” said Denise Gaulin, the public health nurse who helped develop Care for Kids after widespread child sexual abuse in her community. “If a child says, ‘He licks my vulva,’ she’s understood.”

But is she heard? Maybe what frightens some adults is not the speaking, but the listening. If children are given language, what then might we hear?

As David Finkelhor, Ph.D., director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, is careful to emphasize, if the adults responsible for children won’t listen, it really doesn’t matter what words children have learned. “If most of the communication about sex has been expressing shame or disgust,” he wrote in an e-mail, “then the channel of communication is not open.”

Most adults understand and support talking openly about the human body when given the explanation of abuse prevention: Knowing anatomically accurate terms, and, more important, having the confidence that it’s safe to use them, can make it easier for a child to ask for help. Given the statistics, that 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls will be sexually assaulted by age 18, what adult — whether parent, educator or legislator — wouldn’t want that?

Nobody’s saying that cute slang terms have to go, just that we might want to think about why we euphemize, and consider teaching both pet and dictionary terms. “A kid at home may be called ‘Red,’ and at school he’s called ‘Jim,’ ” Ms. Gaulin said. “Children don’t have any difficulty having two words for the same thing.” In the ideal world, adults wouldn’t either.

Back in the parking lot, the world hummed and buzzed unchanged. Lycra-clad tourists pumped tires and buckled helmets. Car doors slammed. Reassured, our children hopped onto their bikes, and off we rode. My labia hurt the whole way, truth be told, but I was happy to let the wind and the trees do the talking for a while.

Motherlode – Adventures in Parenting, written by Catherine Buni
Published in The New York Times
Catherine Buni is a freelance writer who lives in central Vermont. To read more of her work, visit catherinebuni.com.

One Response to The Vagina (and Penis) Dialogues

  • JIPE says:

    I’m a French “doctor”, Ph D as you say , i think now taking care of my patients for 32 years . I was attacked by a bad man , sadic at 11, in the country , alone , my parents had autorized me to go to find my little wooden airplane i had let near a peace of water where we went fishing . I could not speak of this ever …What I hear from my patients , ladies, girls , is terrible…I DO NOT UNDERSTAND what is in the head of those devils … I AM READING CALL ME CRAZY in original version, (dedicaced!), it is difficult but after vision of 6 NIGHTS 7 days, I really found it is one of the best films on love and anne plays so well and it is so funny …and curiosity made me see the french site and official site for anne heche. What a lovely person and so strong I think… Thank you for this nice performance . I do not like toy boy however . Sorry for my bad english , protect the children is for normal parents, what I’m, I have three children knowing I’m their father or dad as you say and can always ask me for aid … and normal affection for ever . So many things to say, see you later…

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