Recently I have been watching a LOT of bad television. Top of my list this week was channel 4’s 40 year old virgins, a bizarre journey following a couple of mid-to-late thirtysomethings over to the States to throw money at hippies in Portland to hug them naked until they feel ready to penetrate. As far as documentaries about ageing first-timers paying for sex go it was pretty standard. There was however one part that struck a chord, one of the virgins had a problem articulating words that he associated with sex or sexual activity. In order to combat this he was assigned the task of repeating ‘clitoris’ and ‘shagging’ in front of a mirror until the words themselves lost their power. As well as making unnerving yet ultimately hilarious viewing, it started me thinking about my own relationship with the literal language of love and the ways in which bodily language immerses itself into our cultural lexicon.
It seems to me that the language that we as a society use to refer to male genitalia is a lot more varied and intergrated into everyday slang, like it’s pretty commonplace to ask people if they have the ‘balls’ to take something on.
When it comes to female sexual organs the choice is comparably limited and polarized, with words often falling into two camps: the childish (there is not a single person on earth who can say, hand on heart that they don’t laugh on hearing the word fanny.) or the obscene. Take cunt for example, everybody knows what it means but it’s probably one of the most severe swear words that can come out of our collective mouths, words for male genitalia just don’t have that impact. Even when mentioned to in literature we tend to lyricize vaginas to a point of twee-grotesqueness, I’m referring directly to a particularly cringe-inducing line in an Adrienne Rich poem, ‘her rose wet cave’ which has haunted me everyday since I read it.
Our societal avoidance of directly referring to vaginas is reinforced by televisual media and other mass-marketing campaigns that seem to have a total inability to spell out the realities of what they’re selling. The most obvious example of this is the infamous beaker of blue liquid representing menstrual blood – which caused me to believe for many years that when the time finally came my womb would shed bubblegum panda-pop. The worst campaign for literally beating around the bush are those for thrush medication, the main offender being ‘vagisil’ whose adverts seem to rely on a series of wink-wink, nudge-nudge codes in order to tell us what exactly the product is and where we should be putting it. Statements such as ‘feminine itching and burning’ and ‘the relief you need – right where you need it’ may seem subtle and modest enough, but wouldn’t it just be better all around if we learnt to articulate it properly? The trickle down effect of this vagueness becomes all the more apparent when trying to purchase aforementioned medicines, more often than not you find yourself faced with an impenetrable coffin of plastic security casing. It’s hardly surprising that women are trying to steal their medication, if we’re having trouble even mentioning the word ‘thrush’ (even my mum calls it songbird – which is kind of genius but still…) how can we be expected to comfortably stand by and watch a teenage shop-assistant wrestle it out of it’s beanie babies display case?
Instead of politely tiptoeing around the subject of vagina ‘issues’ we should be promoting an awareness of self-care and the best way to do this is by addressing the problem directly, starting with the language that we use. The more comfortable we are talking about our vaginas, the more comfortable out vaginas are ultimately going to be, so find the nearest mirror and repeat after me: thrush, thrush, thrush, thrush…