I’m so glad Leah McElrath was enthusiastic about cross-posting her piece on Huff Po here on the Blend because it hits so many spot-on points about the Akin dustup that weren’t seeing the light of day. The fact is, too many Americans of the male persuasion have no clue about the female body, and it should be no surprise that the mind-blowing ignorance of Rep. Akin was on full display when he opened his trap about “legitimate rape” — and the miraculous ability of women to somehow spontaneously abort a rapist- fertilized egg in their wombs. The stunning level of ignorance was breathtaking. Did he not take basic biology? The bottom line is that too many men like Akin don’t respect women enough to educate themselves about our bodies before attempting to legislate how we use them.
The harsh reality is our culture teaches and supports ignorance about women’s bodies. Akin’s remark about victims of “legitimate rape” having a way to “shut that whole thing down” is most disturbing because he’s not alone in his ignorance.
Of course, his remarks are also disturbing because they reflect the existence of rape culture in America. They illustrate the perspective there is a distinction between different “types” of rapes: the use of “legitimate” directly implies there are “illegitimate” rapes. As such, the remarks cast automatic doubt upon a woman who reports a rape. But many people are talking about his remarks within the framework of rape and reproductive freedom.
I want to talk about something else. Akin’s remark also illustrates something the news media are not exploring effectively: the absolutely stunning level of ignorance about women’s bodies and how our bodies function.
Why does such ignorance exists? Why does a woman as powerful as Oprah feel compelled to refer to a vulva using an immature euphemism? Why, even when people attempt to use accurate terminology, do they use “vagina” instead of vulva? Why? Because we have a culture in which women’s bodies are relevant only in relation to how they are connected (literally in this case) to men’s. We use “vagina” because that’s where men’s penises enter. It’s that simple.
However, that simplicity has profound impact on our culture. We teach little girls and little boys incorrect information about girls’ bodies. We emphasize the vagina, which leaves girls who grow into young women ignorant of the entire structure and functioning of the majority of their genitalia.
It doesn’t affect just young women, either. As a psychotherapist, I’ve met intelligent, educated married men who believed that their wives urinated from their vaginas. I’ve also met intelligent, educated women who have never even looked at their own genitals and who certainly didn’t know the accurate terminology for the various parts or for the whole.
Perhaps you yourself are even unaware of accurate terms for a woman’s genitals. If so, let’s fix that deficit in your knowledge now:
Vulva — The inclusive term for a woman’s external genital organs, including her labia minora and labia majora (inner lips and outer lips, respectively), her clitoris, her urethra and the external opening of her vagina.
Vagina — Secret powerful dark cave with teeth inside, capable of biting off men’s penises and preventing sperm from “legitimate” rape from reaching the egg.
Vagina — The muscular tube leading to the cervix of a woman’s uterus and connected to muscles that make up her pelvic floor. A vagina is a potential space. It is not an open tube that remains open at all times, but rather a sheath that largely closes upon itself except during sexual activity, childbirth or, on occasion, certain physical activities. An example of when is yoga involving positions stretching a woman’s legs and torso. This sometimes resulting in the vagina opening a bit, air entering, then air being expelled when the woman changes position. This process is notoriously referred to as “vaginal fart” or “queef” (although what is expelled is air only, not gaseous waste as is the case in anal farts).
Clitoris — Nerve and erectile tissue located at the junction of the labia minora and inclusive of both the glans (or head) of the clitoris and the nerves that extend down inside the woman’s labia. The glans of the clitoris contains more nerve endings than any other part of the human body and is covered by a triangular-shaped sheath or hood of protective skin. Women’s clitorises vary in size, but the glans of a woman’s clitoris is generally the size of a small, medium or large pea.
Urethra — The small opening located between the clitoris and the vagina. The urethra is the outer opening of the ureter, the tube which extends to the woman’s bladder and through which urine is passed.
Now you know this information — do your part to change our culture and pass it forward.
I’ve stopped with a description of women’s genitalia only. If there is positive response to this article and a desire for information about a woman’s reproductive organs and the reproductive process, I’d be happy to write a follow up. Let me know in your comments.
Leah is a Managing Partner with the communications-consulting firm Renna Communications and a professional psychotherapist with a Master of Social Work degree from the Smith College School for Social Work. She has authored and contributed to the production of materials published both under her own name and for attribution to others in the New York Times Magazine, USA Today, the New York Daily News, AM New York, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Advocate.com, Gay.com, Time.com and other media outlets.