Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Teaching a Child to Refer to her Genitalia as the C Word

'I made this clay vagina for a guy I was dating this past summer.' photo (c) 2011, Loretta Lime - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

Every parent eventually has to make a decision regarding what to teach their children about their genitalia.  Some people simply cannot bear to give their children the correct anatomical names and instead make up cutesy nick names for them.  In doing so, what they don't recognize, is that they are introducing the idea of shame when it comes to both the physical body and sex and sexuality.  As the years pass, it sends a strong message that certain body parts are dirty and not to be spoken of.

The unhusband and I made the decision to tell our sons that they had both a penis and testes. This should not have been a controversial decision; however, when they entered school, one teacher  asked my oldest son to refer to his genitalia as his wee wee, because his forthrightness about his body made her uncomfortable. What should seem like a straight forward decision, can at times become complex depending on the people that you and your child interact with.

I recently came across the story of a feminist dad who decided to push the envelop when it came to talking to his daughter about her genitalia.
I really never thought this would happen. I had a vision that I was going to be able to raise my kids differently than anyone ever had, that they’d grow up free of racial prejudice and television and only wearing pink and all the other bad stuff that’s wandered into the head of any other kid, ever.

Sadly, that is not always the situation. Case study #1: Language.

In college I read Inga Muscio‘s amazing book Cunt: A Declaration of Independence. (I was a feminist! I was the only guy in Womyn’s Issues Now! I could do anything!) Essentially, the point of that book was that the word “cunt” used to be an honorific term for the female ruler of a country, whereas the word “vagina” is an Old English Latin word meaning “sheath for a sword.” And, in the earliest days of changing nappies and learning how female people wipe, I was quick to teach my gurgling baby proto-feminist girl to say “cunt!” instead of “vagina” — or instead of whatever other term you’d use.


No matter what anyone else said, or how they looked at me when I said it. In fact, because of how they looked at me when I said it. (source)
I think there is a good argument to made that teaching a little girl to refer to her genitalia as only a vagina, is teaching her to refer only to a specific part of her anatomy.  It is based in the idea that the only part of our genitalia that matters, is the opening that allows penetration by a man.  I would fully support teaching a child to use vulva instead; however,  I believe that cunt is not the appropriate choice to thwart the limiting social construction of what female genitalia signifies.


There are some women who have chosen to reclaim the word cunt. This is an individual choice, and the same cannot be said for a father who actively chooses to teach his daughter this word.  I think first we must consider that we are talking about a male parent. No matter the intention of the man in question, the word cunt will always be problematic.  He may have done the research of the etymological roots, but the fact of the matter is that today the word cunt is socially understood to be a reductive word used to attack and debase women, no matter how many times you watch the Vagina Monologue and watch as Eve Ensler, encourages the men in the audience to shout out the word.  Intent does not magically alter the social understanding of a word in question.

There are several groups who have attempted to reclaim words.  Some Blacks have attempted to reclaim the slur nigger and some gay people have also done so with the word queer, but despite their efforts, these words are still actively used as a slur, and even within the communities to whom these words belong, the idea of reclamation is not necessarily universally embraced. Then there are communities like the disabled community, who are attempting to ask people to reconsider their usage of words like retard, lame, crazy, and moron, with little success I might add. Regardless of the community that you address, a large part of the issue with these problematic words is that they not only have become socially ingrained, the meaning of each of these words has developed their own unique definition.

In many ways, this mans effort reminds me of those who insist on claiming that they were only talking about a cigarette, when called on their usage of the word f#g. Part of raising socially aware children is teaching them to think for themselves.  It begins by setting a foundation in which they are taught that all people matter regardless of their race, sexuality, gender, age, or ability.  From there, the next step should be a discussion of common isms aimed at historically marginalized group, along with the concept of privilege. The final stage, and the most exciting I might add, is turning their questions around and asking them what they think and why.  This can be as simple asking themselves to picture how they would feel in the place of the marginalized person at first.

I disagree with this man's approach because his first thought removes choice.  Not all women believe that the word cunt should be reclaimed, and many, myself included, find it extremely offensive. He could have chosen to thwart the common understanding of female genitalia and use the term labia and then had a discussion on why cunt might be a word for her to consider, but instead he used his adult and male privilege to decide for her.  There may well come a time when she pulls away from her father's understanding and decides that this word is not suitable for her, but we all know that ideas when introduced at a very young age are very difficult to overcome in later years. In this instance, I believe respecting women and encouraging agency should come with the right to name and that is something that was taken from her, in his bid to be the ultimate feminist man. Every person should have the right and ability to cherish their bodies.

Any parent who engages in social justice parenting will tell you that it is an uphill battle.  There are times when your children will say the most insightful things, and you will be filled with immense pride, and others when you feel it is hopeless because they have learned and internalized such negative things from either their friends, or the media.