• Leah Jewett

Vulvas vs vaginas – what can I say?

Updated: Jan 30


Woman in vulva costume doing yoga next to a lake
Photographer Shane LaVancher took the “conception costume” to new heights (Image: Conceived in Brooklyn)

So you’re a parent who wants to talk openly with your child about sex and relationships.


You can be premeditated about it, work out ahead of time a topic you want to get across then take the plunge and mention it (a talking point from a news story is a great way in).


Or you can seize the day with teachable moments – a scene on TV, a song on the car radio, a billboard on the street, something your child says about what happened to someone else.


Whether you leap on a teachable moment or brave a topic out of the blue, you’ll be learning as you go about things like the values you hold here and now, who your child is and where you are in terms of talking openly with them. You might surprise yourself by what you find hard to say and what you can say more easily, by how you react to your child’s reactions, by where the conversation goes or stops.


Talking openly about sex-ed topics is as much about strengthening the parent-child connection and learning how to communicate with your child as it is about teaching them.

To get there, you might need to get over your own fears, barriers and hesitations, maybe by practising saying awkward words out loud. Two of those words might be vulva and vagina.


Here are 10 thought-provoking, conversation-starting questions about vulvas and vaginas to consider – and maybe dare to bring up with your child in your own way, in your own words… 




1) VAGINA VULVA


Why is it important to use the correct terms for body parts?


We’re fine with naming body parts like knees and toes, so by the same token let’s just call a vulva a vulva. If your child knows the anatomical terms for their body, they can more accurately explain when something doesn’t seem right. A child who knows scientific facts and understands about boundaries and consent is a deterrent for sexual predators – partly because an informed child is likely to turn to a trusted adult.


Using the correct terms for body parts validates and normalises those body parts – and “sends the message to kids,” says excellent sex educator Saleema Noon, that bodies are “not something shameful, not a secret, and that kids have the right to learn about them”.


Knowledge is power – and being at ease with using correct terms for body parts gives kids confidence, a positive body image and ownership over their body.

Woman in vulva costume and high heels, happy, at construction site
Living it up (Image: Conceived In Brooklyn/Shane LaVancher)



2) Are we hearing the words vulva and vagina more frequently in everyday life?


Name anywhere you remember hearing, over time, about vulvas and vaginas. What associations do you have through things like…


News stories

Art

Books Theatre Ad campaigns









(Clockwise from top left) Georgia O‘Keeffe; Great Wall of Vagina; the ground-breaking show by V (formerly Eve Ensler); The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago; goop candle highlighting abortion rights; Diva by Juliana Notari; Russian art-protest group Pussy Riot; vulva cupcakes at a Sex Education party; Bodyform’s Viva La Vulva ad; My Little Yoni; exhibition on the anti-Trump pussyhats crafted by thousands of women; My Broken Vagina by Fran Bushe; another goop candle; London’s Vagina Museum; Pynk by Janelle Monáe; Gwyneth Paltrow stands up for vaginas; Oliwia Bober created vulva art in London toilets; vulva toy by Megumi Igarashi (aka Rokudenashiko), who made a 3D-printed canoe of a vulva selfie; the Naomi Wolf book

Did you know…


68% of women don’t know what their vulva is

57% feel pressure for their vulva to look a certain way

44% are embarrassed by how their vulva looks, smells or feels

25% are unaware that no 2 vulvas look the same


Bodyform/Libresse survey for its Viva La Vulva period-product ad – pictured above (2018)




Eva Bloom in a vulva costume that Nadine Thornhill is touching
Eva Bloom (left) and Nadine Thornhill in their YouTube series Every Body Curious










Watercolour drawings by Rosie Haine of 3 naked girls and the word: "Those with vulvas should be proud!"
It Isn’t Rude To Be Nude by Rosie Haine














3) VAGINA VULVA


Do these words make people feel uncomfortable?

If so, why? *


Do these words make YOU feel uncomfortable?

If so, why? * *


* When talking about a sex-ed topic, if you ask your child about people in general it takes the spotlight off them. So try asking: “What do kids your age – or people at your school – think or feel about that?” It might even lead to your child explaining their own thoughts…


* * Go on – give it your best shot and ask your child directly about a sex-ed topic!

Woman in a wig and vulva costume flat against a brick wall looking worried
Inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Where’s My Vagina? collective came up with a Declarations of the Vagina



4) What names do people use for female body parts?

Make a list. Classics include: down there, lady garden, fanny, front bottom, vajayjay…


Did you know…


44% of parents regularly use euphemisms for female body parts

22% of parents never refer to female body parts in front of their daughter

31% of parents think it’s “only appropriate” to use anatomical language when their daughters are age 11 or older

19% of parents frequently use the word vagina

1% of parents frequently use the word vulva


Eve Appeal survey of 1,175 parents (2019)



“A study in the journal Gender And Psychoanalysis found that preschool-age girls were more likely to have been taught the word penis than any specific word for their own genitals. That isn’t right or fair,” says psychoanalyst Joyce McFadden, author of Modern Mothering and the seminal Your Daughter’s Bedroom (which we love!). “If you don’t call her elbow her ‘over there’, don’t refer to her vulva as her ‘down there’. That only stigmatises those parts…”







5) Do most people actually know the difference between a vulva and a vagina?


The vulva is the external female body parts – including the labia minora and majora (the lips, or folds of skin), the tip of the clitoris and the openings to the urethra and vagina. The vagina is the internal canal that connects the vulva with the cervix at the entrance of the uterus.

Proudly proclaim the vagina’s superpowers! It signals the best time to get pregnant, it can expand, it ushers the baby along during childbirth and, remarkably, it’s self-cleaning…

Woman in vulva costume on skateboard
Out on the town (Image: Shane LaVancher/Conceived In Brooklyn)



6) CLITORIS


What is it?


What does it do?


Though she be but little, she is fierce

– Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)



Artist Alli Sebastian Wolf in sunglasses stands holding a giant model clitoris (100:1 scale)
The Glitoris by Alli Sebastian Wolf (100:1 scale model)

The clitoris is the only organ in the human body that exists solely for pleasure. The word comes from Greek and is translated variously as latch, key, to rub or little hill. But it’s more than the visible hood – 90% of the clitoris is connected to the vaginal wall. Yes, the penis has an impressive 4,000 nerve endings – but there are more than 8,000 nerve endings in the tip of the clitoris alone…


The clitoris drawing that shows it as the "iceberg of the loins" and tip of the iceberg
Anatomy lesson by comedian Fran Bushe, author of My Broken Vagina



(From left) 3-minute Le Clitoris short by Lori Malépart-Traversy; Cliteracy by Sophia Wallace; awareness-raising Clitorosity art by then-24-year-old Laura Kingsley hits streets worldwide



The Sex Clinic’s Dr Naomi Sutton, who has seen 5,000 vulvas professionally




7) Why is the clitoris not often spoken about?


And why is the clitoris often barely a footnote in textbooks full of drawings of the penis – or, even to this day, still not shown on some anatomy diagrams?


Why do you think people censor or find it hard to talk about the clitoris? Is it because Freud branded clitoral orgasms a sign of neurosis or sexual immaturity? Because of a belief that sex is about reproduction for women and enjoyment for men? Because medical professionals can be uncomfortable even discussing the clitoris? Because it’s related to female pleasure?

A few clitoral milestones: in 1671 midwife Jane Sharp called the clitoris the female penis. In 1948 the clitoris was erased from Gray’s Anatomy. It wasn’t until 1998 that the true anatomy of the clitoris was revealed – by Australian urologist Helen O’Connell…





8) How does porn influence people’s ideas of how vulvas should look?

Does porn give people unrealistic expectations about sex and body parts? Think shape, size, colour, symmetry, pubic hair…





9) How can we encourage girls & young women to…


learn about and explore their body

look at their vulva in a mirror

be happy with what they see

understand what gives them pleasure


“The way I like to open the conversation with girls,” says Outspoken co-founder Yoan Reed in our Consent & Pleasure video and blog post, “is: ‘You have these body parts; they are really important; let’s name them, including the clitoris. One day you’ll have sex – you’ll have enjoyable sex that feels really good – and to understand what that feels like, you need to explore your body when you feel comfortable.


This is about self-discovery, bodily autonomy, owning your own body and making sure you understand how it feels for you. Once you have an idea about that, you’re much more likely to have a really good experience when you’re ready to share your body with someone.”



Extra credit: what issues do boys & young men have in terms of understanding and accepting their body?


Stills from the show Big Mouth of Jessi looking between her legs with a handheld mirror
Jessi in Big Mouth gets vocal with her vagina (Images: Netflix)

The reflection of Jessi's vagina in the mirror says: "Hey girl, I'm your genitals!"



10) It’s acceptable to joke about boys & young men and masturbation.

But why do we find it hard to talk about girls & young women, masturbation and pleasure?

And can we change that – starting now? Over to you…




Many of the above images appear in our Outspoken / Speak Out videos for parents on how to have positive conversations with your child about sex and on pleasure and consent

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