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It’s Your Vulva

Originally Printed by Carnal Nation October 5, 2010

Note–January 27, 2011.  Although this was written several months ago, we have not yet made progress in toilet training the LM, who is a stubborn child.  I’m not a fan of creating wars I can’t win, so I haven’t pushed her.  However, we are hoping to try again soon.

I was 19 years old before I learned that urine does NOT leave the body via the vagina. I successfully repressed that humiliating memory until a few months ago when we began to think about attempting potty training with our daughter, the Little Mistress.  I took out our “Once Upon a Potty For Girls” kit (complete with a “girl” baby and a toy toilet). We curled up on the couch, and I began to read the book aloud to her.  Moments later, I realized why there is a school of parenting that advocates previewing books and materials before handing them to your child — When I read aloud the following sentence “[I have] a pee pee for making wee wee.”

 

I “borrowed” the baby doll from my daughter and took off the diaper to see that the vulva in all its glory — Labia Majora, Labia Minora, Clitoris, Urethra, and Vagina — had been reduced to an embroidered asterisk (just like this: *) between the doll’s cloth legs.  It was at that moment that I realized potty training is, for many women, the beginning of the misinformation — and missing information — about our bodies.

 

A disclaimer—I am a ciswoman, and my daughter is biologically female.  This article is therefore going to talk about potty training and the experience of trying to make sense of female genitalia from that perspective.  I’d love to have other authors contribute articles from their perspectives, but I can only address this from mine.

 

Toddlers are concrete.  They want labels, they are freaks about routines, and they have a limited ability to process information. (Example: the LM does not understand that her fingers are both part of her hands and are also a body part called “fingers.”)  Information needs to presented to them in a simple, straightforward manner.  Female genitalia doesn’t really fall into the category of “things that are easily explained with simple vocabulary.”  As a sex-positive mom, this creates a conundrum.

 

Unlike a penis, which is easy to see, and easily explained (I’m projecting, the grass is always greener, I suppose), female genitalia is neither. I have been blithely told by many a mom of an equivalently aged boy that potty training is all about tossing some cheerios in the potty and telling their boys to “sink ‘em” with their pee (also attempting to teach the extremely important skill of aim).  As the mom of a daughter, while I don’t agree with it, I can see how generations of sexual repression, religious guilt, ethnic and cultural taboos, or simple lack of information press down on a mom in the moment when she points to her daughter’s genitalia or her own and an infantile, non-threatening word like “coochie,” “taco,” “privates” or “pee-pee” comes out of her mouth.

 

My daughter is weeks from turning two years old.  That means that she needs broad terms to use for the moment.  Although I feel it’s perhaps too broad, I decided to use vulva generally, although when she’s masturbating I make a point of saying that she’s touching her clitoris, and when I clean her I name her labia.  I think the urethra, much as it is the correct term, is going to have to wait until she’s old enough for me to pull out my big stuffed vulva, name the various parts, and hand her a mirror (which I’m confident will be in the next 8 years).

 

Having decided there was something to this whole notion of previewing, I began to look through the other potty books.  There was a lot of emphasis on “feeling like you need to ‘go’” and “sitting on the potty” and “I DID IT!” and in some the reward of no more diapers.  There isn’t a lot of naming going on except of the pee and the poop, regardless of whether the book is supposed to be bio-sex neutral or bio-sex specific.  Realistically, I imagine it’s because using a specific name for a body part will appeal to one audience while possibly (probably?) alienating a larger reading public.  Hence, the emphasis is on the process of feeling the urge to use the toilet, using the toilet (but not where the urine or feces is coming from), and being rewarded.

 

What about parenting guides?  What sage advice did they have for parents regarding naming body parts?  I saw discussions and disagreements over when to train, methods of training, whether to incentivize training or not (giving them an M&M, a sticker, whatever), how to handle accidents, etc.  It was the same focus on what’s coming out of the body and where it lands, rather than where it’s coming from.

 

The only time genitalia comes into play in the parenting books and articles is the reminder that girls are more vulnerable to Urinary Tract Infections, so you should wipe their genitals front to back, although there’s not a lot of discussion why that’s so.  Occasionally someone advises to use the names for body parts that are “right for your family,” which is the publisher-friendly cop-out, I imagine.

 

I find this avoidance of correctly naming female genitals surprising, because this is the age group where children are verbal and asking questions.  They WANT to understand.  They’re not embarrassed, unlike a teenager who would rather be ignorant about something than admit to not knowing it.  No one seems to be comfortable talking about the body parts involved, at least when it comes to girls.

 

If this word avoidance were a momentary trend, easily chalked up to toddler’s developing ability to comprehend, it wouldn’t be all that important.  But it’s not that simple. Grown women have trouble correctly naming the various parts of their genitals. Magazines like Cosmo print the word “vah-jay-jay” as if it were an adorable breezy alternative name, rather than another infantilization of women’s genitals.  As recently as 2007, a Florida woman successfully got a sign for the play “The Vagina Monologues” changed to “The Hoo-Hah Monologues” because it was inappropriate for young (9-year old in that case) girls to even SEE the word “vagina.”  Which makes me ponder how “vagina” even became the default word for our genitalia.

 

I have many concrete, tangible goals for my daughter.  Among others, regardless of whether she grows up to be cisfemale or not, I want her to be able to correctly label and identify the purpose of the female and male genitals for practical, reproductive, and pleasurable ends.

 

At the absolute least, I am determined to spare her my level of confusion as a teenager. Regarding that whole urine comes out of your vagina misunderstanding of mine? At 15 or 16, I decided that urine must not affect the fibers of the tampon or that the reds, purples and browns of my menstrual blood simply eclipsed the yellow of the urine.  I instinctively knew that my explanation couldn’t be right, but in my pre-Internet days of the early to mid 90’s, it was the best explanation I could come up with.  It wasn’t until I took a safe sex workshop in college that I learned my female genitalia included a separate opening for urine, as opposed to the single opening in the tip of the penis from which urine and semen both issue. (Although, again until that workshop, I had some confusion about how that worked, too. Did a guy pee semen into you?)

 

My mom had NO IDEA that I was confused.  I just shared the story with her as I was writing this column.  She paused, and in a thoughtful voice said that she’d never wondered about it.  Then she asked me to explain it to her.  Which just goes to show that I wasn’t the only woman in my family lacking crucial information.

 

Potty training, while not sexual, is often the first time we omit or disseminate partial or incorrect information to our kids.  Sure, it’s appropriate to omit or give partial information to a 2-3 year old, but it’s a trend that never seems to go away.

 

I haven’t taught a middle-school Sex Ed class in five years, but I can assure you that we never spent a second on the female urethra, and I was explicitly banned from talking about the clitoris and labia as they were “unnecessary to the discussion of reproduction.”  Nice to know we’ve moved on from 1989 when I was taught that “if you have unprotected sex you’ll get pregnant/get AIDS/get an STD and DIE” and “you can get pregnant just two or three days a month, but those days change, so you have to think you can get pregnant ANY TIME.”  While accomplishing the goal of scaring the crap out of me when I was 12, it did nothing to further my understanding of my body, and quite frankly I doubt I did much better in terms of clarifying understanding for the girls in my class when it came to knowing their genitalia.

 

As for us, after the LM peed on the floor, slipped in it and got a giant goose egg on her head, followed shortly thereafter by her pooping on the floor and attempting to eat it, we’ve shelved the actual potty training for the moment.  But we’re still having plenty of discussions about it, practicing with her dolls (NOT the asterisk baby doll which found a new home in the trash along with the book), and naming the dolls’ vulvas as where the pee comes from (and damn near constant changing of her doll’s imaginary poopy diapers).  It’s not perfect, but it’s a hell of a lot better than “I have a pee-pee to make wee-wee.”

 

2 Responses

  1. Laughs – this was well put and hysterical at the same time!

    When I was teaching last year (Prenatal/Early Childhood) – we did discuss and label the female and male bits – inside and outside. I *did* explain that urine comes out of the urethra, where the clitoris, inner and outer labia were etc. They were even (gasp!) tested on it – we had drawings that had to be identified. I even made a point of explaining that everyone’s vagina looks different, just like no two faces are alike, neither are vaginas. I felt good about explaining that, when one student looked at me increduously and said, “Really?” We even discussed the differences in visual appearances of circumcised vs uncircumcised penises. To which the same student said she thought uncircumcised ones were gross. Sighs. These were students in high school, from freshmen to seniors. Above referenced student was a sophmore and sexually active.

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