“Ready. . . go!”
“OK. . . dick, dong, package, pecker, schlong, salami, boner, meat. . . ”
I scribble as fast as I can to get all the terms down. When time is up, our group of four has three fewer synonyms for “penis” than the other group. We blush and chuckle as we read our terms in unison, looking over our shoulders to see if anyone in the hallway was listening. I can feel the heat in my cheeks.
“Now name all the terms for the vagina,” says our leader.
“Twat, cunt, pussy, lips, hole, tuna sandwich. . . ”
This time we tie. We are the parents of fourth and fifth graders gathered together to kick off the Our Whole Lives sexuality class at our Unitarian Universalist Church. The moms notice how many of the male terms are powerful, carnivorous, and comical while the derogatory female terms are embarrassing to say out loud. I thought back to the quote from Casey Miller and Kate Swift that I’d heard in college, “From antiquity, people have recognized the connection between naming and power”.
After the birth of my second child, I discovered there were advantages to having a baby girl: she could recline naked on the changing table without peeing in my face, my long hairs in her diaper didn’t threaten to cut off the circulation to her penis, and she never put film canisters on her erect member and pretended it was R2D2.
But then she began to talk,and she wanted her brother’s goods.
“I want a peanut. Where did mine go?” Every time she saw her brother naked she would giggle and clap.
“Penis,” I corrected her, “Not peanut. And you have many nice and wonderful parts as a girl.”
She looked down at her two flaps that came together like an Egg McMuffin and gave me a look that said, I don’t think so.
It was late spring and everything in the garden was growing. Family and friends said to the kids, “Look at how much you’ve grown!” Maya noticed that her brother’s penis grew too, especially in the morning when he was waiting to pee.
“What does he do to make his penis grow?” she asked me. I explained how he didn’t do anything, it just did that naturally. “It’s called an erection when it grows up like that and it often happens to boys in the morning.”
Later in the garden she asked, “How do plants grow?” We talked about sun, dirt, and water. In a rudimentary talk about photosynthesis, I explained how plants make their own food to grow.
“What do you feed your vagina for breakfast?” she asked me the next day as we bathed together. I was surprised by the question and mumbled that I didn’t feed mine. She sighed. The Egg McMuffin was becoming less and less glamorous. Only later did I realize that she was probably making a connection to how things grow and wondering if those mysterious female parts of ours were photosynthesizing or consuming Cheerios.
“When do I get a peanut?” she asked again.
“It’s penis, honey, and you will never have one.” I said. She pulled her brother’s underwear on her forearms and wore them like bracelets.
The peanut obsession persisted until the day we announced that we were going to a Mariner’s baseball game and said, “It’ll be fun. We’ll eat some peanuts and popcorn.”
“We’re going to eat peanuts?” Her eyes filled with tears. “I’m sad for Jamin and I don’t want to go!”
I held her and told her no one was eating Jamin’s penis and she had a wonderful vagina, but even as I said the word, I wavered. Months before, I’d read an article by an expert who argued persuasively that it was wrong to refer to the entire package as a vagina since that’s only the internal part. But she didn’t give me a better term to replace it.
Thinking back to Sex Ed. in high school, I recalled the cornucopia of terms for female anatomy. I couldn’t imagine myself saying, “Please don’t scratch your vulva in front of Grandma,” or “Did you get sand in your Labia Minora or Majora?”
So I went to the experts: other mother-friends. I asked, “What did you teach your daughter to call her private parts?”
“We call it her oomi,” said one mom without blinking.
“Hoo-hoo,” said another mom.
“Hoo-hoo?’ I asked. “Isn’t that a Hostess snack?”
There were additional terms: tutu, bikini pet, and rumpus (I didn’t even ask).
Even Alona Frankel who brought us the wonderful toilet teaching book, Once Upon a Potty — Girl, had this line, “Hands for playing, A pee-pee for making wee-wee.”
After doing my research I was more confused than ever. Should I approach it scientifically and overwhelm my daughter with new vocabulary? Should it be a cute hoo-hoo or pee-pee?
I tried to imagine myself saying, “Don’t wash your bottom before your oomi. Oomi, first. Bottom, last.”
Should I do what the article argued against and call it a “vagina” and reveal more later? Which choice would she have to spend the least time in therapy over?
The initial joy I had at having a baby girl faded when I realized that while clean-up was easier, labeling was not. A penis is a penis is a penis. A penis grows; it sounds like a snack; it means you don’t have to sit down to go potty. There are even a couple of marbles in a sack to go with it. So cool! I understood penis envy in a whole new way through my daughter’s eyes.
With more time, I was able to come to terms with the name game when I learned that “vagina” is a Latin word meaning “a sheath or scabbard,” a scabbard into which one might slide and sheath a sword. The sword need not be a penis; our vaginas were sheaths of power and worth celebrating.
“About your vagina,” I said to her, “It’s not as interesting to you right now as your brother’s penis, but trust me, someday you’ll be really happy you have one. See, with vaginas, it’s what is inside that counts.”
Maya reminded me that names are important and I asserted that vagina with a strong “v” and “j” sound would trump twat, tutu and certainly hoo-hoo every time.
“C’mon Heather, we need terms for intercourse!” my team urges me back into the present.
“Oh, OK, I’ve got this one: screw, bang, hit that, freak, horizontal mambo. . . ”
Sunday school was never so hot!