When did vagina become a dirty word?

Color me confused. Vagina is now a dirty word. I had no idea. I’m not sure Michigan House Member Lisa Brown did either when she uttered the word last week during an abortion debate in the state’s House of Representatives. Granted, vagina is not a word that most people use everyday, but it struck me as a perfectly appropriate word to utter in a debate that tries to legislate who gets to control a woman’s vagina. For her apparently foul mouth, Ms. Brown was blocked by House majority leader Jim Stamas from further participation in the debate.

Michigan women seem to be largely agreeing with Brown. The incident triggered a public performance of “The Vagina Monologues” on the steps of the capitol in Lansing, with thousands of people in attendance, including Lisa Brown. Vagina was doubtless uttered many times and into the ears of thousands of people, assisted by loud speaker systems. But in the state House of Representatives there was no further utterances of the word vagina while the great legislators of the state of Michigan went on trying to restrict what women can do with their own vaginas.

To guys, when you don’t have a vagina, or menstrual cycles, or cramps or any the other complications that come with being born female, it’s hard to be sympathetic. It’s hard for me to imagine how a bill could affect men like this one affects women. Certainly one highly improbable response to the abortion issue would be bills to regulate penises. (Wait a minute? Is penis a dirty word? It probably is, if it were to come up in debates in the Michigan legislature.) Abortion is usually the result of an unplanned pregnancy, after all, so why not have legislation that keeps all men’s penises in cages until their lawfully wedded wife decides it is okay to attempt procreative sex which, if it succeeds, will go full term? Maybe husband and wife would have to go to the police station where the wife would swear that their sex will only be for procreative purposes, and then the police officer would release the man’s penis from its cage. (Probably there should be a special room at the station for these purposes.) Yes, it’s an audacious proposal but such a proposed law if it had a serious intent would doubtless enrage men. No one messes with our penises without our consent, thank you very much. The Lansing state capitol might be a smoldering pile of rubble once Michigan men vented their anger. Yet many of us men turn a deaf ear when women make the same argument, either with soft or raised voices.

What makes a word dirty, anyhow? What are the criteria? Particularly if you are to utter such a word in a public sphere, how can you possibly know if you are doing something worthy of admonishment if there are no firm guidelines in place? We all develop a sense of which words to avoid in polite company, but in my mind vagina was not one of them. I can see myself much like Lisa Brown, debating the issue of abortion with colleagues and protesting that regulating women’s vaginas should be off limits. I would not first check myself to see whether someone would be offended by the term. It comes with the topic of discussion. It certainly was germane in the Michigan House of Representatives during that particular discussion.

To me, there is nothing more titillating about a vagina than there is about an appendix. If anything, I hope women will spend more time talking about their vaginas because then there might be some parity with men. Lord knows men certainly spend a lot of time talking about penises, although rarely using the clinical term. Instead, we use the many slang variants out there. And except for a few of us, we are hardly offended. The closest equivalent we have to a vagina is probably our prostate (wait, is prostate also a dirty word?), which is also well hidden and mysterious but which keeps many of us men in middle age and beyond rising frequently during the night to use the bathroom. It’s possible that some guys will discuss prostate issues, but given the choice they’d rather talk about penises, in particularly penises in relationship with vaginas. Because the truth is that to most men, the vagina in itself is not interesting except in relationship to whether our penis can get inside one.

Now I am a bit picky when it comes to swearing. I don’t do it as a rule and I tend to think less of people who swear chronically. I suspect they are doing it for attention. Swear words by themselves though are not bad. They’re just words. What makes them offensive is how other people react when you use them. Most likely in a group of sailors, swearing will be completely inoffensive because it is part of the culture. My daughter is a frequent swearer, and I let her know I don’t like it. I don’t like it not because I think swearing is bad, but because it is hard to have conversation that is meaningful with her when expletives are flying. For her, an expletive means nothing, but to me an expletive is designed to have a high emotional impact, simply because it is so rarely said aloud. It’s supposed to be like shooting a bazooka instead of a handgun. So I rarely utter an expletive, largely because I grew up in an environment where swearing was abnormal. When I hear them, it jars me. So when I do swear, it is for a just cause. I used one with a friend at work some months back, the first time I ever remember doing so with her. I wanted this person to know, as part of a private conversation, just how upset I was by proposals suggested by some Republicans to cut our pensions. I used the word to impart special impact, that I was really that upset. It got the message across only because I so rarely swear.

Representative Lisa Brown never even used a swear word. She used a clinical word that made it clear just how upset she was about such a sensitive issue as abortion. Yes, it’s a sensitive subject but apparently not sensitive enough not to be broadcast live to the citizens with cable TV in Michigan. Had she used the C word instead, she would have been rightly censured. That was not the case here. Apparently her real offense was to explicitly state just how offensive she found the legislation. That, in the eye of some people, is just like swearing.

Now there’s something we should swear off.

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