Even in today's world where we are, as a society, more exposed and aware of sexisms' disproportionate impact on women and people with vaginas, inequalities continue to exist because of deeply rooted factors we oftentimes aren't even aware of.
At flossy, we often get asked why shame and stigma around sex and pleasure for women still exists. In these moments, I sometimes find myself at a loss for words because I know, not only from my own experience but also from so many women who feel shame around what IS and IS NOT deemed as "normal" by society's standards, that shame absolutely still exists. The challenge is getting to the root of how this shame came to be. It's almost like the feeling of walking into a room and feeling like you're an outsider but not really being able to identify specifically why at that moment...
While we've certainly come far when it comes to normalising the conversation around sex and pleasure for women and people with vulvas (not all people identify as women), true, sustainable progress towards equality cannot be made until we understand and critically analyse the underlying factors that are (often silently) reinforcing shame and stigma.
This brings us to one of the last places you would expect to find shame-inducing sexist narratives... textbooks. Anatomy textbooks to be exact.
Anatomical terms that reinforce shame and sexism
Crack open a copy of the "Terminologia Anatomica" — the international dictionary of anatomical terms — and it won't take long to come across a word rooted in sexism.
A few of the most notable...
The Latin term for the vulva (inclusive of the inner labia, outer labia, clitoris and pubic mound) stems from the Latin root pudenda which means; "that whereof one ought to feel shame." Interestingly, until 1895, anatomical resources recognised the pudendal region in both men and women but after the 1950s, the "pudendum feminine" (the female shame part) was the only one listed.
Shares the same root as, Hymen (Hymenaios or Hymenaeus) the Greek god of marriage. The term hymen as used for the thin skin or membrane that covers the vaginal opening is traditionally "supposed to be broken by sexual intercourse following a women's (first) marriage." Hymen (the god) was apparently supposed to attend every wedding and if he did not, the marriage would supposedly prove disastrous... Please help me understand who the individual was writing said in the anatomy textbook and thought, "I know what we'll call it! The Hymen."
Soapbox side-note: Virginity is often framed around their hymen. According to OBGYN Jen Gunter, the hymen is a membranous fold that is there from birth to protect the vagina from dirt, debris, urine and feces. When we become continent (aka. potty trained) around the age 2, the hymen starts to take on different shapes and forms. The hymen has nothing to do with virginity!!!
An older term for the labia minora (inner labia) stems from the Latin word for bride or maidens who are "eternally young." This term is also related to the Latin root nubere which means "to marry or wed."
Soapbox side-note: the word nymphomaniac also stems from the Greek root Nympha and means a "young woman or bride" who is a beautiful, powerful, sexualised mythological maiden. As early as the 18th century, doctors treated "nymphomania" as a disease and even sent women into hospitals and insane asylums — a highly gendered and sexist label that reinforces shame towards women who are sexually empowered.
Stems from the Latin word meaning "a sheath or scabbard" – a scabbard into which something might slide and sheath a sword; making it hard not to imagine the primary function of a vagina once being seen as "housing a man's sword." Again, heavily gendered and not at all empowering to those who may be asexual or don't think of receiving someone else’s penis as the primary function of their vagina.
Deconstructing sexism requires more than a textbook rewrite...
While deconstructing the inherent sexism rooted in widely recognised anatomical terms isn't magically going to fix gender inequalities, it does shed light on how even things as seemingly meaningless as labels for body parts are historically tied to narrative that reinforce shame and stigma.
The next time we get asked “Why do you think shame and stigma still exist around pleasure for women?” I’m just going to whip out my old anatomy textbook and ask “where shall I begin?”