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Vulvas and vaginas: We need to stop being too shy to talk about some of these things

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LET’S talk about vulvas. It’s not a word I’ve used much before, and certainly not one I have ever had cause to use in the pages of this newspaper .

JEP's assistant editor Lucy Stephenson (24394121)

But that’s kind of the point – I’m among a significant part of the population that, it turns out, has been getting the name of the female genitals wrong for, well pretty much all my life.

You may wonder why on earth I am raising it now, like this. You may even find it uncouth that I dare to talk about such a thing in a weekly column usually reserved for States scrutiny or moans about gender-diversity issues.

But, again, that’s kind of the point.

Because there is a growing discussion about this very subject, particularly on social media, and a movement to correct the misuse of the word ‘vagina’.

To be clear, the vagina is the muscular tube that connects the vaginal opening to the cervix. The vulva is the external genitalia.

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with using such words in everyday language.

This was brought to my attention recently when I met representatives of the local charity, You Matter, which works with young people to encourage good self-esteem and positive decision- making.

Sex education and body image is an important part of their work and they explain to the kids they work with the difference between these two body parts, always in an age-appropriate way of course.

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I certainly don’t remember such a discussion when I was a youngster, hence why so many of us are walking around using the wrong terminology.

National newspapers have also been running discussions this very debate, with one Guardian columnist, Lynn Enright, saying that using the correct term is ‘vital to female agency’.

I wouldn’t go that far, but as a mother of a child who has begun to ask questions about such things it’s important to me that we are on the same page and encouraging healthy understanding about our bodies.

And why shouldn’t kids use the correct terminology for their body parts?

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We go to great lengths to teach them the proper words for animals, places and people, we explain numbers, letters, maths and writing, and are forever answering the inevitable question ‘why?’

So it follows that we should be open and honest about this too and not shy away from using the correct words to do so.

The argument also goes that should, God forbid, they need to communicate that something inappropriate has happened to them they will be able to do so clearly and without embarrassment at the words they are using.

Vulva is not a rude word, it has just not been used much in the past. But that is changing and it is important we adults keep up with, and reinforce, what our children are being taught.

Soroptimist International Jersey, for example, has recently launched a new campaign designed at breaking down taboos about periods and what they call ‘menstrual shame’ which makes many women feel like they need to hide away everything, from their first period to the menopause.

We Brits are also shy about talking about these things.

Last week, the Health Department put out an important reminder to Islanders eligible for bowel screening to take up the opportunity when they are given it.

Despite Jersey being ahead of the game when it comes to bowel screening, with technology much better than what is currently in use in the NHS, a third of people offered screening in the year they turn 60 are still not taking up the invitation, and are potentially putting their lives at risk in doing so.

Because, if caught early, bowel cancer is treatable.

But just like our shyness when it comes to using the word vulva, people are embarrassed to go to the doctor about their bowels. It’s similar with cervical screening.

Since smear tests were made free eight months ago, the number of women going for cervical screening has soared by more than a quarter compared to the same period 12 months earlier.

However, there are still more women out there who don’t go, which is why the States has launched a social media campaign to encourage those aged 25 to 64 to go for the potentially life-saving test when it is due.

As with bowel screening, the doctors carrying out such tests have seen it all before and will do all that they can to retain your dignity and put you at ease.

Many people will still feel embarrassed, of course, and that is fine, but it is not a reason not to go altogether.

Just like learning to use the correct terminology for our body parts may feel strange at first, it’s just something that should be done.

And talking about these things – vulvas, vaginas, flexi-scopes, smear tests and periods – is the first step.

It is also an important way of encouraging other people to do the same, and spreading the word about the tests that they are eligible for.

Lucy Stephenson

By Lucy Stephenson
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