For whatever reason, no little boy needs to be taught that his nether-regions are the source of endless laughter and jokes. You would think my boys, 3 & 4, were trained from birth to laugh at the mention of anything anatomically south or cavernous. But the reality is that my boys are so comfortable with their penis that they make others around them very uncomfortable. Like my wife. At Target. When they were yelling the word as they chased each other down the toothpaste aisle.
Just the other day my 4 Year Old told me about a conversation he had with his:
Me: “Why didn’t you just go pee when I asked you a minute ago?”
The 4 Year Old: “I said I didn’t need to go but then later my penis said, ‘Don’t lie, I really need to get rid of the pee.’ So then I said I needed to go.”
We felt proud that our sons used proper language and weren’t ashamed of their bodies. But then there was trouble (he says in his best Thomas the Train narrator voice). We had a girl. And inevitably the time came, about 2 weeks ago, when the 4 Year Old recognized that the 1 Year Old was a little different. And so he asked, “Does Elle have a penis?”
In my typical overly analytical way I realized there were two ways to respond. I could comfortably tell the 4 Year Old, “Girls don’t have penises” or I could uncomfortably tell the 4 Year Old, “Girls have vaginas.”
And in that moment, I realized two things. First, even I am uncomfortable talking to my sons about vaginas. And a lot of it has to do with how I have been taught to objectify women. Let’s be clear. I am quite the feminist and egalitarian on every front. But cultural habits are hard to break and it’s moments like these where I realize the narrative of almost every movie, book, and commercial I have ever seen has been that women are for love (which usually is manifested by sex) & sex, not just for being themselves as human beings. And so, instead of vaginas being a body part on a human being who has feelings, parents, husbands (well, probably just one of those), goals, dreams, etc., it must be reserved for pornography. I’m not okay with that.
So secondly, I realized that I needed to teach my children that girls have vaginas, not that girls “don’t have a penis,” even though it did make me really uncomfortable. Women are not a lack of man. They aren’t missing anything. And they are more than just their nether-regions. It sounds trivial but it’s the trivial where cultural stereotypes and oppressive systems subtly thrive. I didn’t want my sons to think their little sister was a “boy without a penis,” but a “girl with a vagina,” wonderfully made to be different and yet equal, to be herself in her own right.
And so, I taught my son the V-Word. And I am so glad I did. As long as I don’t have to go to Target with him anytime soon.
*This post is inspired by the recent “Vagina-gate” scandal in the Michigan House of Representatives and Rachel Held Evans’ vagina-in-her-book debacle, both of which has caused me to do even more thinking about gender and culture . . .