All children are born with sexuality as an inherent part of their being. The famous human sexual response researcher William Masters (1925–2001), an American gynecologist, was known to play a game with newborn boys during delivery, saying “Can I get the cord cut before the kid has an erection?” But he often failed since most boys are born with a fully erect penis. He also observed that all baby girls lubricated vaginally in the first four to six hours of life, and that during sleep, spontaneous erections or vaginal lubrication occur every eighty to ninety minutes throughout our entire life span.
As our babies grow up, they start forming their sexual identity.
We find that much of boys’ sexual identification is linked to the fact that they have a penis. Parents often express appreciation and praise when their two-year-old son flaunts his penis, which gives the proud boy the notion that he is the owner of a priceless body-part. The penis is truly a wonderful object: a natural little plaything, it is able to launch an entertaining stream of urine that can be proudly sprayed and splashed around whilst standing. This tool can also be used as a weapon and a little boy might provoke siblings by literally ‘pissing them off’.
For little girls, however, a vagina is her secret organ, not only invisible to her, but also often viewed in a negative light if touched by her: ‘whatchamacallit’ code words and euphemisms further aid in neatly concealing this hidden treasure. When nature calls for desperate measures, she has to hide and crouch to urinate – an inconvenient, and often, embarrassing affair.
Boys understand from an early stage that privacy and shame are two separate concepts: they learn to be both proud and private with regard to their genitalia. For young girls the mysteriousness and privacy of their genitalia are often veiled in secrecy and shame. This disparity in underlying values is carried with us well into adulthood and can have a significant influence on our sexual health. From this point of view, it appears that women start off with a disadvantage, which gives us reason to invite some change.
Firstly, when little ones ask a question, they are ready for an answer. Listen carefully to the question and try to respond by offering nothing more, nothing less. Furthermore, and most importantly, we need to teach our children the correct vocabulary. According to Steven Pinker, a psychology professor at Harvard and the author of The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, at least 1,200 terms are used for the vagina, and approximately 1,000 terms for the penis in the English language alone.
We tend to continue to create new pet names for our intimate parts to use in a familiar and playful manner among friends and family, which is not bad per se, but Eve Ensler, a prominent anti-violence activist, playwright and creator of The Vagina Monologues, warns ‘what we don’t say becomes a secret, and secrets often create shame and fear and myths.’
If this is the case, it is perhaps time for us to get off the euphemism treadmill …