What Is a Yoni, Anyways?
She has many names: cunt, pussy, kitty, hoo-hoo, down-there, potty, snatch, cootchie, va-jay-jay . . . Yes, you know who I am talking about: the infamous female genitalia. As an adult, what do you call her? What did you call her as a child? What did you hear her called, and how did that shape your own relationship to her? Can you say her name out loud without embarrassment?
Growing up, my mother used anatomically correct words with us, so I knew that I had a ˜vagina’ and boys had ˜penises’. My parents were each fairly comfortable with their own bodies and so treated ours with love, not shame. But it took me a long time to figure out that babies came out of a different hole than the pee, and I had no idea what a clitoris was until sometime in high school.
Between growing up and becoming a mother myself, I became interested in both birth and sexuality. Cocooned in the bohemian bubble of the San Francisco Bay Area in my post-college twenties, I explored my passions, and by the time I became pregnant with my daughter in 2004, I had some clear ideas about how I wanted to honor my own body and hers (although I didn’t know she was a girl until she was born\’part of my desire was to let my child enjoy at least nine months in utero free of cultural gender norms).
One way I chose to respect womanhood was to refer to our female genitalia as the ˜yoni.’ Yoni “is the Sanskrit word for female genitalia, the source of all life . . . It is also the divine passage womb or sacred temple. The word covers a range of meanings, including: place of birth, source, origin, spring, fountain, place of rest, repository, receptacle, seat, abode, home, lair, nest, stable (see the Wikipedia article here). Compare this to the Latin ˜vagina’, which means ˜sheath’ or ˜scabbard’ and actually only refers to the “fibromuscular tubular tract leading from the uterus to the exterior of the body (more here). And does anyone really like saying the word ˜vagina’ out loud? It’s never really rolled off the tongue, even though I am comfortable saying it\’and it’s certainly never evoked beauty or awe.
So, armed with my Sanskrit terminology, ever since my daughter emerged out of my yoni, I have referred to our genitalia using this sacred and loving word. My daughter, now in kindergarten, uses it as well. I also refer to the different parts of female anatomy with the correct English words: vulva, vagina, labia/lips, clitoris, uterus/womb, fallopian tubes and ovaries. So far I have chosen to refer to male genitalia with the English words–penis, testicles, scrotum–because the Sanskrit word for the male genitalia, lingam, doesn’t feel as authentic for me to use. If my husband and I have a boy in the future, I am open to what feels best.
The fact that I use ˜yoni’ for women and ˜penis’ for men illustrates an important point in figuring out as parents (and humans) how we speak about our bodies: we have to navigate accuracy, authenticity and loving tone/intention. If, for instance, I thought I should use ˜lingam’ because I say ˜yoni’, but I can’t say lingam in a way that is comfortable, that discomfort will be communicated to my child. The loving intention and action we manifest toward our children will teach them to love and respect themselves and others. I would go as far as to say that the intention is more important than which words we use, because it creates a felt emotional experience in our bodies. A new vocabulary is fairly simple to acquire, but re-wiring our neural pathways is more arduous.
If you grew up without getting comfortable saying all these words out loud, go practice somewhere where no one can hear you, or with a good friend so you can get the giggles out, or maybe have a hug when old shame or fear appears. As my daughter and I begin reading some age-appropriate books on bodies, reproduction and sex (Amazing You: Getting Smart about Your Private Parts and It’s So Amazing! A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families), I can promise you it is worth it to create the comfort in yourself to be able to have these moments of sharing with your child about the beauty of his or her human body.
P.S. I’d like to point out that the words we choose to use when in consensual, adult relations are of a different nature. Words that are not for polite company nor anatomically correct are often sexy and pleasurable to speak out loud.