In the beginning, shame knew no sex. First-century Roman writers used “pudendum” to mean the genitals of men, women and animals. But it was women to whom the shame stuck.
In 1543, the word made an appearance alongside an odd illustration in an anatomical atlas by Andreas Vesalius, a Flemish physician sometimes called the “father of modern anatomy.” The image, although labeled a human uterus, looks unmistakably like a penis, but with a tuft of curly pubic hair near the head, reflecting the idea that women were just men with imperfect, internal body parts. (Also, recall the dearth of female corpses.)
A century later, a Dutch anatomist named Regnier de Graaf highlighted the role of the clitoris in female sexuality. “If these parts of the pudendum had not been endowed with such an exquisite sensitivity to pleasure,” he wrote, “no woman would be willing to take upon herself the irksome nine-months-long business of gestation, the painful and often fatal process of expelling the fetus, and the worrisome and care-ridden task of raising children.”
In 1895, anatomy officially recognized a pudendal region in both men and women. But 60 years later, only the “pudendum femininum” — the female shame part — was still listed. It would later be simplified to “pudendum” and used as a slightly more formal synonym for vulva. Today, the word appears in almost every medical textbook, including recent editions of “Gray’s Anatomy,” “Williams Obstetrics,” and “Comprehensive Gynecology.”
There are other terms that reflect antiquated notions about women. The word hymen, which persists in nearly all medical textbooks, shares the same root as Hymen, the Greek god of marriage. Nymphae, a slightly older term for the labia minora, comes from the Latin word for bride or beautiful young maiden. Even the word vagina, which translates into sheath, scabbard or close covering, suggests that this organ’s primary function is to house a penis, which is not accurate or scientifically neutral.
After some grumbling, however, everyone agreed that “pudendum” had to go.
Shame is one factor that contributes to women, transgender men and nonbinary people with vulvas receiving worse or delayed care. A 2014 survey by British charity The Eve Appeal found that one-third of young women avoided going to the doctor for gynecological health issues, and 65 percent struggled to say the words vagina or vulva. That same year, American public health researchers found that up to half of those with vulva pain never raised their concerns with their doctor, at least partly because of stigma.Taking the ‘Shame Part’ Out of Female Anatomy – By Rachel E. Gross – Sept. 21, 2021
There will always be people who will be antediluvian. What is the point of having any terminology group unless it’s willing to grasp nettles on occasion?Bernard Moxham
Featured image from the NYTimes article.