By Sanjukta Bose Feb. 04, 2019
In an age where self-awareness among children is key to protecting them from danger, using euphemisms to refer to genitals is far from cute. By not teaching children the correct language of their sexual organs, we are allowing these body parts to assume power over them.
My parents often regale me with stories about my childhood. At my first school interview, when my very Catholic principal asked me if I could sing, I promptly got up from my seat, and started crooning and dancing to “Bole Chudiyan”. Needless to say, my quintessential Bengali parents, who had taught me Rabindrasangeet lest such a situation arise, were horrified.
I am also told by my parents that I was excellent at naming all the different parts of the human body when their pictures were shown to me. But how could that be true? I wouldn’t know what to call the genitalia. Because like all “good” Indian parents, mine never taught me anything about my private parts – neither the name, nor the functions, nor health habits related to them.
My mother has not even assigned any euphemism for my vagina – she addresses it as “neeche’r okhane” (down there) and has never found the necessity to speak about the male organ, euphemistic or otherwise. In fact, my parents are yet to utter the V and the P word in front of me. And I’m almost 22.
The first time I heard an adult say vagina and penis was during an “orientation” conducted by my biology teacher in Class 7. Of course, the terms were mostly used to remind us children about the taboos regarding sex and why “doing it” before marriage is a “very, very bad thing”. Nevertheless, it was still reassuring to have an adult acknowledge the fact that we were old enough to use the correct terms for our genitals, rather than relying on the childish euphemisms our parents taught us – sometimes seemingly cute, but often downright cringe-worthy. Nunoo, pukku, wee wee, susu, lulu… they sound more like names of pets than your private parts.
It might not be such a bad idea then for Indian parents to slip in a lesson about sexual organs in the middle of teaching them all about sanskar.
I still remember when my cousin was in Class 7 and had to get circumcised because of a medical issue. My aunt and uncle had the hardest time explaining to him why his “tootie” had to be operated on. They gave up soon enough and had the doctor explain it to him. My brother was so clueless, he had no idea how to maintain the hygiene of his nether regions, which, according to the doctor, might have caused the rashes.
Unlike my cousin, I was a lot more curious. My fairly adequate knowledge of sex and sexual health is mainly the result of talking to my peers, obsessive googling, and reading a lot of articles online. As is the case with most young adults in India, my parents and school, supposedly the two major social institutions in our society, had no role to play.
In an age where self-awareness among children is key to protecting them from danger – be it an ailment or abuse – using made-up names to refer to genitals is far from cute. A girl calling her vagina “coochie” might elicit a chorus of “awws” when she is three, but the real problem arises when she grows into an adult who is embarrassed to talk about her body and doesn’t understand its needs.
When I had just been hit by the first wave of puberty, I didn’t quite know what to do with my changing body. Looking at my naked body in the mirror disgusted me. I remember going to a bookstore with my best friend and looking for those Know Your Body books for teenagers. The initial giggling and “eww” was soon replaced by us reading every page with rapt attention. The book made me even more curious, I had many more questions to ask but no one to really answer them. And for the longest time I would not only hesitate to say vagina out loud but even look at it or touch it.
By not teaching children the correct language of their genitals, we are allowing these body parts to assume power over them. When children realise that words like vagina, penis, breasts are taboo words, they tend to shy away from any conversation around them. Teens, especially, in India have no way of clarifying the several doubts that spring up in their minds with the onset of puberty. A friend, who had a urinary tract infection, did not know what it was and was frightened to tell her mother or the gynaec about the discomfort she was experiencing. This is exactly how we have successfully produced generations of men and women who continue to oppress and remain oppressed when it comes to bodily agency.
A New York Times article titled “Teaching Children the Real Names for Body Parts” written by Peri Klass, mentions a research study conducted in 1992 by Sandy K Wurtele, a professor of psychology and an associate dean at the University of Colorado, which talks about the effect of knowing the correct names of private parts on children. “It helps children develop a healthy, more positive body image, instead of using nicknames that their genitals are something shameful or bad… It also gives children the correct language for understanding their bodies and asking questions about sexual development.” Moreover, this study also found that children learn these correct names better from their parents than from their teachers at school.
But by relegating children’s private parts to the most private sphere, and not having any conversations about it, parents tend to expose their children to greater threats. By not uttering the names of these organs and not treating them as what they are – just another part of the human anatomy – we’re throwing important discussions regarding sexual health and hygiene out of the window. I once asked my mother if I could use tampons instead of maxi pads and all she told me was, “You can use tampons after you are married,” and left it at that. Sure, a quick internet search told me how grossly inaccurate her statement was. But this is not a privilege everyone enjoys, neither is the internet the most reliable source for knowledge on sexual health, especially when the questions are being asked by a dangerously impressionable 12-year-old.
Many parents think that teaching the correct anatomical names of genitals to children robs them of their innocence. What if the child embarrasses the parents by uttering such words in public places? But creating a false sense of mystery around sexual organs can be even more dangerous. Dr Wurtele’s study also explains that children are better equipped at identifying inappropriate touching and sexual abuse when they know what their “peepees”, “weewees” and “coochies” are actually meant for.
Laura Palumbo, a sexual violence preventionist with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center of the US, said in an article published in The Atlantic, “Teaching children anatomically correct terms age appropriately promotes positive body image, self-confidence, and parent- child communication.” It helps them differentiate between good and bad touches. It also becomes much easier for them to report such incidents to parents and even at courts of law. Without the proper language, children are bound to have a hard time understanding, and consequently explaining what is being done to them.
It might not be such a bad idea then for Indian parents to slip in a lesson about sexual organs in the middle of teaching them all about sanskar. I wish I, as a 13-year-old, didn’t have to rely on sketchy articles on the internet to find out about my how my body works. And I wish my mother stops saying “neeche’r okhane”.
Like Professor Dumbledore had said, “Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”
When Sanjukta is not clicking pictures of flowers or looking for the crunchiest leaves to step on, she writes about the things that matter to her. She enjoys spending her time by overthinking, planning her workout routine but never actually doing it, and pretending to understand jazz music.