On Thursday, Michigan state Representative Lisa Brown was banned from speaking after her remarks during a debate on a bill that would regulate abortions. The reason? She dared to use the word "vagina."
According to Rep. Mike Calton,“It was so offensive, I don’t even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company.”
Just to get things straight, let’s clarify something: vaginas, penises, and patellas all exist in the world. None of these terms imply offense. They are descriptive and precise nouns that indicate certain parts of the body. If I walked around shouting “patella” at the top of my lungs, that would be offensive because the noise level would be disruptive. However, if I used “patella” to describe the location of a bruise, it would be an accurate, descriptive usage. This is exactly how Rep. Brown used vagina in the context of a discussion about reproductive rights.
The censorship of Brown has inspired outrage, and rightly so. It is patently ridiculous that a medically correct term for a body part would be censored, and it is important that the absurdity of this event be well-publicized and discussed.
However, similar acts of repression against women occur on a regular basis in the government, yet these go unnoticed. For example, in January of this year, the New York state Senate refused to pass a resolution proclaiming a “Reproductive Rights and Justice Week.” The Republican leadership instead proposed that the week be called “Women’s Health Week.” The fact that “reproductive rights” was considered inappropriate indicates that women’s control over their own bodies is under attack. Women have the right to make informed decisions about reproduction, regardless of their beliefs about abortion. This should not have become a partisan or political issue.
That this story went unnoticed on the national level, while a story involving the word “vagina” created a scandal demonstrates that we have deeper problems in our society. Why is it so shocking to say vagina, but not to refuse to acknowledge the fundamental rights women have over their bodies?
There is no single answer, but Rep. Calton’s remarks about “mixed company” hint at the bigger issue. What is so different about a room of men versus a room of men and women? Nothing. The use of “mixed company,” however, implies that there are different standards of behavior for a room of men and a room of both men and women. This, unlike saying “vagina,” is patently offensive to both men and women.
Let’s use this opportunity provided by Rep. Brown’s remarks to move beyond a third-grade mindset. Instead of being shocked by anatomy, we should be aware of the real, substantial harm that can be done by language that appears to be innocuous.
In short, body parts are not offensive, but systemic repression is.