published Friday, June 22nd, 2012

Leber: Body parts have names, so why not use them?

I have never seen more references to genitalia on my Facebook feed as I have this week.

No, my friends have not suddenly taken up posting vulgarities or sharing details of their intimate lives on social networking sites.

Instead, they have been discussing the incident in which two female state representatives in Michigan were barred from speaking on the floor of the legislature because comments they made during a debate on abortion restrictions included words that "failed to maintain the decorum of the House of Representatives," according to a Detroit Free Press report.

"I'm flattered you're so interested in my vagina," Rep. Lisa Brown, D-West Bloomfield, is quoted as having said during the debate about abortion laws.

Rep. Barb Byrum, D-Onondaga, made reference to vasectomies.

Both of the words in question are scientific ones that refer to a medical procedure and to a part of the anatomy. No slang was used, no four-letter words, just words that any urologist or gynecologist would use with a patient.

So what's the problem?

"What she said was offensive," said Rep. Mike Callton, a Republican from Nashville, Mich., said in The Detroit News. "It was so offensive, I don't even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company."

OK, I'm flummoxed. He doesn't want to refer to a part of the female anatomy in front of women? We're probably less likely to be weirded out than the men are.

The incident, which occurred June 13, has launched a bevy of responses, from serious to satirical. On June 18, Brown, accompanied by several female lawmakers and actresses, performed "The Vagina Monologues" on the steps of the Michigan Statehouse. Monologues author Eve Ensler was a special guest at the event.

"Well, we are witnessing it, over and over," Ensler writes in a press release. "The repression of women, the denial that women are deserving of equal dignity and respect with men, rooted in revulsion at their bodies, is on the rise once again in American politics."

I have to confess, statements like that make me a little uncomfortable. I don't deny the possibility, even the probability, that the whole hullabaloo is indeed steeped in sexism. However, I also don't have proof that this is the definitely the case.

Brown's statement can certainly be interpreted as irreverent. "I'm flattered you're so interested in my vagina" definitely seems to have tongue-in-cheek elements. I also wonder whether her utterance would have been deemed "offensive" if she'd said "uterus" instead.

Yes, a woman was silenced for making reference to a part of a woman's body. But no one said 'penis'. We don't know, and we can't know, what the outcome would have been if a man had referred to male anatomy. To me, the issue is simply unnecessary censoring, regardless of the victim.

Could Rep. Brown have gotten her point across without that little zinger? Probably. But was it disgraceful, vulgar and offensive? Definitively no.

I wish to offend no one, but I think being disgusted by scientific words that refer to the body demonstrates a hypersensitivity. Yes, there are few situations in which genitals are not covered in public, but that does not make them, or their names, vulgar. In certain religions, men and women will cover heads, shoulders, elbows and knees out of respect. I've not heard of any culture avoiding use of the words 'head,' 'shoulders,' 'elbows' and 'knees.'

At the Times Free Press, we have an in-house style guide, in addition to the Associated Press Stylebook. The TFP guide includes an entry titled "Body Parts."

"Because we work for a family newspaper," the entry reads, "we want to use caution in describing body parts. If we must be explicit, it must be done to inform, not to shock. If you are in doubt, ask upper management."

I'm a little incredulous at the need for such a policy. I'm hoping this is in reference to quotes in which sources might use crass slang terms, or might refer to certain body parts in a non-scientific/medical manner. Hopefully, anyone who is actually old enough/mature enough to be reading a newspaper is able to handle proper anatomical references.

If not, may I suggest a reading of Ensler's signature work to help ease your comfort level?

Shall I gently refer to it as "The Lady Garden Monologues"?

Contact Holly Leber at hleber@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6391. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/hollyleber. Subscribe to her on Facebook at facebook.com/holly.j.leber

about Holly Leber ...

Holly Leber is a reporter and columnist for the Life section. She has worked at the Times Free Press since March 2008. Holly covers “everything but the kitchen sink" when it comes to features: the arts, young adults, classical music, art, fitness, home, gardening and food. She writes the popular and sometimes-controversial column Love and Other Indoor Sports. Holly calls both New York City and Saratoga Springs, NY home. She earned a bachelor of arts ...

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chas9 said...

Holly, your column is well done. Thanks for writing it. Like you, I am flummoxed at some people's language sensitivities.

FYI, there have been cultures that feared the less sexy body parts. Victorians insisted on "limb," not "leg" and even put skirts on piano legs so people wouldn't have to see them. They disallowed "belly," too. And the terms "dark meat" and "light meat" were invented so we wouldn't have to say "leg," "thigh," or "breast." My grandfather walked out of church once when somebody referred to Mary as "pregnant" rather than the more circumspect "with child."

And any time "The Vagina Monologues" is mentioned, that's a good thing. It's a great play. Again, thanks for your strong column. Keep up the good work.

June 22, 2012 at 7:56 a.m.
GeorgiaRebel said...

I think the issue here is the double meaning implied in her comments. Had a male member of this body said "I'm flattered you're so interested in my penis," the outcry from feminist groups would have been loud and long. It was a tacky comment.

June 22, 2012 at 1:33 p.m.
moonpie said...

Yeah, I kind of have to agree with GeorgiaRebel. I use anatomical terms including vagina and penis without it being weird or offensive.

But when a woman says, I'm glad you're interested in my vagina she is putting her specific anatomy front and center even though she is trying to make a larger point.

And the offense was not just that she made people think about her vagina. The actual offense was that she accused someone of thinking about her vagina. That's a way of trying to win an argument without actually debating the salient facts.

It's kind of like someone saying in public that they like having sex with their spouse. Everyone knows it happens, but don't make us imagine it. The more details the person gives, the more offensive. I think a lot of people whould be offended or grossed out if a man or woman said, "I love my (spouse's) ____" (insert anatomically correct sexual term).

We know people make out. I don't care to see it on the Riverwalk.

In the end, it's all about context.

Don't get me wrong: I support Lisa Brown's cause.

I think the Vagina Monologues are bold and entertaining. But it's a show that an audience elects to attend. It's not forced upon them.

Again, context is key.

Look at it this way.... it's not bad manners to have a bowel movement. But if you did so on the Senate floor.....

It's why we say that we're going to the ladies or the men's room instead of going to defecate. Defecation is not bad manners. But nobody wants to imagine it.

June 22, 2012 at 5:39 p.m.
joepulitzer said...

Moonpie, Holly is from New York. Now do you understand where she's coming from?

June 22, 2012 at 10:12 p.m.

I've yet to see any women's groups spend any effort on men's reproductive issues.

Except maybe as a farce, to point out the excessive interest men put into it, without even getting female input.

Was this a rough, even uncivil comment? Perhaps, but not worth censoring over. Yet it was.

And I'm sure if anybody cared to read transcripts of Michigan House speeches, they'd hear quite a bit of raucous commentary. But nothing done. Some "Bite me" or whatever level that's the same as they purport this to be...but nothing done.

Admittedly, the British House of Commons is even more indecorous, but that's another story.

Oh well, when a Senator can get away with a non-factual statement, who cares about anything else?

June 22, 2012 at 10:27 p.m.
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