Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Vagina? Scrotum? Wash My Mouth Out With Soap!

I'm a big fan of using powerful and appropriate language. I use the occasional big word, and people live to tell the tale -and sometimes even rise to the occasion. I admit to sometimes letting it rip in the swear words department. Yet here, too, I think of that as a failure of vocabulary and encourage myself and people around me to find words that are more, shall we say, precise. If I'm feeling feisty, I'll challenge sexist or racist jokes. I don't like it when people say things like "I'm so stupid". Their subconscious is listening, after all, and they're teaching it to believe such clearly false assertions. If I want to be grandiose about it, I feel like I'm standing up for something important when I defend the power of language. (It's entirely possible that I'm just being annoyingly pedantic. Please don't clue me in, if that's the case.)

But here's the thing. Conservatives know that language is powerful, too. And somehow, when we liberals weren't looking, they've taken over not just the terms of the discourse but MY language. Okay, not mine literally, but the language that regular people can use.

There's another children's book being pulled from library shelves: The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron. This book commits the tragic error of using the word "scrotum", correctly and in context. The problem is.... what? Someone might have to explain to a child what a scrotum is? Because that would be a tragedy? Weirdly, the book (in the same paragraph, actually) refers to adults drinking enormous quantities of rum, while sitting in parked cars. That's not why parents are pressuring libraries to pull the book, it seems.

And then, three high school honors students were suspended for challenging the rule that they couldn't use the word "vagina" in their dramatic excerpt from The Vagina Monologues. They could use the Monologues, but were supposed to find a bit that didn't have the dreaded word. (Way to prove the whole point of the Monologues, but I digress!) This is a kind of civil disobedience issue. They broke a rule and there's a disciplinary action that they will have to face. The question is, why was it against the rule in the first place?

What horrible thing happens if children (and adults for that matter) learn and use the right words for genitalia? We'd have to admit to them that there's sex and reproduction? I'm thinking that high school students have figured out the general idea. And conservatives know that; they're conservative, not stupid.

Possibly the problem is that they want all things sexual to be absolutely private- governed, defined, described, experienced within the nuclear, traditional family. Talking about it in public, however clinically, blurs the public/private distinction that they want to pretend is very sharp.

The funny thing is that I have a nuclear family that they would be proud to have. One man, one woman, two children...what's not to love? (And I do love them, by the way!) But I'm here to tell you that sex is always political -even married sex ;) And it matters publicly, or we wouldn't have state-sanctioned marriage, laws against some kinds of sex, laws against some kinds of violence masquerading as sex...

It's a little hard to link that kind of "sex matters publicly" argument to children's books, for heaven's sake. But forcryingoutloud, the discourse has to start somewhere. And if we have to defend the practice of teaching children the anatomically correct names for body parts, we have sunk very far indeed.


Rhea said...

Where does all the fear come from? Just be honest and explain things and everything will be OK.

Lisa :-] said...

There isn't much about the conservatives' rules and regulations that makes sense. They just latch onto things that will LOOK publicly conservative to the people who care about such things...