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October 7, 2013 by nooffensebut

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”?


Originally published June 22, 2012 in the Chattanooga Times Free Press

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