Let's Call a Clitoris a Clitoris

The editor commented, “We don’t like the word clitoris,” in the left-hand margin. Um, excuse me? Say what?

Feb 23, 2012 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

She reached out after she heard about my book, "Dirty Minds: How Our Brain Effect Love, Sex and Relationships." An editor at a magazine, she told me, “I’m so excited about your book!”  She then went on to pitch me, saying, “We’re looking for good writing about sex.” She said, “We want edgy, but not sensational. We want to educate our readers -- not scare them or make them feel bad about their sexuality.” And, silly me, I believed her.  
 
Nothing was amiss at first.  After we spoke, I sent her a story idea about the science of female orgasm and was thrilled when she assigned the piece on the same day. I talked to my sources, fit what I could in my 600 word allotment and sent it off a few days before deadline, thrilled with the upcoming placement.
 
So imagine my surprise when, weeks later, I received HER editorial notes, suggesting that I tweak and tone down just about everything that was "edgy" and educational in the piece. I might have thought those notes were par for the course, part and parcel of writing for a new-to-me publication. If not for one line.  
 
The editor commented, “We don’t like the word clitoris,” in the left-hand margin.
 
Um, excuse me?  Say what?

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When I vented about it on Facebook, other writer friends suggested swapping "clitoris" with something like “the little man in the boat,” or the more Seinfeld-ian “Dolores.”  Another quipped, “Obviously, this is a hot button issue!”  I won’t lie -- I laughed.  It was funny.  
 
But the more I thought about it, especially as I sat down to actually respond to the edits, the more frustrated I became.  
 
Why would someone dislike the word clitoris?  It’s not a dirty word. It’s not even slang. It’s the name of a body part! What’s not to like, exactly?
 
Imagine talking about cholesterol and cardiovascular health but being unable to mention an artery. Or trying to frame a discussion about the sun and cancer without bringing up moles. Sounds ridiculous, right? Beyond that, it makes it pretty damn difficult to discuss the science or health issues in question when you have to waste your word count dancing around some pretty glaring omissions.
 
While the orgasm may not be a debilitating health disorder (except for those who can’t have them), trust me when I say that it’s a problem to talk about the related research when you can’t mention the clitoris.  It’s kind of important.
 
While it would be easy to argue that this may be the policy of one magazine (or perhaps even one editor), as I read about current events I’m beginning to think this whole clitoris aversion may be even more insidious. Because it goes beyond the clitoris. There seems to be an unspoken denial of women’s bodies, some crazy undercurrent that tells us that women’s bodies are somehow not right, not proper.  Our bodies are something simply not polite to talk about -- especially when it is open, honest and accurate. And I worry our politeness is going to come back and bite us on the butt. (Which, for the record, is close to, but not adjacent to the clitoris).
 
It’s election time so women’s bodies are all over the news. Some have even gone so far as to say that women’s bodies are under attack. Take the recent Virginia bill that will require a trans-vaginal ultrasound before an abortion which no longer has the total support of Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell. 
 
Here's a case where the physical details and using the right words are important. 
 
One friend, a highly educated, fairly liberal Pro-Choice woman in her late 20’s, didn’t understand what the big deal was when the news first broke. 
 
“I guess I don’t see why it’s such a big issue," she said. "It’s just an ultrasound. They rub a little jelly on your belly, it’s not invasive -- if you don’t want to see the fetus, close your eyes.” 
 
While you could certainly debate the “invasive” part of her statement (and I did), she missed something pretty important about the type of ultrasound that was being suggested in the Virginia law. She wasn’t the only one. 
 
I heard some similar “What’s the problem?” type thoughts from other friends, colleagues and even TV personalities.  Most were singing a different tune, however, once they saw an image of the trans-vaginal ultrasound wand and got a more thorough look at the procedure.  
 
This is a prime example of where one word can make all the difference -- most of the first stories reporting the proposed law didn’t bother with the “trans-vaginal” part. It’s the difference between a reader imagining a wand smoothed over the belly versus imagining a wand-like probe inserted up into the vagina. And I can’t help but think that the word was likely left out because it was deemed impolite. And by ignoring this word, I’d argue that something pretty important was lost in translation.
 
I understand that there are plenty of magazines and books out there that talk about women’s bodies and sexuality with relative ease. They get beyond this good-girl ideal of polite and tell it like it is. I applaud each and every one, including xoJane.com. And I know that, in our day-to-day lives, not all of us are squeamish when it comes to discussing our body parts. But there are still way too many women who are squeamish -- these publications wouldn’t balk if their readers didn’t -- and I think it’s time for the rest of us to stand up and set an example.
 
After stewing in those editorial notes for a day, trying to figure out how I might make the piece work, I wrote back to the editor in question and told her that, unfortunately, I couldn’t work with her suggestions and write an article that would meet both her standards and my own.  
 
I politely thanked her for the opportunity and withdrew my story. I hope to place it elsewhere, for a publication (and an audience) that won’t shy away from calling a clitoris a clitoris.