Just a brief request from us to the world-at-large, primarily with the aim of making our users lives a little easier. Secondarily, it’d also make the lives of those of us who work to help them daily in these areas easier, too, which would sure be nice.
Please do us and everyone else a favor and stop using certain words with very specific meanings as general shorthand.
Often some of these words and frameworks just really aren’t shorthand for what you mean, and they confuse the heck out of people and make something even less clear that’s already confusing enough. We do have clear, specific language we can use for many of the things people tend to use vague language or shorthand for, and when it comes to something as complex as sexuality and sexual and reproductive health, it really helps people out most when we use the right words to express what we mean.
In other words, this isn’t about us or others being nitpicky jerks about semantics. Rather, it’s us — and usually others when they ask for the same — trying to do what we can to help people understand things clearly, and feel less confused, rather than more.
• When you say sex, do you mean intercourse? Then say intercourse, not sex, which can mean an incredibly wide range of things, of which intercourse is only one. Do you even more specifically mean penis-in-vagina intercourse? Okay: then please just say that. So easy!
• On a similar note, when you are talking about rape or sexual assault, that is what you’re calling it, right? Not sex or “unwanted sex?” If you’re doing the latter, please stop.
• When you are talking about any vaginal bleeding in general, are you calling it a period? If so, please stop. A menstrual period — which is actually not even mostly blood in the first place! — is a very specific kind of flow that occurs for very specific reasons. But either vaginal bleeding or uterine bleeding can happen for any great number of reasons, none of which are a menstrual period: from vaginal abrasions or cervicitis, from spotting with ovulation, the withdrawal bleed for those using hormonal methods of birth control, breakthrough bleeding from those methods, from some sexually transmitted or other infections, ovarian cysts, polyps or fibroids, pelvic inflammatory disease, the side effects of some medications and even things as seemingly unrelated as something like celiac disease or thyroid disorders. None of those things, or any of the other many, many causes of vaginal bleeding are a menstrual period.
• When you say “pregnancy symptoms” do you mean things happening with the body expressly, and only, due to someone actually being pregnant? If not, please stop saying that. Things like feeling tired, having weird food cravings, breast changes, missed periods, bloating, weight gain, increased discharge, frequent urination and a host of other things that certainly can and often do occur with people who are pregnant but which also happen to occur for a wide array of other reasons, both for people who are not pregnant as well as people who are.
• When you say vagina, do you specifically mean the vaginal opening and canal? If not, please don’t use that word. We have language that accurately describes the genitals, and when we all do our best to use them, it helps people to avoid freakouts for no good reason, to best describe issues to healthcare providers so they can be served best, and to best communicate clearly with partners when it comes to what they are and are not consenting to with sexual activities.
• When you say bottom or butt, do you mean the buttocks? Or do you mean the anus? Or the rectum? Or the entirety of someone’s genitals? (Or that someone is bottoming to someone else who is topping?) Whichever it is, do try and be specific. Consider this: someone saying it’s okay for a partner to touch “their butt” may mean their buttocks, not their anus. We’ll want to know, and be clear, what is meant.
• When you say “safer sex,” do you mean the tools and practices we can use to reduce our risks of sexually transmitted infections? If so, great! Or, when you say that, do you mean contraception or birth control, the methods or devices we can use to reduce the risk of pregnancy? If you mean the latter, there are your words: contraception or birth control. Family planning is another one used to describe pregnancy — not STI — prevention.
• When you aren’t sure what’s going on with something or someone, or do not know what to call something, do you just grab for some vague shorthand, or use words for that thing that you’re not sure are the right ones?
If so, allow us to introduce you to one of the most helpful, honest and gorgeous phrases — in my personal opinion — in the English (and every other) language:
"I don’t know."
(Insert the sound of angels, unicorns, spaghetti monsters or whatever-you-want on high with harps and sparkly things here to express the glory of this phrase adequately.)
"I don’t know" is such a wonderful thing to say, especially if and when we really just don’t. Giving someone the idea we do when we don’t doesn’t help them, and often it only sends them on a wild goose chase to follow whatever trail leads after the wrong crumb was left for them. We get to not know things — us, you, everyone. No one is the expert of everything, and good gravy, no one should be expected to be. If you’re working in sex ed at all, be it more formally or DIY, you are not going to know things a LOT, because sex and sexuality has some serious legs that for everyone to always have an answer, you would basically have to be an expert on everything.
So, we strongly endorse, “I don’t know,” as well as a follow-up to that that involves doing our best to refer someone who wants an answer we don’t or can’t have to the kind of person or service which more likely would know, or could do whatever is needed that we/you/whoever can’t to find the answer.
There’s also an extra bonus to saying “I don’t know” as a practice when you don’t and you are working with young people. As anyone who has ever been a young person knows, you can easily feel like you’re a big jerk because you don’t know everything, but everyone else seems to. When the everyone-else are people older than you, that also often involves them lording that over you, and giving you the idea that you can’t know things and they can (even when they don’t), so you’re lesser than them.
Of course, eventually, you figure out everyone really doesn’t know everything, it’s just that an awful lot of people act like they do. But before you figure that out, not only are you likely to give people authority — including in areas where that choice can really impact your life and how you are making your choices — who sound like they have it, but probably don’t, you also feel like a dope for longer than anyone needs to. So, when you start to hear people you respect saying they don’t know everything, it can cut that dopey-feeling-time down substantially, leave you feeling like a lot more of an equal, and also helping to assure that you don’t make choices based on information that isn’t sound. In other words, “I don’t know,” not only is the best thing to say when you really don’t, it also gives the gift of making clear to a young person that they are not the only one who does not know things and that it’s okay not to know things. Sweet.
There’s a pretty long and wretched historical precedent of people using unclear or vague language when it comes to sex, sexuality and sexual health that has most often arisen out of the desire to assure people don’t fully understand things as best as they could. We’ve got a long history in most of the world of sex, sexuality and sexual and reproductive health being used as ways to control people, and intentionally enabling ignorance or obfuscation has always been a big part of that. So, while it may seem small, in a lot of ways using clear language also does a pretty kickass job of pushing against that kind of stuff, and little by little can go a really long way when it comes to empowering people in these areas. We get a lot more control and agency with our own lives and bodies when we have clear ways of communicating about them that are earnestly meaningful.
Ah, the bonuses of communicating clearly: they really do never end! :)