If our thoughts are ‘embodied’ in language, what happens if we cannot name a thing or if we feel too uncomfortable to utter its name? It is eliminated from discourse, it becomes an outcast, which is albeit still preaching to us about the ‘should not-s’. So if vagina – a part of body where the physical essence of being a woman begins – becomes a ‘should not’, we’ve got trouble. And might I say that since in the Soviet Union sex on the whole was an outcast, the trouble we are facing are worrying.
When I was a teen I remember the word makštis (vagina or vulva in English) being somehow unnatural for me. The word putytė (literally something like a chick or some other small bird, an itsy bitsy) was too childish, just as pelytė (little mouse) and pimpytė (something like cootchie). Pyzda and pizė (both referring to cunt) are swearwords, so you wouldn’t use them so openly. Dziundzė (something like va-jay-jay) sounds a bit silly. Then there comes a number of euphemisms and metaphors, which most commonly are simply ten (there), mano vietelė (my little place) and skylutė (little hole). The latter ones my friends and I were able to pronounce without lowering our eyes – well, maybe just a little bit, still keeping firm voices as if we haven’t said anything unusual. The problem was though that I still felt like verbalizing something which is not to be talked about. Something indecent, dark and therefore, to use Julia Kristeva’s concept, abject. Strange thing is that the abject of your own body seem to have prevailed not only in the world of homo sovieticus but also continue to follow vaginas of today.
‘You do not speak of your privates’
‘Household tips’, 1960, USSR
<…> After you finish intimate intercourse with your wife, you have to let her go to the bathroom, you don’t have to follow her. Let her be alone for a while. It might be that she will want to cry a little bit <…>
An ordinary woman in her 70-ies, grew up in a small village, later on moved to a city. When I asked her about the vagina, for a split of a second I got an impression she doesn’t know what I was talking about.
Well, dear, we didn’t use the word back then. We didn’t even know the word vagina. When I was still a teenager, we didn’t have any sexual education, far from that. I graduated from the high school still thinking that you could get pregnant simply by cuddling with a boy. And I didn’t talk with my mum about sex or stuff. [Yes, but I’m asking about vagina, not about sex. Did you ever talk about it with somebody?] Well no, of course not. You don’t speak about your privates, dear. [Could you name some words used to describe it?] Well, they were not really uttered loudly. As for children you say the word ‘putė’ or ‘pimpė’. ‘Pyzda’ was used only by those dirty winos and goers. But I knew about vagina in general. I knew that children come from there because most of my brothers and sisters were born at my parents’ house. I also knew how it looked like, at least as much as every other woman – you wash yourself, after all, so you see it. And you can’t look inside it, can you? [But haven’t you ever had just pure curiosity about what is between your legs?] Actually no, not really. I just knew it was there, a natural part of my body and that was enough for me.
It’s a common stereotype that Lithuanians are shy and modest. According to my language teacher, this is probably the reason why our folk songs speak in symbols. Eikš, bernužėli, pagirdyk savo žirgelį iš mano šulinėlio (Come boy, water your horse from my well) – the meaning behind is pretty obvious. In rural areas quatrains more directly though still metaphorically describing ‘that area’ were also quite popular: Sijonėlis pūstas, matosi kopūstas (Puffed skirt, cabbage shows). These quatrains were meant for fun, of course, and I doubt any woman would think of her vagina as a cabbage. ‘The point is, says the teacher, that although references to genitalia were not explicit, the body itself with all of its parts was perceived as something absolutely natural. A bit shameful, yes, but still natural’.
Official vs emotional
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia
<…> Vagina, anatom., the ‘sleeve’ of the womb, prefatory part of women’s genitalia, tube-shaped, 11 cm <…>
Middle-aged woman with 3 kids. While talking to her I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that she knows everything about vaginas, but she just wouldn’t tell me.
The most common word about this part of body was simply makštis (vagina). And I didn’t like it at all. It was so anatomical, as if you were just a mere physiological body – mute and official like everything else in the Soviet world. No, I didn’t hear it from my friends or parents. You couldn’t actually find any words about vagina in popular literature, school or home back then, unless it was used to describe your body structure and functions like menses or some diseases. And even then it was uttered with a dose of shame. I didn’t like and never used euphemisms either – it’s so stupid, so thick and artificial. [So in what words were you comfortable to think about it?] I think the words should be very personal, appropriated with emotion. You have to get the sense that the word is yours, nothing ‘official’, nothing formulaic. Therefore I was thinking about į mane (‘into me), manyje (inside me), giliai (in the depth). And if you are making love to the person for whom you really feel something very strong, you might prefer those places to be left unnamed at all.
To give something a name means to accommodate it, tame it, personalize it. Vagina Sovietica didn’t exist in a personalized way, it was only an organ for reproduction, just as sex was nothing else but the way to procreate. In fact, sex did not exist at all: u nas seksa net (there’s no sex here) – some still remember this phrase of a Russian women during a talk show in late Soviet years. In the beginning of soviet era it was commonly acknowledged that sexual intercourse should last around 15 minutes – just as long as it takes for a man to ejaculate. Psychologists also claimed that one shouldn’t spend too much time only with their second halve – instead one should be more with their same-sex friends as only the latter will fully understand them. In spite of this negation of sex and personal relation to your partner as well as to your own body (or maybe precisely because of it), swearwords flourished and bloomed, especially Russian ones. From separate words such as manda (cunt) and already infamous pyzda to various derivatives from the latter, such as pyzdiec (fuckin’ shit that’s bad/good), poluchesh v’pyzdu (to threaten to kick one’s ass, literally – you’ll get to your cunt), poshol v’pyzdu (go fuck yourself, though literally go into the cunt) and others. Say, one could still use pyzda (cunt) while thinking about her body? As the interviewee put it, ‘every time I heard somebody saying pyzda I would feel the blow of disgust and humiliation, even if the insult wasn’t addressed to me’.
The vindication, finally?
Girls’ magazine ‘Panelė’, sex-therapist column ‘Sexfailai’
<…> I want the guy to put his fingers into ta vietelė (that little place). Am I normal? <…>
Several girls, all 20-23-somethings, all more or less city-kids, all found talking about vaginas somewhat awkward.
Of all the words for this part I could think of, the most appropriate and comfortable for me is makštis (vagina). I probably would use it both while thinking about my own genitalia and while talking on this subject to somebody else. Though sometimes I would call it skylutė (the little hole) too. Still, if I had to speak about vaginas, I would feel a little bit uncomfortable, unless I’m talking to my gynecologist.
Once when I was little, I was visiting my father, who lived in another city. He showed me his flat, room by room. When we reached the bathroom, he said: ‘Here you can pee and wash your putytė (itsy bitsy). When he left, I burst into tears. How could he talk about such a private thing without any shame?!
When I was a teen, I asked a guy to put his fingers in my makštis (vagina). ‘What? What kind of word is that?’. ‘Ok – I said – just go ten žemyn (down there). When he pulled his hand out of my pants, he gasped: ‘damn, girl, that skylutė (little hole) is so smelly!’. I never used the word ‘hole’ since then. But I fell in love with the word makštis.
Let’s face it – even now there’s no sexual education in Lithuania and the school nurse is incapable of even whispering the word ‘vagina’. Moreover, none of roughly 20 words to name it seem to be appropriate for more open use, not to mention saying them while being in bed with your partner. How did we end up in this situation? Was it only because of homo sovieticus mentality? Or do the roots of this vagina-silence go back even deeper to the 40-years ban on Lithuanian language in czarist occupation, during which probably the only Lithuanian literature available were several secret newspapers and Catechism? These are questions too complex to answer within this piece of text. But there’s still some hope in literature. When a play based on Eve Ensler’s ‘Vagina monologues’ was shown in Lithuanian, what shocked people most probably was the word itself. It might be the first time when vagina and makštis (vagina) were repeated over and over again for numerous times. And not only ‘vagina’ – swearwords, euphemisms – they were all there. They were vindicated by being put in writing, by being voiced in public. But one play is not enough in the way of creating and reviving the vocabulary. Just like with the word ‘queer’, it requires effort and time to clean up and put new colors on the background of sometimes even the most innocent concepts.
Lithuanian vocabulary of vagina is there. It’s still a little bit neglected, like an old-fashioned dress, waiting for its time to come out, take its deserved role onstage, in the light of the ‘new is the re-discovered old’ trend. Vagina itself is also still there. A little bit like the black hole, dark and dangerous, with a slight shadow of this-is-only-physiology. Hopefully, we’re already on the way to name and tame this mystery of ‘down there’.