Thinking Outside the Box

clutching pearls

Feminist scholars have a term for the orientation of Western culture: androcentrism. It refers to a society in which men are at the center of the culture, and women and non-binary people are considered peripheral to the culture, which is inherently masculine. The androcentric model, in medicine, refers to the practice of placing the male body as the norm, and the female body as either abnormal or derivative of the male body.

Like every other field, medicine is affected both by societal influences and by the language resulting from those societal influences. Dictionaries are a good place to investigate these influences, in their role as authoritative guides on “correct” language usage. Victoria Braun and Celia Kitzinger conducted a study of 12 medical dictionaries and 16 English-language dictionaries, looking specifically at definitions of women’s genitals compared to men’s genitals. The study is new (well, 2001) but the cultural messages are old: women’s bodies are passive and men’s are active, women’s exist while men’s are functional.

In all of the dictionaries that Braun and Kitzinger studied, the definition of the penis was function-based. All of the dictionaries made some allusion to the penis’s sexual function and referred to it as an “organ.” By contrast, according to the Braun and Kitzinger, all of the dictionaries represent “the vagina as an open space, rather than as a body part adjusted for particular function.” Most used words like “tube” or “canal,” and many of the descriptions were location-based, relying on the existence of other body parts (like the cervix and the vulva) for the definition. The authors point out that most dictionaries left out any mention of the vagina’s active physical abilities, such as the ability to stretch.

The story is a little less bleak for the clitoris — if it’s even included, which is not the case for one of the medical (!) dictionaries — but only because it is “represented as a less developed, or smaller, form of the penis.” All of the medical definitions define the clitoris in terms of the penis, and only four of those dictionaries describe the penis as “homologous to the clitoris.” Because of its general definition as an underdeveloped penis, the main function alluded to in the definitions is the erectile capability of the clitoris.

Like the vagina, however, the focus of the clitoris is again on location. All but one of the medical dictionaries and 14 of the 16 English language dictionaries provide information about where the clitoris is located. Braun and Kitzinger quip that this information is “presumably included to help the reader solve the mystery of where a clitoris might actually be found.” This point of view seems to be based on the assumption that the typical reader will be a hapless straight man who only wants directions to the aforementioned genitalia but wouldn’t know what to do with them when he got there.

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