“Cock” vs “Down There”

When I ask students what they call a penis and a vagina in everyday words, two responses stand out: “cock” and “down there.”

The difference is telling. Cock: Cocky, proud, boastful, swaggering, self-satisfied. Image of a strutting cock, er, rooster.

But “down there”? Unspeakable. Embarrassing. Shameful.

Male sexuality is something to brag about, while female sexuality is something to hide.

The difference is reflected in Zestra’s difficulty getting ads on TV for a product that arouses women’s sexuality – while songs of “Viva Viagra” fill the airwaves.

The New York Times reports that TV networks, national cable stations, radio stations, and Web sites like Facebook and WebMD have all resisted airing ads for Zestra. Some agreed to broadcast ads in the early morning when most people are asleep. Others wanted disclaimers: “Not for people under 18.” Most felt that no amount of tweaking could make the ad suitable.

Many stations want to remove the words sex and arousal. Yet “An erection lasting more than four hours” is O.K.?

The manufacturer believes the resistance comes from our culture’s discomfort with women’s sexuality.

Meanwhile, normal processes of the vagina are shrouded in secrecy. Ads for one brand of sanitary napkins simply said, “Modess … Because.” Ok, that was the 70s. But even today women are embarrassed when tampons fall from their purses. Ever hear anyone say they had a “visit from Aunt Flow” when their period started?

Because female sexuality is deemed dirtier, more evil and more unspeakable, insulting slang for the vagina packs a bigger punch than slang for a penis.

Call a man a dick, and you’ve called him an idiot. Dictionary definition of dork: a whale’s penis. So a dork is a giant penis – an even bigger idiot.

But a cunt cuts deeper, moving into deeper disgrace.

Whether “down there” or “cunt,” it’s just degrees of shame.

We think that women will enjoy sex as much as men? In this atmosphere? It’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Georgia Platts

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A version of this article was originally posted on Sept. 30, 2010

About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on March 28, 2011, in body image, feminism, gender, men, psychology, sex and sexuality, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 24 Comments.

  1. What is the most horrifying, impactful, shocking word you could ever imagine someone calling you? As a white woman, for me, the word is “cunt.” It only means vagina, but it has accumulated a monstrous definition. But why? Some of it has to do with language, but it is also about society. Words in language are arbitrary. They are simply randoms symbols some human once came up with to reference that thing. However, as time goes on words accumulate different meanings based on their historical significance, which gives it social significance. A word means something because we as a collective society have decided on its meaning. So what does that tell us of society’s view of vaginas? I believe this is tangible evidence of how a society’s values are reflected in its language. When a person is called a cunt (no matter what gender) they are basically saying that they are the most evil, disgusting, disgraceful being on the planet. Does that mean vaginas and therefore women are the most evil, disgusting and disgraceful being on earth? The evidence seems to suggest that that is what society believes, and has believed for hundreds of years. Some say it is just an arbitrary word, but its social context is simply impossible to ignore. And in my personal opinion, when this context is ignored, it can be disrespectful and passive of the historical mistreatment of woman.

  2. There was a point brought up about how woman still get embarrassed when a tampon falls out of a bag and I could relate to that statement any day. I asked myself “why do I get embarrassed when it is something that I can not control”. And some things that came into mind were that it is gross, not polite, shameful, a secret, when in reality it is not those things. Even when I go to the grocery store I subconsciously look for a female cashier so that I don’t feel embarrassment. Its amazing how although, growing up the people around me never told me to be ashamed of my period, yet here I am hiding the tampon I try and discreetly take out of my bag. It just goes to show that media plays a huge role into this. Men sexuality is rarely ever looked at as negative and the more sexual he is the more of a man he is deemed. No way would that work for a woman.

  3. From the time we are little, we are told not to say penis and vagina as if they are bad words. This never made sense to me. It is our body parts. It makes us feel ashamed like they are bad, since they are seen as bad words. You hear people say the word dick all over but you rarely hear somebody say vagina, that word is seen as ew. The names for a vagina are mostly insulting towards women, but the names for a penis are positive towards men, like sword or package. Men also seem to just be more open about sex and relationships than women. Boys are told to go out and get the girl, and girls are told to stay away from boys. Its like men have no restrictions and women need to watch what they say or do. This is not fair for women. No one should be ashamed of their sexual parts or their beauty.

  4. This post opened my eyes so much. I say “you’re a dick” constantly and I know my sister has called me a cunt a few times and that has never made me angrier in the past. Up to the recent year after giving it thought, I couldn’t care less. It’s the equivalent body part so who cares (not that its a nice phrase but that is besides the point)? Go to Australia and everyone calls each other a cunt in a friendly way but I think it’s the norm as everything is so openly sexual there.

  5. J’adore ton blog ! Comme toi, il est véritable.
    Je t’embrasse
    Tony de France

  6. This article is particularly intriguing to me because I am seeking a career in advertising upon graduation. I always laugh at tampon commercials because if you didn’t know that Kotex or Playtex were tampons, you’d think it was to promote girls jumping around, running to work, or diving into a swimming pool in a white bathing suit. I always hide them in the inner most zipper in my purse so no one can ever find them if they reach in my purse to look for something. And this is all because I was taught to be discreet about what is probably the most beautiful function a body has, to create new life. I was also taught that calling someone a cunt was the worst thing you could ever say (it even feels weird to type) but I often go around calling my friends dicks when they do something annoying. Either way, I do not think anyone should be calling anyone names, but it would be fair if cunt and dick carried the same weight. I think women take time to spare men’s uncomfortableness with menstruation and vaginas, but in reality, they wouldn’t be here without them!

  7. I think the idea of words that are used to describe females as being worse or more harsh is incredibly indicative of how society treats women as a whole. Cunt carries a very specific negative connotation with it while the term dick is used more lightheartedly to joke or to call someone a jerk. Over the summer, I read the book “Cunt – A Declaration of Independence” by Inga Muscio and in it she described the historical background of the word, where back in the days of goddesses and women priests, the term cunt was used to identify a powerful and beautiful female figure. However, much like other derogatory words used toward women, it was taken hostage by the patriarch and used as yet another tool to oppress women into their ‘rightful’ submissive status. Because the term cunt is, by definition, another term for vagina, in using it as a derogatory term towards women, it only serves to further shame women for having the audacity to have a vagina in the first place.

  8. greeneyedwriter

    I find this topic both interesting and inciting of anger and frustration, because it is so true and so discouraging to women in our country. As a woman, I grew up feeling ashamed of my body and ashamed of any sexual desire I felt. It was even difficult to speak frankly with my doctor as a teen. The fact that female sexuality, and consequently our genitalia, are seen as something strange, shameful, or disgusting, makes it difficult to have a conversation with parents, peers, or even physicians about the natural processes and desires of our bodies. These standards and attitudes are imposed on women from birth in an effort to maintain control over their virginity and sexuality. As we spoke about in class, the “traditional” way of things in complex societies such as our own has been to undermine and incite shame and negative consequences for women who are overtly sexual. This has created a society that is at once obsessed with and also extremely prudish about sex.

    • So true. I have experienced the same thing. And it feels so natural while you’re in it– So negatively natural. I’m moving out of it now, not completely, but enough to have some sense of how crazy our sex-negativity is.

  9. Ashley Steffenson

    Women really do live in the “double bind” situation when it comes to identifying their gender parts. If you were to call someone a “cunt” it’s much more offensive than if you were to call someone a “dick”. If a guy were to talk about their penis, no big deal. However, if a female talks about her period it’s considered “gross” or “unclean”. The standards for men and females are still different from one another. Men are still expected to me more outspoken and women are suppose to be more coy and mysterious. In order to maintain a healthy self esteem though, no one should feel ashamed to be conscious and open about how they feel sexually whether that’s a feeling of pain or pleasure. Yet, women are taught to be ashamed and embarrassed of their bodies and also find the fine balance between being slutty and a prude. It’s a really frustrating subject to talk about and discuss because these double standards are still thrusted upon and expected from women all throughout the world and I think that’s where the real shame lies.

  10. I have never really paid attention to how society viewed the female sexuality especially their sexual organs. I think that it is very unfair that men get to brag about having penises and women are denigrated because they do not have a penis. It is true like this article mentions that women are very uncomfortable with their sexuality specifically their sexual organs because had only made it okay for a men to be in touch with his libido and sexual potential, where women cannot do that because it is different. Women in this society are not supposed to know their bodies because sex is only for men to enjoy. Women are not supposed to want it although men are encouraged in this society to be insatiable. it is extremely unfair and its tragic that the male genitalia is revered; while, women’ genitalia is belittle.

  11. Jumpinbean8p

    This topic is very interesting. In my human sexuality class we spoke about the slang terms given to male genitalia and those given to the female genitalia. Through much analysis of the slang terms, we found the sexism that exists through these terms. The male genitalia slang terms tend to have more positive connotations than those of the female genitalia slang terms. and illustrate greatness in having a penis. The terms tend to be worshipping the penis, and affirming virility in a positive manner. Whereas with the female genitalia is different. A lot of the terms belittle and denigrate women. Also, many slang terms suggest strangeness, unattractiveness and mystery of the female genitalia, which only makes women insecure and dismisses their sexuality.

  12. I think the reason why our society says down there for a girls vagina is because, for girls it is a shameful to talk about it and also they feel weird saying vagina because we as a girl were never were taught to be so proud of our vagina. We are always told that we are a whore if act like how guys are with there part. We can’t be proud like them, because for a girl it is a shameful or if she is proud then she is a slut. Which I think it is horrible, I don’t see why that is the case but I mean just because a guy has a cock, that doesn’t mean anything. We are all humans it shouldn’t matter and we should be treated all the same but it is very difficult to adjust the society now.

  13. I have never thought about it that way before but very true. As a guy I cant say that I would take it too offensively if someone called me any form of a penis. I have never heard being called a dick as being called an idiot before. I am little surprised that cock was the term most used to refer to a penis only because the stereotype is that cock is a “white boy” reference but then again it’s just a stereotype. Hopefully this type atmosphere doesn’t cause women to not enjoy sex as much.

    • “Hopefully this type atmosphere doesn’t cause women to not enjoy sex as much.”

      Well sorry, but it is one of many things that does. Ending sexism and the double standard that attends it would help women to enjoy sex more.

      Also, didn’t say that “cock” was the most common word for penis. Just that it stands out in terms of what it communicates.

      Also, you’ve never heard anyone say, “What a dick!” (translation: “What an idiot!”)?

  14. I think it’s really important to be able to speak about one’s own sex. To have the possibility to easily describe pain and pleasure, and through that be able to get to know your own body, is, in my opinion, crucial both for sexual pleasure and for self-esteem. To have a proper word for your own sex is of course a big step in getting rid of the shame that, due to silence, is surrounding the female sex.

    When I grew up we were given the choice of using either the words the biology teacher used, or words from porn movies, to describe “down there”. The boys, on the other hand, had hundreds of words to use; neutral words, strong words, proud words, funny words, sexy word and forbidden words.

    A few years ago a group of parents in Sweden brought up the issue that their daughters were enable to talk about their sex in the same way as boys could do. A new word for vagina was invented, a neutral word that isn’t objectifying and doesn’t involve any shame. That word is now used by people all over the country and in biology books in schools. I am so glad that my future children will have the possibility to speak about the two sexes (at least in Swedish) in a much better way than I could do when I grew up.

  15. I can relate to this article because growing up I was always taught to be a lady, sit with your legs crossed, don’t share details about your period or your sexuality. Those were just things that you kept to yourself. But I always thought that’s how it was for men and women, that those were things you just kept private between you and your partner, or just kept to yourself. But once I got into college I realized that men are very proud about how many women they’ve slept with, or how long their erection could last. While women just keep quiet. I’m generally a private person, so I usually tend to keep things to myself but I don’t think I should be ashamed if I wanted to share things. I understand that women have always been put under men, but you would think in this day in age that we would be so far ahead that things like talking about your sex life whether you are a man or a woman wouldn’t matter. I have friends that are men and they can sit there and talk about penis’s but a comment about a vagina could be made and they freak out. This is how society is, which is crazy considering we are supposed to be living in a society that is constantly changing supposedly for the better.

  16. Deirdre da Silva

    I find this topic quite interesting, mostly because of how true it is! Girls are always taught to be embarrassed and ashamed about their sexuality, and that it’s not lady-like to speak about it so openly, hence terms like “down-there”. Boys on the other hand have always found this topic a very open one, that they can discuss freely, and even be proud and boastful about. Boys are always very vocal about matters pertaining to sexuality and in my experience, it is mostly males that use the terms listed above, both the ones referring to males and females, and I find it very interesting that a lot of the time it is not seen as “proper” for females to use some of these words, while men often have no restrictions on the subject.

  17. I have never realized this until you said it but now I see it. Penises are seen as good things but when you think of a vagina you automatically think ew. You hear people say the word dick all over but you rarely hear somebody say vagina. Also just comparing words for private parts of men vs women you can see how condescending the names for vaginas are. For example, names for vaginas include beaver, banana basket, black hole, cock pit, cum dumpster, fish taco, grand canyon, fur burger, mud flaps, pink eye, sausage eater, poon, stench trench, etc. Words for penises include anaconda, big fella, chew toy, clit commander, happy pole, hooded warrior, light saber, man’s best friend, package, python of pleasure, pussy tamer, throbbing manhood, etc. The names for a vagina are mostly derogatory towards women but the names for a penis are not only positive towards men but also negative towards women such as cunt crammer.

  18. Thanks for your support!

  19. You have great points that you’re citing here.

    I mean, naturally, men have a wicked sex drive- the need for having sex is great when men produce so much sperm and testosterone. I think those polls are very accurate- somewhat because of wrinkles emitting character- but also for a primal need to spread the seed’ you know. It’s very strong when you’ve got a body designed to do it, and sex on the brain. Which is why I’m so thankful for birth control and condoms, it’s definitely changed human lifestyle- the playing fields are more open.

  20. I find this topic entertaining, because honestly- compared to my own female part- I find the male body part to be somewhat shocking. Sometimes it reminds me of “alien” popping out of a ribcage. I am attracted to men, but I can’t stop imagining a scene of gunfire and speilburg’s famous alien prop from coming into vision.

    In truth, both can be “shocking” for their differences- depending on your exposure or preference to either parts. It only makes sense it would frighten or spur either gender if they were firstly exposed to the other’s part, with being comfortable with their own part first because it’s attached to them, and well, if you look in the mirror- it’s probably what you’re used to. Seeing a penis or vagina is like comparing totally different looking aliens here.

    But speaking about mainstream society- I’d have to agree that there’s a strange and often demeaning comparison of sex parts. I’ve heard females sex organs, called “stank” and… other parts treated like… well, like parts. Not like part of a whole or of a person. This is less than an object. Very very demeaning.

    I think there should be more developed sex-ed classes centered around being more comfortable about sex, sexuality, and sex parts. Not being exposed to it earlier in my life made it “not normal”, shocking even, when I became older. It should be “normal”; it’s the way we reproduce… and even connect with someone else. I mean, I wish I had a class like that during Highschool or College- because there was definitely lack of it. Instead we had a system telling boys and girls just to stay ‘abstinent’ and then you’d have to worry less. If I’m in a sex-ed class in the first place, I’d like to learn about sex too, not just how to prevent it and STD’s. Although obviously, learning about STD’s is a huge part of sex.

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