Naming Private Parts: Why ‘Penis’ Is Better Than ‘Pee-Wee’

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A man I know calls his penis a “pee-wee,” a nickname I’m sure sounded adorable when he was three but at 40 carries with it some baggage – not least that it doesn’t inspire confidence among the ladies. Still, old habits die hard, and as anyone who attended boarding school or sleepover camp can attest, he’s not the first of us to reach for a euphemism when the proper name seems too icky. It’s just that, once you hit middle age, using a handle for your knob can sound just as icky. Did you ever see that Sex and the City episode in which Samantha, wearing fake nipples, picks up a banker who tries to woo her with baby talk? Exactly.

I’ve been reminded of this a lot recently. The more time I spend with other people’s children, the more I realize “pee-wee” and its cousins “pooter,” “willy,” “boo-boo” and… “Christmas” are the rule, not the exception. I’m far too old now to remember if my parents went down that route, though I do recall, at six, a trip to the toilet with a chaperone, who startled me with delicate language that evoked the cast of Peter Pan, and not in a good way. Thus, without any strategy as such, my husband and I went the frank route with our children; it just came naturally. I have to admit some mild embarrassment when one of my daughters approaches me at a party complaining of an itchy vagina, but I’ll always be more concerned by the “itchy” than the “vagina” part of that statement.

No wonder the children’s song “Head, shoulders, knees and toes” avoids the nether regions, fraught as they are for so many parents. But part of me wonders why we don’t approach (for wont of a better word) all our body parts in a similar matter-of-fact manner. Imagine the confusion if we suddenly admitted: “OK, it’s not really a nose, it’s a shmonker. But shhhhh – don’t say it too loudly.” What message does it send to our children if we can’t bring ourselves to utter the words even in adulthood?

I’m not used to ending up on the right side of an argument, but I was surprised to read that many studies conclude it’s best to take the direct shortcut to the clinical terms we often reserve for adulthood. For starters, it eliminates stigma. Would your teenager come right up to you and declare her vagina is itchy if she’d grown up thinking the area was a conversational taboo? Perhaps. But it may take her a week, and every nerve in her body.

Sure, most of us (save the odd Kardashian) want to keep private what goes on in the bathroom and the bedroom; it’s only natural. But that doesn’t mean what goes on in there is unnatural. We all do it. If we dumb it down, we send the message that any resulting questions or problems are not worth talking about, even shameful.

There are even more serious consequences. Child protection agencies warn parents to use correct terminology with their children from the start, to avoid confusion in the case of abuse. Teaching children the universal names for those body parts nobody should be messing with can help them recognize abuse before it happens, and report it articulately if it has. Nicknames like “down there” just confuse the matter.

I won’t pat myself on the back just yet. Dozens of parents at the school gates would argue my family lays it on a bit thick – particularly when one of my girls asks in her “outdoor voice” if “that daddy has a penis, too.”

Then there was that time last Chinese New Year, when my brother-in-law and my eldest daughter were riffing on the upcoming Year of the Rabbit. “It’s not the year of the rabbit,” he joked to her, “it’s the year of the polar bear!”

“No!” she replied. “It’s the year of the mittens!”

“It’s the year of the nose!” he went on.

She’d found an opening: “It’s the year of the vagina!”

Perhaps we shouldn’t have laughed so hard at that. After all, she’d made me so proud.

(Photo:  Vadim Ponomarenko/Shutterstock)