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Vulvagate: When mansplaining goes so wrong the dictionary itself has to step in

No vulva, only grapefruit

By David Futrelle

On Saturday. The Guardian posted a story called “Me and My Vulva,” looking at photographer Laura Dodsworth’s attempt to, as writer Liv Little put it, tell “the stories of 100 women and gender non-conforming people through portraits of their vulvas.” The Guardian featured some of these portraits alongside interviews in which the vulva-havers in question discussed their complicated feelings about their own vulvas and vaginas.

Well, it turns out that some cis men have complicated feelings about vulvas as well, feelings so complicated that they can’t quite believe that the word “vulva” is a specific word, with a specific meaning, that’s worth including in sentences from time to time.

Enter one overconfident fellow called Paul Bullen, who offered what he saw as a correction to the Guardian’s headline:

Since the correct word was in fact “vulva” — Dodsworth’s photos are pictures of the external genitalia — a number of Twitterers stepped up to correct his correction.

One of the correctors was San Francisco OB/GYN Jen Gunter, an actual world-famous expert on, you know, that whole area down there, and the media’s go-to Gwyneth Paltrow-debunker when the actress and would-be wellness maven tries to convince those with vaginas to do things like steam or stick rocks in them, both of which are evidently very bad ideas. Dr. Gunter has literally written the book on vaginas, or at least a book, titled The Vagina Bible, which will be out in August.

Dr. Gunter tweeted:

Here’s the link, by the way.

But Bullen, like many men in similar situations, refused to accept his defeat, and simply kept going, suggesting that those who refused to accept his “correction” were simply a bunch of vulva snobs.

Er,”euphemism treadmill psychology?”

Er, I’m pretty sure that the Vagina Monologues involved considerable discussion of things going into vaginas so I’m going to say no to that.

When it came to Dr. Gunter’s quite specific expertise on this issue, Bullen evidently felt it was outweighed by his confidence as a man with opinions on the internet.

He’s using an awful lot of words to basically say: “Ok, the ‘correct’ definition I used isn’t actually correct, according to the dictionary, but since people use the word incorrectly a lot this incorrect usage is actually the correct one and all you correcty-pants people are actually incorrect with all your fancy correctness, I am very smart.”

Ultimately, THE DICTIONARY ITSELF (or at least Dictionary,com) felt compelled to intervene, noting that the word “vulva” is indeed the correct word for the external genitalia — which is, again, what
Dodsworth’s photos depict.

Bullen wasn’t fazed by all the talk of dictionary definitions because, in his mind, he’s smarter than the dictionary too.

When some critics accused him of mansplaining, he tried to mainsplain mansplaining to them:

That’s an incorrect use of the word mansplaining. :-). Not that I want to legitimize the term, but by its own definition it requires more than just having just a man who is explaining something. Even if some in the audience are women.

Dr. Gunter gently corrected him on that:

She also reiterated the rather basic point — which Bullen seemed unable to grasp — that the photos in question were photos of vulvas, not vaginas.

So @paulbullen here is where you mansplained to me — the correct use for the article was vulva, the common use vagina could not have applied here as it was specifically about loving vulvas and not a general lower repro tract article

Last night I felt compelled to weigh in myself:

None of this — not even my especially brilliant tweet — stopped Bullen from endlessly repeating his point, and the, er, “debate” went on and on and on until, only a few hours ago, Bullen finally decided to stop posting on the subject.

In case you’re wondering if Paul Bullen has bad opinions on any other subjects aside from the correct use of the terms “vagina” and “vulva,” the answer is yes.

Bullen has also recently retweeted white nationalist congressman Steve King, white nationalist “journalist” Faith Goldy, and the white nationalist website VDare. You may notice a trend here. Not that Bullen would necessarily agree that any of these white nationalists are in fact white nationalists. Indeed, he has already used his powerful MAN LOGIC to convince himself that King has never said anything even vaguely white supremacist-ish.

For example, it was obvious to me that King did not say anything in support of "white supremacy." All we have to do is assume that King is rational. It took a an application of the principle of invidiousness to construe what he said that way.

But there’s more! Turns out Bullen is one of those people who contends that the Covington Catholic students photographed several years ago wearing blackface were not wearing blackface.

But, hey, at least his love life is going well:

I don’t know if Bullen has yet managed to make contact with either this woman’s vulva or her vagina.

H/T — To all those who tweeted funny stuff about this, including @Chinchillazllla,, @TakedownMRAs and @mistressmatisse.

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Susan
Susan
1 year ago

@Crip Dyke. I think of language like a musical instrument. My guitar playing is really rusty and bad because I don’t practice regularly, but I can still pick it up and make a little version of music and amuse myself. Definitely worth the time it took to learn. I’m glad your French still brings you joy.

I can’t believe you don’t really know Moliere. You have your Paul character get exactly the right things wrong about Moliere. (Example, Paul thinks Moliere didn’t mock women, but his first hit was about women he thought were pretentious and wanted to take down a peg. That’s too right on to have been a guess! )

@ Lainy (and with apologies to Crip Dyke), research doesn’t not support the generally held notion that Spanish is easier for a speaker of English to learn than French. In fact, the musical instrument metaphor is operative here. It’s harder to make a sound on the flute than on the piano at first, but it is not harder to master the flute than the piano. Both take a huge amount of work and commitment. The main point (and research confirms this) is to take the language that you love so that the hard work of learning it will not feel like work. If you HATE the piano, you won’t want to sit down and learn your scales and chances are you won’t get very far. If you LOVE the flute, you will power through the hard parts with practice and eventually make real music.

All this said, if you’re in the US you will likely have more chances to practice Spanish IRL and that is definitely an advantage to Spanish.

ribblefizz
ribblefizz
1 year ago

The most frustrating thing about the whole shebang for me, and there was a LOT to be frustrated about, is this:

If that article had been titled “Me and My Vagina” he would have 100% been there just as quickly, just as aggressively, just as obnoxiously, to point out that “The correct term is vulva.”

So, I mean, at least this way we got to roast the shit out of him because of how completely wrong he was, but there’s just no winning.

That “certicate in editing” thing was golden though, especially considering how enthusiastically he glorifies himself in his resume.

Rabid Rabbit
Rabid Rabbit
1 year ago

To add to what @Susan said, on the other hand, once you know either French or Spanish, it’s easier to learn the other one as well, since they’re more closely related to each other than either of them is to English. To keep with the musical metaphor, once you know how to play the piano, it’s easier to learn to play the harpsichord, since they’re both keyboard instruments.

Beyond that, I wish Molière were alive today. He would have so much fun mocking the MRAs and the alt-right. Can you imagine what he’d do to Trump?

Yutolia the Green Hash Pronoun Boner
Yutolia the Green Hash Pronoun Boner
1 year ago

@Who, @Dalillama:

If his field is linguistics, he’s not an expert in that either. He has no clue what he’s talking about.

By correct, I mean standard English usage.

That’s not what correct means. You mean common usage. They’re not the same. It’s common usage to split infinitives*, but it’s also still not “correct”.

Many words have both narrower and broader uses. It’s an interesting phenomenon.

You are right, many words have a variety of meanings and the processes that words can go through are fascinating. That’s why I study historical linguistics!

But I don’t think you actually understand the processes you’re talking about because while that kind of language change occurs**, it doesn’t negate the original meaning of the word.

Right, it is a subset – in the broader meaning. The word vagina is broader than the word vulva

This… means nothing in the conversation! This is absolute nonsense.

I’m claiming the word vagina has two meanings. As with many English words. There is a genus meaning and a species meaning.

This… is not a thing in linguistics. There is no such thing as a “genus meaning” or “species meaning”. Genus is used in linguistics to refer to the different language families but it has nothing to do with semantic change.

I’m speaking about ordinary English usage. That’s the standard I’m appealing to.

No, you aren’t – you looked at the cover of “Metaphors We Live By” and think you’re an expert in cognitive and historical linguistics, and now you’re trying to use your “knowledge” (which you don’t have!!!) to backpedal because you said something inaccurate.

My position is that standard usage is fine and should not be changed.

Once again, that’s common usage. And someone using the correct terminology is not actually changing the fact that the incorrect terminology is still in use.

I’m addressing language use, not anatomy per se. I fully accept the dictionary definitions of these words. I am asserting that for one of the words there’s also another usage that is fully legitimate. Dictionaries are failing to even record record that usage

That’s not what you said. You said that vagina was correct and vulva wasn’t.

I don’t have the energy to take on the mansplaining bits right now. Maybe another time!
*The rule is pretty silly, IMO.
**Correct usage or not.

Susan
Susan
1 year ago

Well, I dunno. Moliere had a sharp wit, but (with a couple of notable exceptions) he tended to punch down. He lived under an absolute monarch, after all. He was conservative (not in the sense of today’s politics, of course) but in the sense that he tended to confirm his audience’s biases.

Susan
Susan
1 year ago

My previous comment should have been directed @Rabid.

@Yutolia Thank you! I haven’t done much in linguistics but I really didn’t think the things Paul said were things were things. Glad to have the explanation from an actual expert!

(And anyway, the whole thing started when he suggested the body parts in question were NOT vulvas, not that they were ALSO CORRECTLY TERMED vaginas. Grrr!)

Crip Dyke
1 year ago

@Susan:

Well, no. I do know Moliėre, but not in the original French. I was a theater nut and have seen multiple English productions of Tartuffe, a couple of the Imaginary Invalid and one each of a few others. I’ve also seen Tartuffe performed in French once. Plus I’ve read the english language versions of a bunch, yes, including The Affected Ladies.

I’m just saying that I have no experience studying it to get the depth of information you might in a lit class – and certainly not in his original French words. So, no, not a guess. But I don’t want anyone to think that I have actual expertise in this area, because I really, really don’t.

Rabid Rabbit
Rabid Rabbit
1 year ago

@Susan:

I suppose. In that case, I wish he were around and writing for a left-wing audience. 😛 Maybe a better example would be what he’d have made of the evangelicals who like Trump. I can’t imagine that the Molière of Tartuffe wouldn’t be able to have some very pointed fun with them.

Susan
Susan
1 year ago

@ Crip Dyke Well, you know a lot more about Moliere than most people, including the students in my class today!!

Crip Dyke
1 year ago

Oh, I find Trump very Tartuffe-like. He’s got so much in common with Tartuffe if you simply swap the “priest” profession for “politician”.

Yeah, I’ve often thought Moliėre would kill in today’s USA – probably today’s UK as well. But then so would Clemens or Swift or Aristophanes. I’m imagining Kelly Anne Conway sputtering in the background,

Brekke-ke-kex! Koax! Koax!

Susan
Susan
1 year ago

@Rabid, yes, Tartuffe is one of the cases where he didn’t punch down and he got BURNED for it.

OMG, Mammotheers, I can’t believe y’all are letting me talk at you about French literature! Two great things (WHTM and French lit) that go great together?

But I’m off to bed now. Good night, all!

Yutolia the Green Hash Pronoun Boner
Yutolia the Green Hash Pronoun Boner
1 year ago

@Susan: Awww, thank you 😀

@David: I also wanted to say that Baul Pullen is awesome and I plan to use to my linguistic powers to put it into common usage.

Rabid Rabbit
Rabid Rabbit
1 year ago

@Crip Dyke:

Molière would be probably be writing for SNL, and doing it well.

@Susan:

For your next bit of fun, imagine the Victor Hugo of Les Châtiments living in Trump’s America. He’d be writing withering poems about mushroomoid penises and making them rhyme.

He’d also be penniless due to the number of sexual harassment suits against him, but that’s a different matter.

Robert
Robert
1 year ago

I shared this on Facebook. One of my friends referred to the mansplaining as Paul’s First Letter to the Genitalia.

Bob
Bob
1 year ago

“the a number of Twitterers stepped up to correct his correction”

copy editing y’all

Crip Dyke
1 year ago

Paul’s First Letter to the Genitalia.

Classic.

Moggie
Moggie
1 year ago

@Yutolia:

No, you aren’t – you looked at the cover of “Metaphors We Live By” and think you’re an expert in cognitive and historical linguistics, and now you’re trying to use your “knowledge” (which you don’t have!!!) to backpedal because you said something inaccurate.

“Actually, I think you’ll find that should be ‘Metaphors By Which We Live’…”

@Robert:

Paul’s First Letter to the Genitalia

So I’m sitting in the office and trying to suppress laughter, and I know this phrase is going to keep coming back to me during the day and causing this!

opposablethumbs
opposablethumbs
1 year ago

You are all brilliant, especially Crip Dyke (I would so read that too).

(fwiw, both Spanish and French have one advantage for learners (compared to English for learners) – they have generally consistent spelling and pronunciation rules, so at least once you’ve “got” them there are few exceptions to trip you up.)

re comic books in French – I don’t remember or know about kids’ ones so much, but inevitably a lot of the language in comics aimed at/including an adult readership (like the classic Le Génie des alpages from the 1970s) is very idiomatic/assumes knowledge of lots of cultural landmarks (including the notorious puns in Astérix).

Jarnsaxa
Jarnsaxa
1 year ago

That wasn’t just mansplaining, that was peak mansplaining. A random man unsolicited, explaining female genitalia to a female OB/GYN who has written a book about female genitalia. Wow.

Bluecat
Bluecat
1 year ago

I am reading this thread in the quiet section of my library and keep choking back laughter. The librarian is three seconds from offering me a cough sweet.

I think Jane Curtin and John Lithgow did this best, in 3rd Rock from the Sun:
Mary: For future reference, I have a red Volvo.
Dick: Please, Dr. Albright, we barely know each other!

I started knitting vulvas a couple of years ago, after reading a diatribe by a Trump supporting wool-shop owner who forbade women to use yarn they’d bought from her to knit pussy hats, because “it’s disgusting that women are knitting their genitals” (clearly someone who had either never seen a pussy hat or had never seen a vulva … or both).

This gave rise to the following conversation:

Me: I’ve just downloaded a pattern for knitting vulvas.
Mr Bluecat: I used to have one of those.
Me: Huh? After 15 years you tell me now?
Mr B: What? I did though. A blue one.

Who?
Who?
1 year ago

@Yutolia the Green Hash Pronoun Boner:

I have no idea what his field is and I asumed, it has nothing to do with anything relevant to the discusion, because he had no idea what he talked about anywhere above.

reggie, the neighbour's cat and rare mutant
reggie, the neighbour's cat and rare mutant
1 year ago

Even with his trying to change the meaning of the word correct you just know this guy hates when people use the word “literally” for something not literal.

Also disappointed nobody has yet mentioned the glorious euphemism of front bum, which I learnt at primary school as the way to refer to female genitalia.

reggie,the neighbour's cat and rare mutant
reggie,the neighbour's cat and rare mutant
1 year ago

Also I found his website. It includes internet mailing lists, one of which is “male-females differences” which he’s apparently been running since 2008. Seems like the mansplaining goes deep for this one.

Yutolia the Green Hash Pronoun Boner
Yutolia the Green Hash Pronoun Boner
1 year ago

@Moggie: I could totally see that happening!

@Who: I know, he just tried to pass himself off as such an expert that I couldn’t resist!

dust bunny
dust bunny
1 year ago

The increasing use of the word vulva when applicable is a threat to this guy because it represents a shift away from a male-centric view of cis women’s genitalia. He thinks calling the whole thing a vagina is good enough because for a patriarchal dude, that is the only part that matters. Penis goes in, baby comes out, and that is all anyone should ever need to know. Same thing as when for some people sex is a synonym for vaginal intercourse.

He is so threatened that it’s not enough for him to maintain his own ignorance on this issue. People who have vulvas must not be allowed to have conversations that could lead them to see their own bodies as their own and not a thing they have custodianship over but actually belongs to men.

This is why he is objecting.

“Euphemism treadmill” might be a real concept but if so it has nothing to do with this situation and he is just grasping for excuses. He’s saying that vagina is a euphemism for some original word for cisladyparts that fell out of use because it was too obscene, and now vulva is replacing vagina because vagina has become too obscene because it has been used to refer to that terribly obscene body part and any word that becomes associated with it in everyday usage inevitably becomes as filthy as the body part itself and we cannot give in to this eternal need to keep changing what words we use because language isn’t supposed to change I guess? Anyways it should always be called a vagina and if you ladies don’t like that word because it’s too dirty for you well that’s tough.

Doesn’t matter to him that literally one thinks vagina is a dirty word.

Jacquelyn
1 year ago

I loved this post — I had thought we’d reached peak mansplaining, but watching this unfold on Twitter, I was transported to new heights of WTF.

I’m commenting for an unrelated reason, however — where can I get a print of that lovely grapefruit you used for the featured image? TinEye and Google failed me.

Prith kDar
Prith kDar
1 year ago

@ dust bunny:

“Doesn’t matter to him that literally one thinks vagina is a dirty word.”

I think you meant “no one” in which case Michigan State Rep. Lisa Brown would beg to differ.

As would her colleague, Rep. Mike Callton, who said “What she said was offensive. It was so offensive, I don’t even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company,” before prohibiting her from speaking on the floor of the House for “violating decorum.”

Her crime? Finishing her arguments against a restrictive abortion bill with, “And finally, Mr. Speaker, I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina, but ‘no’ means ‘no.'”

She later pointed out that “If they are going to legislate my anatomy, I see no reason why I cannot mention it.”

bekabot
bekabot
1 year ago

Short version: “You’re right, but I’m talkative.”

Jenora Feuer
Jenora Feuer
1 year ago

@Crip Dyke, et al:
I’m also in the ‘I don’t use French enough anymore to be much good with it’ camp. That said, I’ve got a collection of Bande dessinée of various sorts at home. (I had a certain fondness for Philémon, a series of stories set on an alternate world in which the letters ‘Océan Atlantique’ on the map were actual islands where magical things happened. It tended to break the fourth wall often, such as one scene where the reason the donkey couldn’t move forward was because the next panel had fallen over, so Philémon had to step out past the boundary of the panel he was in, grab the next panel, and lift it back up. Apparently the witch in the next panel had a concoction explode and knocked it down.)

Me, I then took German as a third language in high school. I remember even less of that now than I do of French. I learned more about the English language in my German class than I did in my English class.

It kind of fits, given that English is this weird Romance-Germanic hybrid.

(And I’ve heard elsewhere that Spanish is easier to learn than French. Doesn’t surprise me, given the whole Norman history; there was a lot more Germanic influence on French than there was on Spanish.)

Moggie
Moggie
1 year ago

When I was at school, back in the mists of time, we were assured that, of the languages on offer to us native English speakers, the order of difficulty, from easiest to hardest, was Spanish, French, German, and Latin. I don’t remember finding German noticeably harder than French, so I’m not sure what that was about. I’m a little annoyed that there weren’t more choices: looking back, I’d like to have tackled Chinese while my brain was still flexible enough to make that a possibility.

kupo
kupo
1 year ago

Ok, so who here wants to sign up for his mailing list?

https://twitter.com/AmberBobamber/status/1094990522530320384?s=19

@justsaying
A) it might be how some people use it, but it’s an incorrect usage for anything but the actual vagina. But setting that aside, when women around you are using that term, are you sure they’re referring to their vulva, or are you assuming? Because I can’t think of many contexts in which a person’s vulva is a topic of discussion, but vagina is something that can come up more often.

B) this is why we need comprehensive sex ed.

@Dali
There is, in fact, ample evidence that he’s complete shit in his field (as a former member of said field, he makes me embarrassed).

Yutolia the Green Hash Pronoun Boner
Yutolia the Green Hash Pronoun Boner
1 year ago

@Kupo:

Omg you’re right…

Linguistics is his field… and he truly is complete garbage in it, wow…

Juniper
Juniper
1 year ago

I love your site, David, thanks for all your hard work on this stuff.

Jenora Feuer
Jenora Feuer
1 year ago

@kupo:

B) this is why we need comprehensive sex ed.

That exact comment applies to so many of the things that get posted here…

Jenora Feuer
Jenora Feuer
1 year ago

@kupo:

B) this is why we need comprehensive sex ed.

That exact comment applies to so many of the things that get posted here…

personalpest
personalpest
1 year ago

@CripDyke: I love 99% of your Jessi Bourne story, but I have to say that the part where she tries to make sure that Gerald goes permanently blind creeps me out. Sorry.

Crip Dyke
1 year ago

That’s a fair criticism.

A. Noyd
A. Noyd
1 year ago

Lainy says:

Would you suggest taking French over Spanish? I have to take a foreign language next semester and I’ve been leaning more towards French.

The better choice is always the language that you feel will give you access to something you can’t get without speaking some of that language. Then you’ll have rewards beyond a certain number of credits to motivate you. Interacting with people who speak that language (either in meatspace or online) can help too.

Also, French is only harder than Spanish where spelling is concerned. Like English, it takes a lot of memorization to learn to write correctly. Though, unlike English, it’s fairly easy to read. (If you have loads of time and want to learn the most difficult writing system in the world, take Japanese.)

~*~*~*~*~

Speaking of motivation and foreign language learning, I have a student who normally doesn’t care much for English class, but he put in several times his usual effort yesterday.

The kids were writing very simple sentences about what events they’re looking forward to in junior high school. Halfway through writing time, this student hadn’t even started. I asked him which event he would choose, and he said he couldn’t decide between the school trip and sports day. I showed him he could write both and connect them with “and” if he wanted. Even though it made for more writing, he definitely wanted to do that and got to it right away. Success!

Sara
6 months ago

The commenter who said he would have corrected the article if it had said “vagina” instead of vulva has basically nailed it.