'vagina' in the workplace

Here’s a conversation I had with a colleague recently:

HER: So you finished your book!

ME: Yup!

HER: Wow that’s amazing! That’s like giving birth!

ME: Well, I wouldn’t go that far, it’s not like…

HER: Not like squeezing a watermelon through your vagina – and you’re like the one person I can say that to and not be sexually harassing you.

Not only is saying the word “vagina” in front of me and talking explicitly about the biology of childbirth not sexually harassing me, I’d actually feel LESS comfortable if people hedged and hesitated and used euphemisms.

I’ve been a sex educator so long that I’m much more likely to feel like there’s a “hostile environment” when people AVOID talking about sex than when they’re actively talking about it – even if the talk isn’t as perfectly respectful as my coworker’s comment. I feel much more comfortable fielding people’s awkwardly phrase questions or helping them learn about sexuality than I do ignoring sex.

And as a result, it has happened at least once that I’ve shared something that I’m professionally interested in and pleased with, and someone else in the room has said something like, “Uh, Emily? No.”

Like the day in grad school, about 10 years ago, that I brought Photo Sex to the office, to show folks, as a resource for great, sex positive, diverse pictures of non-normative sex to show in class, for those who teach Human Sexuality.

And one of the women in my office (who did not teach Human Sexuality) said, “Emily. That’s porn.”

And I was like, “Oh right. It’s porn.”

And I thought, “Oh. Whoops.” Because it is, by some definitions. And porn offends some people and doesn’t belong in a workplace, generally.

Sex educators have different internal guides about what feels “hostile” or “unsafe” – and I mean both that sex educators’ guides are different from those of non-sex educators and that all sex educators have different guides from each other.

And a way long time ago, I used to think, “Well people just need to GET OVER IT and learn to feel comfortable WITH MY BOUNDARIES. Because I’m the one who’s NOT REPRESSED.”

Which is bullshit. I was SO wrong. I’m glad to say I grew out of that before I ever had a full time job as a sex educator. Now, instead, it’s my goal to create an environment in which EVERYONE feels safe and confident, which involves honoring everyone’s limits. I’ve learned how to anticipate what other people’s boundaries, so that I don’t accidentally cross them.

Still. There’s an environment where everyone’s limits are respected, and there’s an environment where I feel most comfortable and safe and welcome. I feel most comfortable in environments where people can say “vagina” and talk about their own embodied sexualities. It’s shame that feels hostile to me. Judgment – of oneself and, even more, of others – feels hostile. In my ideal environment, talking about sex will be a little like talking about recipes. “I made the best dinner last night.” We have that conversation all the time at work, and I’m always like, *shrug*, I hate to cook, we microwaved some Trader Joe’s palak paneer. Right? And it’s fine.

I can’t help holding in my mind a vision of an ideal future world where we can all talk about reproductive biology and sexual behavior and only in rare, obvious instances will it be some douchebag being manipulative and gross.

I know that’s not the world we live in, and I know it’s not what most people would visualize as ideal. But in my ideal world, we can all say “vagina” and it’s like somebody said foot” or “chin.”