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What's in a "Yoni"?

It's somewhat amusing that I have a post with the word “yoni” in it.

This word seems to be a bone of contention with (some) Natural Birth Advocates. I’ve found, the more hard-core the NBA, the more times you will hear the word “yoni” come out of her mouth.

Several of my midwife peers and I find the word odd, at best... not in the casual “Hey, how’s that yoni holding up?” way, but when someone tries to slip it into a medical discussion undetected.

Exhibit A: Anne Frye

Anne Frye is the Minutiae Midwife. (That’s my name for her.) That woman can tell you about the cell formation of a one-celled creature and make it into a trilogy of chapters sure to bore even the one-celled creature’s mother herself. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Anne Frye and am infinitely grateful she is here for midwives. Heck, her book Healing Passage has helped me learn how to suture like no watching-someone-else ever could have. And I love the Holistic Midwifery books. Well, except for the “yoni” and “clitorotomy” (her word for episiotomy. Not kidding.) parts.

What’s a yoni? The 21st century, new age, term for “vagina.”

Though, if you’re reading this, you probably already knew that. In fact, it can be used as code for “I’m a really crunchy birthing woman who dabbles in feminism and wants to take back control of my body, my birth and my family.” (Kind of like, “Is she family?” is code for “Is she a dyke?”) You hear the word yoni used in a childbirth context, you can pretty much guarantee that woman has spent some time on MotheringDotCom.

So, the word “yoni” came about because someone (not sure if Ms. Frye was the first one) decided “vagina” was offensive because of its Latin derivation, which is “sheath or scabbard.”

A sheath is what the sword slips into that a soldier is carrying around his waist. And “penis” is derived from “sword”, which slips into the sheath when not in use.

How anyone can be offended by that is beyond me. The vagina is a great place to tuck a penis every once in a while, isn’t it? I mean, it’s one of the major ways babies are made. And someone was so offended that they combed an etymological dictionary to find another culture’s definition of the vagina.

And up floats “yoni.” Really, for all we know, in Sanskrit, yoni could have had the trashiest of connotations! Wikipedia says yoni means “divine passage,” “place of birth,” “womb,” (which is the uterus) and “sacred temple.” Apparently yoni is used in the Kama Sutra. Hmmm… a NBA was playing around with sex positions and thought, “I hate the word vagina; I’m calling it my yoni from now on”?

Now, seriously, I really have no issue with anyone calling their own woman parts whatever they want. Pussy, cunt, woo woo, punani, box, beaver, fish, twat, beef curtains, clam, the Bermuda Triangle, honey pot, hair pie, kitty or a chair… call it what you want. However, when speaking to medical professionals, it is appropriate to use the word “vagina.”

When in Rome and all.

Do midwives/doulas know that when the word yoni is used with nurses and doctors, that our professional acceptance level drops about 100 points? Using the term when we are with a client in the hospital (when speaking to a nurse or doctor) is the equivalent of saying “boobies” instead of “breasts.” It’s okay in private, even with the laboring mom (whether a nurse is there or not), but when the discussion is with a doctor or nurse, it really is inappropriate to use the term yoni.

My biggest issue with that term - and clitorotomy - is how midwives look to those from whom we are trying to garner respect. How are we supposed to be heard and respected if we can’t even use the proper terminology?

Ms. Frye writes phenomenal books. They really, really deserve to be the standard educational textbooks for midwives. But how, How, HOW will that happen if we keep stumbling over the words “yoni” and “clitorotomy” every few paragraphs? How are we supposed to stand toe to toe with the medical community if we have to use (what sounds like) baby words (or worse, made-up words!) to describe common technical terms? How can any sympathetic OB even defend direct-entry midwifery with (what are supposed to be the best of the best) texts that use these words?! It might seem nit-picky to focus on two little words swimming in an ocean of fantastic information, but those words contain the pull of the moon, causing the tides to change and the sands to shift.

I’ve mentioned my distress about these words to Ms. Frye and her response was something along the lines of, “They’ll get used to it.” Well, in the meantime, I don’t like the word association that comes with the terms. I work so hard to look and act professionally. I would hope that other midwives strive for the same place of honor we deserve in the obstetric world. I want to stand proudly, on a level playing field, with the medical folks I encounter when I have to transfer my clients.

For me, that means reading Holistic Midwifery under the covers with a flashlight and holding Varney’s Midwifery aloft as I step towards a midwife’s rightful place – next to the other healthcare professionals who work so hard in obstetrics.

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Reader Comments (34)

There is a wonderful illustration of the power struggle over language that I've witnessed on the handover board (we have a whiteboard at the midwives' station on labour ward). Some midwives will write "Del" (meaning "Delivered") on the board. Other midwives write "Born". Personally, I'm with the "Born" group - but it's not a big issue. I mean, no coordinator comes along and changes what's been written - whatever her own inclinations one way or the other. It just exposes what we already know - which is that there are different attitudes to language and what is going on in the 'delivery room' (or do I mean 'birth room').

September 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterYehudit

“clitorotomy” (her word for episiotomy. Not kidding

She obviously can't differentiate between North and South. The clitoris is at the "opposite end" of the vaginal opening from the perineum. That kind of inaccuracy alone would put me off her for good.

September 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAntigonos

I think the reason people are offended by the word "vagina" is that the meaning "sheath, scabbard" defines it in relation to the penis: a sheath is useful only in housing a sword, whereas a sword is useful on its own. I can definitely see how that's offensive. However, if you ask me, that does not make the word "vagina" itself offensive because etymology is not destiny. Not to mention the fact that virtually no one even knows that "vagina" means "sheath." In modern English, "vagina" just means "vagina."

September 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAlexandra

I've always found "yoni" a little silly too. Kind of the way that Susun Weed in Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Year calls St. John's Wort, St. Joan's Wort. If a plant's common name is St. John's Wort, that's not sexist! It's just confusing the issue to rename it after a whole different saint. I have the utmost respect for Susun Weed and Anne Frye, but I think the made-up terms are pretty goofy.

September 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAnne

I happen to agree with you. I know this post is mainly for midwives, but... some of my dearest friends & doula colleagues use the word, but it has always seemed awkward to me - it jumps out in a way that vagina does not. That said, I will use whatever word my client prefers when I speak to her.

September 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDoulaMomma

i had no idea that yoni actually is a real word, i always thought it was slang, which threw me off with texts that include it.

i interpreted it that the author was too uncomfortable with her own body to use the term vagina, so had to use a "code" word.

if i were a midwife i would be working on taking back the word vagina and showing it in a positive light, its still a word that most people dont like.

September 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJackieD

My daughter has been in search of a nickname for her vagina - her brother has shortened penis to weenie to "ween" and I think she wants fewer syllables. A friend suggested I offer her "yoni". In that context, I find it an appropriate term, but the thought of using the term in a professional context never occurred to me. For all the reasons you mention and because it just sounds silly.

September 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLarissa

Actually, the clitoris has "legs" that curve around the area in question. (This is common lesbian knowledge, fwiw!) Her belief is the legs of the clitoris are being chopped off in an episiotomy, but to be real... coming from the midwifery, medical and lesbian knowledge I have, the median epis does not cut into the clitoris' legs. A mediolateral *might* - but how often are those done anymore?

(I had a mediolateral that felt like it cut me from hither to yon... actually cut into my thigh muscle... and while I don't orgasm as easily as many others, I haven't had my "legs" cut out from under me.)

September 27, 2008 | Registered CommenterNavelgazing Midwife

This entire post made me laugh!
The first time I heard the word "yoni' I thought it sounded ridiculous, and did not refrain from saying so!
After eight years, A LOT of Anne Frye and being around crunchy birth assistances I must have become desensitized because not long ago while speaking with a client I resorted to the term "yoni". Hmmm that one came back to bite me in the butt!

September 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSandra

That made ME howl!! Thanks for that. I am so glad to know others have the same feelings about the word as I do. I am sure there are puh-lenty of others who could rabidly defend its usage.

Where are they?

September 27, 2008 | Registered CommenterNavelgazing Midwife

I can yell "VAGINA" as loud as you like in a crowded room and not flicker an eyelash. Ask me to yell "Yoni" and I'll disolve into a puddle of embarassed giggles. It's the most ridiculous word.

September 27, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermamavee

I have to chuckle a bit at this post, despite how much I truly agree with you! Yoni, at least in my experience, is often used to convey the image of the entire vulva. In that sense, it's more appropriate than vagina (though I completely agree with you that it's not appropriate in professional circles. It's like a man talking about his pee-pee). Personally, I'm sick to death of everyone, especially medical professionals, referring to the vulva as a freaking vagina. The vagina is the hole, the sheath, if you will, and the place where babies come out of (again, agreed). It makes about as much sense to call the vulva the vagina as it does to call it the urethra or the clitoris. I know so many mothers that are proud they taught their daughter the "proper" term for her private bits and of course, the little girl refers to it as a "Gina" or something like that. Ugh!

anyway, that was my pointless soapbox ramble. :)

*snort* Clitoronomy? *sigh*

September 28, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRebekah

I use yoni, but only when discussing (or practicing ;-) ) Tantric yoga. Even though it's tossed about the natural birth circles and become an "every day" word, it never made it's way into my birth language. I would never use it with a client (unless she referred to her vagina as a yoni first) or physician any more than I would use "pussy". What's wrong with having a vagina? It's still a magical, amazing part of the female anatomy, with all the divine qualities of a "yoni". A rose by any other name and all that, it's just as sweet. Do we really need to re-name our body parts in order to give them their proper respect?

"That woman can tell you about the cell formation of a one-celled creature and make it into a trilogy of chapters sure to bore even the one-celled creature’s mother herself."

That made me laugh out loud! Anne Frye was required reading for midwifery school, and I have to admit, I could barely make my way through the assigned chapters without my brain feeling like it got a direct shot of Demerol. Sleepy, disoriented, confused, and then I promptly forgot everything as my brain whirled and twirled and felt a little nauseaus. I couldn't wait to re-sell those books on E-bay! I am one of the (very) few midwives who will readily admit I couldn't stand those books, and looked to Oxorn and Foote or Ambulatory Obstetrics or my beloved Myles for the orderly, neat, straight to the point information I needed. I do quite enough circular thinking on my own; when researching or studying, I like my info to be right there, without superfluous wordage. Give me concise, I'll add the embellishments.

September 28, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterColleen

have not done the research on this but I seem to recall a legend that roman soldiers would collect victims' vaginas in a row on their (actual) swords. that would explain the feminist disgust for the term, eh?

and I do like yoni, but can't stand mothering.com forums! FWIW.

agree with the poster who said she uses language her clients use. if someone prefers "surges" to contractions, fine by me.

when in a clinical setting, yes, you need to blend in.

September 28, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterabundant b'earth

I'm so in agreement with you - Yoni is totally not appropriate in professional speak. And Antigonos is correct - how do you get clitorotomy? I don't get that one at all?

I can see it now - Talking to one of my collaborating MDs "yes, her Yoni has a small lac but that's all".

Uh, no.

September 28, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCiarin

Re: the Roman soldiers...

And MANY cultures did this, I am sure. Just like many cultures cut heads off and collected those. Are we re-naming our heads? Brains? Eyes? I don't see that happening.

Now, I agree the vulva/vagina is fantastic, but we *can* romantisize almost any part of our bodies. Don't we worship every detail when we are newly enamored of our loved one(s)? The vagina remains a delightful morsel, yes, but so does our hand-holding, butt touching and breast fondling... no?

Yes, I can see NBAs highlighting the vulva/vagina (yes, they are separate words/regions, but so is the perineum and that isn't always recognized either) because of the focus during birth, but maybe it is IN the elevation of the woman bits to goddess status that cesareans... ALL cesareans... are demonized. (Just a thought. Not all worked out yet.)

I agree we could "take back" vagina and make it a delicious little word. It's so funny, in my world it IS elevated to a wonderful part of the body, without re-naming it (publicly - HA!).

September 28, 2008 | Registered CommenterNavelgazing Midwife

That totally made me laugh out loud! Could you imagine the Vagina Monologues being called the Yoni Monologues? My vote is for Snatch Diaries, myself!

If someone, my midwife, a nurse, whomever, called my vagina a "yoni" I would laugh them right out of the room! I am a grown woman, and I can call my vag a vag.

No one will take NBAs seriously if they continue to talk like that!

September 28, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJen B

In polite company I prefer the word 'pussy' myself, but when speaking in a technical sense I say vagina. Yoni, I feel, is just too crunchy. Why would I go to the trouble to desensitize myself to the words penis/scrotum/anus for my sons, but have to work my way around vagina?

Vulva... still hard for me but I'm saying it more to work my issues out.


September 28, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKristina

This whole thing about "yoni" being used in place of "vagina" is totally shocking to me! Until I read this I had never heard the word, except as a male name!! That's right, I have a friend named Yoni (it is a common nickname for Jonathan in Israel)!!! So, yeah, woah.

September 28, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLeigh

Urgh. Yoni is one of those words that just makes me cringe. Pussy does too, for different reasons. One is so vulgar, and the other is just...silly.

Until I married a man from the Deep South, I had no idea that "frog" was another slang term for vagina. I can't get the hang of that one either.

September 28, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJill

Well, I'd like to defend yoni only in the sense that it is a word that your three year old can use at the mall and not make everyone gasp. As in "Mommy, my yoni itches!" When I was little my grandmother and mom taught me to call it a coo-coo. I just thought that was silly. So, after 2 boys I wanted a word that my daughter and I could use and not have many people know about. Granted, I was hangin with the crunchy home birth crowd at the time....but I tend to cross social lines that way. Yes, I had a home birh, attended home births and shop at Wal-Mart. What can you do?

September 29, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterquiltncatch

Yoni is a fantastic word for kids! I'll give you that. But the post was about using it in the professional setting, including writing about it in professional midwifery books.

I have zero issues when using it as a baby/kid word.

September 29, 2008 | Registered CommenterNavelgazing Midwife

I was first acquainted with "yoni" when reading "Spiritual Midwifery" for the first time. I think Ina May has a discussion about different terms and slang words for female anatomy, and I think she prefers "yoni" -- but isn't she kinda Eastern in her religious beliefs? -- which would explain that. I really don't know why some women have such a problem with the various slang terms -- there are probably as many slang terms for male anatomy as female anatomy (I could ask my husband, but I really don't want to know -- he's probably told me a dozen terms for each sex, and acted as if it's common knowledge among men, and I'll just leave it that way), and men don't seem to feel degraded by calling their "bits" cock, balls, nuts, etc., so I don't see why women should feel degraded.

But, yes, totally inappropriate for conversation with medical professionals. I used to work at a pharmacy, and my boss was, well, you'd probably call him a sexist pig. Anyway, when there weren't any customers around, he'd speak a little more freely in this way (said that a particular vaginal cream was for a "raunchy snooter"), but would always be completely professional with customers. It never bothered me what he said, but several times I nearly laughed when he would be so sober and serious talking to women about their female complaints and using the technical terms, knowing that just 5-10 minutes before he was using such slang terms.

September 29, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKathy

I facilitate a group for new moms, and we JUST had a conversation about terms for female genitalia, so this blog post was quite entertaining. The complaint most of us had was that vagina is just not a very pretty word - it is "hard sounding" as one mama put it. And as someone pointed out, totally inaccurate when referrring to all of one's girl parts. We talked about the fact that most nicknames are amusing and though amusing lighthearted terms have their place, there needs to be a more encompassing term. I myself do not like the word "Yoni" - it does seem silly to me, and so your post had me rolling around with laughter - it was one to send on, that's for sure. I like your comment above about reclaiming vagina as a delicious little word. And yet - it isn't anatomically correct when referring to the whole package. Hmmmm - what to do?

October 1, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLea

Vulvinia? Vagulva? Clavugina? Vul-Vagitoris? (That's my favorite!)

October 1, 2008 | Registered CommenterNavelgazing Midwife

Oh, Barb you are SUCH a hoot! I always felt quite the irritation when my good old midwife-inspirational-intelligent wise women started in with YONI. Ewwww! So pretentious and random! Was I some kind of weirdo, for not wanting to say YONI? Your post was great fun.

Me and my sister got so accustomed to saying "coochie" years ago that I often forget that that is kind of a vulgar one to some folks--perhaps akin to Pussy or something...have even struggled on my own blog for how/what exactly to choose for perfect verbage--sound impressive and go with Vagina? Be fun and casual and say coochie or pussy or get just downright silly and start making up stuff-- kitty kat, girlie bits, love triangle? LOLOLOL

Well as far as what you are originally saying, hell yeah, using Yoni as a dead-serious term inside the medical world is just shooting yourself in the foot and destroying cred, no doubt. I hope it stops today. Its completely frickin lame.

I say, its not 1968, its not 1908, it is 2008! So lets just drop all the shame, AND all the faux-eastern religion-weirdness and just keep Vagina for the doctors and anything you want for friends and lovers, huh?

(But even as I step down off of my own little soapbox, I gotta admit VULVA sounds like a gurgling gross ugly word and i would probably be more willing to utter Yoni than Vulva, anyday--whick is to say:never!)

(Anyone with me on "Coochie"? Also Vaj is kind of funny, when in a properly lighthearted conversation!)

October 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterHousefairy

As much as I hate the word "Yoni"
and roll my eyes in front of anyone who uses it, It's not as bad as Oprah's word "va jay jay".

I think these are words used by grown women who are detached from their sexuality.

We all heard a million times how Oprah was raped so I don't even need to be a therapist to know she has issues, she has told us!

October 3, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterdew

I once read an anti-safer-sex screed from a well-known spiritual teacher where I lived at the time. He was indignant that someone like him, for whom sex was a sacred thing, would ever be expected to use a condom. I remember shaking my head at the article and saying in disgust, "Just because you use the terms lingam and yoni doesn't mean you are immune to diseases." He really sounded like someone who just didn't want to accept that there is fatal and incurable sexually transmitted disease again, that the lucky couple of generations between when syphilis became curable and AIDS appeared are long over.

(to be clear, he and his partners are welcome to make their own decisions about whether to use condoms; reasonable people can consciously and ethically decide that their risk level is low enough not to use condoms. The part that disgusted me was him responding with this knee-jerk sense of entitlement, the idea that safer sex couldn't possibly apply to him based on the fact that he has religious ideas about sex -- so do I, pal, and it doesn't exempt me from physical reality!)

October 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJZ

I'd never heard the word "yoni." How ridiculous. That's never going to catch on. If midwives, doulas, etc. want to further isolate themselves, they should keep saying it.

October 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJenni

I like Yoni and I use it myself, with my daughters, and around my friends who also have claimed it.
I, however, would never use it around my doula clients unless THEY use it nor ever around medical professionals.

October 26, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMereMortal

Well, as a midwife and a frequent utilizer of Anne Frye texts, I have used the word from time to time. Then I moved to Israel. Here, Yoni is a very popular man's name. I had to get over that association real quick...

November 1, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMeredith

I don't care what you want to call it either, but I have always found it somewhat ridiculous that even in medical texts, the vagina suddenly becomes "the birth CANAL, emphasis on canal...when birth is occuring. I figure this dates back to the fact that medical texts have been written by men and the fact that they would have to eventually come to terms with the fact that their heads popped out of their mother's VAGINA. OMG!

Birth canal...where are the gondolas? ROFL

August 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMarjorie

I know this is old, but honestly, "yoni" bothers me for another reason-- it's appropriative. Ooh, it's Sanskrit, so it's mystykkal and earthy and I can recontextualize it however I choose. And it "sounds" "nicer" and "more woman-centric" because I plucked it from an exotic language that I have little or no history with, YKWIM? Like tattooing oneself with a Japanese/Chinese character. I'm sure not every SINGLE woman who uses the word is a white hippie, but... Let's just say I'm not too fond of the "blessingway," either, especially since I have a friend who went through an actual hozhoji (sp?), and I can guarantee you it did not involve dreamcatchers and gifts of breastpumps.

November 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDreamy

It didn't even dawn on me, the being appropriative! Almost a better reason not to use it than it makes midwives sound like dorks! Thanks for that great observation.

In my circles, the word "Blessingway" has been out-of-fashion for several years, the term sometimes used, but the term "Mother Blessing" being used more often.

And I've *never* been to a Mother Blessing that had gifts beyond beads and candles. How odd to be given a breast pump? Wow.

November 5, 2010 | Registered CommenterNavelgazing Midwife

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