Taking the ‘Shame Part’ Out of Female Anatomy

In 2016, the pair asked hundreds of medical students and anatomists whether they had any concerns about the fact that the word “pudendal” stemmed from “to be ashamed.” Most did not. One anatomist added that “it’s interesting where it comes from, but it’s established terminology now.”

This blasé attitude appalled Dr. Moxham. It wasn’t just the inherent sexism of the term, he said: “There is an element of that, there’s no question about it. But it also, I think, is both scientifically and biologically inappropriate.” As a general rule, anatomical terms are supposed to be informative and descriptive. “Pudendum” was neither. “This is the only term which has a moral context to it,” he said.

There are other terms that reflect antiquated notions about women. The word hymen, which persists in nearly all medical textbooks, shares the same root as Hymen, the Greek god of marriage. Nymphae, a slightly older term for the labia minora, comes from the Latin word for bride or beautiful young maiden. Even the word vagina, which translates into sheath, scabbard or close covering, suggests that this organ’s primary function is to house a penis, which is not accurate or scientifically neutral.

Dr. Moxham knew that even established terms could be changed, and thought they should be, as part of efforts to weed out racial and gender bias in medicine. He had just stepped down as president of the International Federation of Associations of Anatomists, which was working to release the newest edition of the “Terminologia Anatomica.”

In 2016, Dr. Moxham proposed that the federation’s terminology group — which was, at the time, all male and mostly European — remove “pudendum” and related words from its upcoming dictionary. He couldn’t tackle all of sexism within anatomy, but removing this one troublesome word seemed like an easy task. “I couldn’t see any problem at all,” he said. “I just couldn’t have imagined.”

The terminology group describes its mission as stewarding a vocabulary that is “nimble and adaptive so as to remain relevant in a rapidly evolving world of medicine, biomedicine and health-related professions.” But in practice, progress is slow. The guiding rule “is to be conservative when considering changes to terminology and logical in implementing changes,” Thomas Gest, an anatomist and the former chair of the terminology group, said in an email.

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