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P-word? OK. The V-word? That's trickier

Monday - 6/25/2012, 8:51pm  ET

AP National Writer

NEW YORK (AP) - Kayt Sukel, an author who writes about neuroscience and sexuality, has given lectures around the country on the issue. And there's one word, she finds, that never fails to make some in her audience squeamish.

"There's just something about the word `vagina' that startles people _ I don't know what it is," says Sukel. "People sit back a little bit. Sometimes they start giggling. I end up using euphemisms just to make them more comfortable, and more receptive to what I am saying. And we don't seem to have the same problems with the word `penis.'"

In a much different setting, Judy Gold has similar experiences. The popular standup comic and actress, who last year starred in her own successful off-Broadway show, focuses her routines on being gay, Jewish, a New Yorker and a mother. Her audiences presumably know what they're getting into. Yet she, too, hears gasps in the audience when she says the V-word.

And so neither woman was extremely surprised when they heard about the recent incident in Michigan, where a lawmaker was temporarily barred from speaking in the state legislature after using the word "vagina" during a debate.

It all began when Lisa Brown, a Democrat, was speaking against a bill requiring doctors to ensure that abortion-seekers haven't been coerced into ending their pregnancies. "I'm flattered you're all concerned about my vagina," Brown said. "But no means no." Brown believes she was censured because of the word "vagina," though her Republican opponents later said it was the "no means no" part, which they claimed likened the law to rape. The lawmaker denies she was doing anything of the kind.

But politics aside, many are baffled that even in 2012, the V-word retains shock value _ much more than its male counterpart _ even though it is finally beginning to surface regularly in mainstream entertainment, popping up in network TV shows as well as in newly bold references in advertising.

"I mean, you can say `penis,'" says Gold. "You can say `erection,' `erectile dysfunction,' even `vaginal probe.' But `vagina'? Suddenly it's a dirty word. And it's the correct anatomical term!"

Can an anatomical term really be a bad word? Even the Parents Television Council, a watchdog group that tracks what it sees as objectionable content on TV, acknowledges that difficulty.

"I've got a toddler, and when you read potty-training books, they discourage the use of euphemisms for body parts," says Melissa Henson, the group's director of communications. But what troubles the PTC, she says, is "the use of this language in the context of cheap sex jokes. It's dumbed-down humor that's in no way respectful of the audience."

The PTC studied the appearance of "penis" and "vagina" in scripted shows on five networks, comparing the 2010-2011 season to 2001-2002. Not surprisingly, it found a large increase, largely in the last year or two.

The word "vagina" was used 35 times in shows on NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox and CW in the 2010-2011 season, and only four times a decade earlier. In addition, the PTC found, it was used 12 times in the first two months of the 2011-2012 season on just one show, "2 Broke Girls" on CBS, which follows a couple of 20-something waitresses in Brooklyn.

As for the word "penis"? The term was used much more than its female counterpart, 30 times a decade ago, and 116 times in 2010-2011. (But that's hardly a shock: it was way back in 1982 that the young boy in "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," one of the most beloved family films of all time, called his brother "penis breath" _ and only got an order to "Sit down!" from his Mom.)

In advertising, there's been a huge shift as well the last few years, with one of the bolder examples being the "Hail to the V" ad campaign for the Summer's Eve line of feminine cleansing products. But Fleet Laboratories, which makes Summer's Eve, has had some problems determining what's fun and edgy and what goes too far. A year ago it had to withdraw one set of TV ads that showed female hands of different races forming talking vaginas _ the characterizations were seen as racially insensitive.

The recent emergence of the V-word in pop culture has not gone unnoticed _ the New York Times even called the current TV season "the season of the vagina." Whitney Cummings, one of the co-creators of "2 Broke Girls," quipped to the paper: "Vagina jokes paid for my house."

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