In 2019, with Dr. Broadfield’s support, Ms. Draper began research for a paper arguing that pudendum was inappropriate as a medical term and should be removed. “It was a project of fascination,” she said. “I just had to get to the bottom of it.”
‘Shame,’ narrowed to women
In the beginning, shame knew no sex. First-century Roman writers used “pudendum” to mean the genitals of men, women and animals. But it was women to whom the shame stuck.
In 1543, the word made an appearance alongside an odd illustration in an anatomical atlas by Andreas Vesalius, a Flemish physician sometimes called the “father of modern anatomy.” The image, although labeled a human uterus, looks unmistakably like a penis, but with a tuft of curly pubic hair near the head, reflecting the idea that women were just men with imperfect, internal body parts. (Also, recall the dearth of female corpses.)
A century later, a Dutch anatomist named Regnier de Graaf highlighted the role of the clitoris in female sexuality. “If these parts of the pudendum had not been endowed with such an exquisite sensitivity to pleasure,” he wrote, “no woman would be willing to take upon herself the irksome nine-months-long business of gestation, the painful and often fatal process of expelling the fetus, and the worrisome and care-ridden task of raising children.”
In 1895, anatomy officially recognized a pudendal region in both men and women. But 60 years later, only the “pudendum femininum” — the female shame part — was still listed. It would later be simplified to “pudendum” and used as a slightly more formal synonym for vulva. Today, the word appears in almost every medical textbook, including recent editions of “Gray’s Anatomy,” “Williams Obstetrics,” and “Comprehensive Gynecology.”
Ms. Draper wasn’t the only person bothered by these roots. In 2014, Bernard Moxham, head of anatomy at Cardiff University in Wales, collaborated with Susan Morgan, from the same university, to examine gender bias in anatomy teaching. Most medical textbooks, they found, showed the male body as standard and trotted out the female only when it came time to show the reproductive system, genitals and breasts.
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