“The difference between the right word and the almost right word
is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”
- Mark Twain
So in a post last week, I somewhat casually mentioned the fact the word “vagina” was being edited out of a draft of my new book, “A Year of Biblical Womanhood,” to be released by Thomas Nelson in October. This little tidbit caused a rather big stir online, which has resulted in a reader-initiated petition on Amazon to “put the word ‘vagina’ back into Rachel’s book.”
Oh, Internet, you never cease to surprise me!
In light of all this chatter, I should issue a few clarifications:
1. Yes, you can now pre-order A Year of Biblical Womanhood online. (Had to work in a shameless plug.)
2. No, the cover you see for A Year of Biblical Womanhood on Amazon is not the final cover. The folks at Thomas Nelson are working on a redesign now.
3. As it stands, I can use the word “vagina” without repercussions as long as I am speaking strictly anatomically.
So, for example, there is a section in the book in which I describe various ways in which women are oppressed and marginalized around the world. Referring to a story in Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book, Half the Sky, I write about Dina, a seventeen-year-old Congolese girl who was gang-raped by five men on her way home from working in the fields.
I write that “the men shoved a large stick through Dina’s vagina, creating a debilitating fistula—a common ailment among rural African women who have been raped or who suffered through traumatic childbirth without medical attention.”
This passed without any comment from editors.
However, in another part of the book, I write about my experience with the abstinence movement in evangelicalism. Here’s what I say about that:
“I signed my first abstinence pledge when I was just fifteen. I’d been invited by some friends to a fall youth rally at the First Baptist Church, and in the fellowship hall one night, the youth leader passed around neon blue and pink postcards that included a form letter to God promising to remain sexually abstinent until marriage. We had only a few minutes to add our signatures, and all my friends were signing theirs, so I used the back of my metal chair to scribble my name across the dotted line before marching to the front of the room to pin my promise to God and to my vagina onto a giant corkboard for all to see. The youth leader said he planned to hang the corkboard in the hallway outside the sanctuary so that parents could marvel at the seventy-five abstinence pledges he’d collected that night. It was a pretty cheap way to treat both our bodies and God, come to think of it.”
My editor noted that it would be tough to get this particular reference to “vagina” through the Christian bookstore gatekeepers, so we took it out and replaced it with...sigh... “privates.” (I know, I know.)
What’s frustrating about all of this, of course, is that I can use the word “vagina” when the context involves rape, but I cannot use the word “vagina” when the context involves a certain degree of ownership and power over my own body. This speaks volumes about some of the underlying assumptions regarding men, women, sex, and power that are at work in this whole conversation...especially considering the fact that men have written humorous accounts using the words "penis" and "testicles" for the same market. (See below.)
4. The issue isn’t whether I am allowed to use the word “vagina” in the book, but whether Christian bookstores will carry it if I do.
I want to make it clear that it is not my editors at Thomas Nelson who are insisting that I take out the word “vagina.” I can stick to my guns, keep “vagina” in, and I suspect Thomas Nelson will still publish the book. The problem, as I understand it, is that Christian bookstores probably won't carry it, and Thomas Nelson sells a lot of books to Christian bookstores.
So, as sad as it is, we have a business decision to make. Do we risk losing a bunch of potential sales in order to keep the word “vagina” in this context? Or do we decide to choose our battles and let it go? And do I risk alienating myself from the Thomas Nelson team—which has been great so far—because I refuse to cooperate with Christian retailing, their area of expertise?
I’ve struggled with this decision, which is why, in the original post I wrote this:
“They won’t let me use the word “vagina” in my book because we have to sell it to Christian bookstores, which apparently have a thing against vaginas. I make a big scene about it and say that if Christian bookstores stuck to their own ridiculous standards, they wouldn’t be able carry the freaking Bible. I tell everyone that I’m going to fight it out of principle, but I cave within a few days because I want Christian bookstores to carry the sanitized version of my book because I want to make a lot of money, because we’ve needed a new roof on our house for four years now, and because I really want a Mac so I can fit in at the mega-churches. I feel like such a fraud.”
It’s important for me to communicate that I actually have more control over this than you might think. The last thing I want to do is present myself as a victim of censorship when that’s just not the case. Ichose to work with a Christian publisher and, for better or worse, Christian publishers generate much of their sales from Christian bookstores.
5. I confess I am torn.
On the one hand, I like the idea of this funny and gently subversive book sitting Christian bookstore shelves.My goal, from the start of the project, has been to encourage readers to rethink some of our assumptions about “biblical womanhood,” and the group that will perhaps benefit the most from this analysis is evangelical Christians...a group that shops at Christian bookstores. There are plenty of irreverent and edgy lines in this book, lines I wasn’t sure I’d get to keep. But the team at Thomas Nelson has allowed me to tell my story, in my voice, and with my convictions, and I am profoundly grateful for that.
(Note: This book got passed up by several Christian publishers, some for reasons that I promise would make you a lot angrier than you are about “vagina.” Those who are suggesting I simply ditch Christian publishing should know that it’s just not that easy to find a publisher who will pay you to write. And backing out of a book contract at this point would be professionally and financially disastrous for me. That’s just not an option. )
So when I step back and look at the big picture, it seems counterproductive to fight over a single word.
On the other hand, it’s not just any word.
During the editing phase, I took out all my “damns” and “asses” without so much as the occasional roll of the eyes, but “vagina” was different. “Vagina” made me mad. Because there seems to be a double-standard.
In Ian Cron's fantastic book, Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me, which was also published by Thomas Nelson, he writes this: “Did I mention that it’s cold? You have no idea how far a man’s testicles can recede into his body until you have jumped into the Dorset Qarry...My testicles were very, very angry.”
And in To Own a Dragon, the ever-talented Donald Miller writes, "I felt as though all the men in the world secretly met in some warehouse late at night to talk about man things, to have secret handshakes, to discuss how great it was to have a penis and what an easy thing it was to operate..." (love that line!)
So why is it that "testicles" and "penis" are okay but "vagina" is off limits? How is it that naming a part of the female anatomy falls into the same category as swearing? How can Christian bookstores carry the Bible—particularly Song of Songs—if they’ve got something against vaginas? Is it any wonder that people view Christians as sheltered and out-of-touch when a sentence like this is considered vulgar? And why, oh why, does the evangelical establishment seem so threatened by women?
So a big part of me wants to keep “vagina” on principle because I’m tired of getting pushed around by evangelical culture simply because I happen to have one.
But is it worth it?
I don’t know.
So here’s the plan: I’ll get in touch with my editors next week and see if we can speak directly to a Christian bookstore representative about this. Maybe if I make my case directly to Lifeway and other Christian retailers, I’ll have a better shot.
I’ll keep you posted.
As always, thanks so much for your encouragement and support!
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