NEW YORK - 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 past 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 past 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."
And yet the networks hardly seem eager to discuss the word. One executive at a major network who declined to speak for this article indicated it just wasn't worth the trouble of attracting negative attention.
Where does the squeamishness come from? Author Sutel feels sex education in schools is lacking. She says there aren't enough teachers like the one she had in 8th grade who "went around the room and made us say 'penis, vagina,' just to get used to the words."
Comedian Gold sees a darker reason - misogyny, and the over-sexualization of women by men. "The woman has become so sexualized, and saying 'vagina' takes the sex out of it," Gold says. "Men prefer other words for that body part."
Mia Blitstein, a 34-year-old Philadelphia mother, thinks the issue may stem from our parents, whose own attitudes about sex we absorb at an early age.
"The attitudes that our parents model for us, and the words they use, are very important," says Blitstein, who says she tries to impress upon her own son that names of body parts are not dirty.
In fact, Blitstein herself is very comfortable with the V-word, a fact she attributes to her "hippie-ish" parents who even let her watch her brother's birth. When her son was born, she was so overcome that, wheeling down the hospital corridor with her newborn, she yelled out: "A person just came out of my vagina!" Some laughed. Others looked at her like she was crazy.
Dr. Judith C. Wenger, a New York gynecologist, finds the issue a generational one. "I think the older people are, the more difficulty they have with the word," Wenger says. Echoing Blitstein, she adds that an important factor is the way people's mothers spoke to them growing up.
So what does lawmaker Brown think was the real reason for her censure? She says leadership first said the ban, which in effect only lasted a day, was about the V-word, then changed their story. She has her suspicions, though, that it's all politics. "If you watch the video, it's all Republicans sitting behind me. There's no gasp, there's no jaws hitting the ground," she told The Associated Press in a recent interview. "The fact that it came out the next day, to me it's very suspicious."
In any case, support has poured in for Brown from organizations across the country - from the American Civil Liberties Union to the National Organization for Women and NARAL Pro-Choice America. A petition has collected more than 48,000 online signatures calling on the Republican House speaker and the majority floor leader to apologize to Brown.
And most visibly, some 3,000 people gathered by the Michigan House steps to watch Brown, other lawmakers and several actresses perform "The Vagina Monologues," Eve Ensler's groundbreaking 1996 play on the vagina as a symbol of female empowerment. Ensler flew in from California to oversee the performance.
"Half of these people who are trying to regulate vaginas, they can't even say the word," she told the AP. "They can legislate it, but they can't say it?"
But perhaps the best "vagina zinger," which is what late-night host Jon Stewart called Brown's original remark, came from Stewart himself.
"What are they worried about?" he said on "The Daily Show." "Vaginas aren't like Voldemort or Beetlejuice. Invoking the name 'vagina' doesn't make them suddenly appear. Believe me, if it did, high school would have been very different for me."