Friday 15 January 2010

The Word "Penis"

Today I had to teach one of my classes about sexual characteristics. It involved mentioning the word "penis". This turned out to be a huge problem. See, apparently the word "penis" is embarrassing, and represents a filthy and depraved organ of the body. Previously rather brazen young men and women were reduced to giggling children, one of which was so appalled by the mention of the word "penis" that she covered her face with her hands. I found myself conjuring the spirit of my mother-in-law (a primary school teacher) and joyfully trilling to the class: "Penis is not a dirty word!!"

Doesn't help matters that when I try to search for good, copyright-free images to use to teach students reproductive anatomy, all the useful sites are blocked by Websense at work for being pornographic, e.g.:

Can't access that at work. I wonder if that means I'm not allowed to draw the diagram freehand on the whiteboard for the students either?

This strange double standard that we have though: these teenagers are probably more worldly and more exposed to sex and sexuality than ever before, and yet they cannot cope with a simple anatomical word. Some of them are old enough to marry, vote, buy alcohol and be killed in Afghanistan, but the word "penis" renders them incapacitated with the giggles for several minutes at a time.

My local GP practice has a nurse, who refers to a urine sample as "a tinkle" and a cervical smear test as "rude stuff". I think my greatest fear for my students is that, despite my efforts, they will become at best coy medical professionals who embarrass their patients with playground terminology (like my nurse), and at worse rather uninformed adults whose own shame could lead to ignorance (and probably far too many babies for them to cope with).

Suppose the religious right would blame it all on snakes, women and apples, but I wish we could all get over the idea that penises and vaginas are something dirty that must never be discussed even within the confines of a biology lab.

What do you think? Am I finally turning into my too-much-information high school biology teacher, who advocated eating placentas and carried around a stick of celery in her labcoat pocket?


  1. *insert cock joke here*


  2. This is precisely why I'm glad that, despite your assertions that you would have loved to have had me as your teacher, you are not my student and never will be.

    You'd be one of those annoying little shits drawing cocks on the lab benches...

  3. I did like your solution to this (as tweeted earlier) - I'm sure your students will remember it, and for some it will have helped.

  4. Getting them all to say the word "penis" until they were happy? It will either be the best and most memorable lesson, or I'll get complaints - one or the other! :)

  5. As far as I'm concerned, if students can't deal with accurate and correct science terminology in the appropriate context, they're going to have a rough time with science of any kind and should be discouraged from continuing beyond required classes.

    That said, watch a group of seventh graders, passing a rock around, react when you explain what a coprolite is.

  6. Julia, I have a story that may enlighten the situation. When I went to E3 with a bunch of my colleagues last year, evenings were spent sitting in a hotel room with our DS's and drawing funny pictures in PictoChat, which quickly turned into DictoChat. The game was afoot: who could arose the most laughter and disgust by drawing beloved Nintendo characters fused, somehow, with erect male organs?

    The moral of the story is this: penises are hilarious. In any context.

  7. Actually the celery might just be because she was a massive Doctor Who fan...

    ... I'm not going to say anything on the subject of teaching children about sex because I'd like to keep my E-CRB check. Although if you mention bedbugs and mallards you'll probably put every girl off sex for life...

  8. Dave, I mentioned the cloaca the other day and I think I managed to put all the kids off eggs for life!

    Lockwood, I think it might be worth me using what you've said and having a chat with them next week along the lines of "We had a bit of fun, but in all seriousness guys you should be able to use correct scientific terminology in context". I'd say about half of them want to be doctors, so it's imperative that they can say the word "penis" without sniggering.

    And of course, as Zach and Paul have shown, there is a world of difference between sniggering about "crudely-drawn cocks" and not being able to cope with a penis in a biology lesson.

  9. Yes, you can bring Zach and Paul in for a lesson!

  10. Paul is already well aware that he would be NO help whatsoever in all my classes... ;)

  11. It's sad students can't say words like "penis" without sniggering. However, the idea of actual doctors and nurses behaving this way has a certain hilarious Monty-Python-esque appeal.


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