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Mapping the Yoniverse

by Samantha Zipporah


Last month I paid a visit to my dear friend & elder, the luminary Carol Downer in Los Angeles. As I type these words Carol is in the hospital following a recent stroke, & my heart swells with gratitude for her work & our connection over the past decade.


Sitting in her living room a few weeks ago and chatting about the books we were reading over chocolate, berries and cookies, Carol & I laughed at our discovery that we were both in the middle of the chapter about breasts in Cat Bohannon’s Eve: How the Female Body Drove 200 Million Years of Human Evolution. We were both greatly enjoying it.


When it came time for us to say goodbye, Carol would not let me leave, insisting we engage in one last topic of conversation. There, in the same room her friendship group practiced menstrual extraction, gathered data about clitoral engorgement processes for anatomy illustrations, planted the seeds of the Federation of Feminist Women’s Health Centers, & developed A New View of a Woman’s Body: How to Stay Out of the Gynecologist's Office nearly 50 years ago, she emphasized the importance of creating a new language for female reproductive & sexual anatomy.


This was not the first time she spoke to me at length about this issue, but it might’ve been the last. Several years ago, when Carol was kind enough to help me edit my coloring book Mapping the Yoniverse, I printed the manuscript out for her & she marked it up with red pen & yellow sticky tabs. Handing the manuscript back to me in a manila envelope she said, “The whole thing should be called the clitoris, you know!” I was a bit startled & confused by this statement & had a lot of fun unpacking & exploring it with her that afternoon. Her main point was that our bodies are built not just for reproduction, but primarily for pleasure. She believes that when we isolate individual parts of the whole, we obscure the reality that the nerves, muscles, & tissues involved in our arousal & reproduction alike are inextricably connected. “Clitoris,” she said, would be the best term to describe the animated system of the clitoris, vagina, vulva, womb, etc.; creating a meaningful conceptual & cultural change because it centers our pleasure.


Like many women, I grew up thinking that my vulva was a vagina. It wasn’t until I started studying to be a midwife at age 19 that I realized the difference between these two distinct parts of my anatomy. When teaching sex & childbirth ed I often find myself helping people distinguish between the vulvas & vagina for the first time. After covering the medically correct terminology & physiology, I often serve up some sass saying, “The word vagina comes from the Latin word for ‘sheath for a sword.’ I don’t have one of those. My body is not a receptacle for a tool of violence. I generally prefer the sanskrit term ‘yoni’, which describes not just the physical but also the energetic aspects; it means ‘womb,’ ‘uterus,’ ‘vagina,’ ‘vulva,’ & ‘source’ all at once.”


I look forward to sharing a few of my favorite pages from the Mapping the Yoniverse anatomy coloring book Carol helped me create at the Red Earth gathering this summer. This learning circle welcomes all ages. May we reimagine & celebrate both the language & experience of having a yoni for our elders, ourselves & generations to come.


Samantha Zipporah is a midwife, author & educator in service to healing & liberation. Sam’s path rises from an ancient lineage of midwives, witches, & wise women​ with expertise spanning the continuum of birth, sex, & death. She is devoted to breaking the spells of oppression in reproductive & sexual health by connecting people with the innate pleasure, power, & wisdom of the body. Her praxis weaves scientific & soulful inquiry that integrate modern medicine & data with ancestral practices & epistemologies. Sam's most recent publications & offerings center the radical reclamation of contraception & abortion. Her online membership, The Fruit of Knowledge Learning Community, features access to her time, heart & mind via books, courses, Q&As, curated resources & more.

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