Learning Anatomy Effectively


a collection of slang terms for male genitals ranging from the 1880’s to the 2010’s

Cooter. Peepee. Cookie. Most children learn some sort of slang for their genitals and it is not until much later that they learn proper anatomical terms (Martin, Baker, Torres, & Luke, 2011). My mother, who is a physician, tells the story of an adult patient’s chief reason for a hospital visit being that she had a “pearl in her pocket.” It wasn’t until after much coaxing and prodding that my mother was able to glean that the woman had gotten something stuck inside her vagina; the woman did not know the proper word for her own anatomy. As such, it becomes clear that the knowledge of proper anatomical terminology is important not just for the purpose of sexuality and satisfaction but for personal health as well. One study asserts that learning proper anatomy in school from a young age allows students to build a foundation for their future sexual education, thus providing students with more agency when the times comes (Kenny & Wurtele, 2008). Another study links the discovery of instances of child sexual abuse to the child’s ability to correctly label their genitals in order to better describe inappropriate activity (Wurtele, 1998). These are just two examples of how understanding sexual anatomy and knowing proper nomenclature can lead to a healthier adult.

According to one study, the majority of parents surveyed claimed to have taught their children the correct anatomical terms, but less than half of the children surveyed were able to properly name their sexual anatomy (Deblinger, Thakkar-Kolar, Berry, & Shroeder, 2010). Another study showed that parents often use vague terms like “privates” to describe all genitalia rather than their actual names (Martin, Baker, Torres, & Luke, 2011). This goes to show that it is of utmost importance that teaching anatomically correct sexual anatomy be a part of school sex education curriculums. Since students are not getting the information at home, if they do not get the information at school, they may not be getting it at all. The problem is, even though schools should be including sex education from a young age, they often do not. Indeed, historically speaking, it is not until students are well into their teens that they actually had a grasp on some important elements of sexual anatomy (Gartrell & Mosbacher, 1984). While it is ideal to begin the teaching process at a younger age, it is also important to not assume that older students have learned the proper information already. Until all schools include proper anatomy lessons for elementary school students, it is important to create anatomy lessons that will allow high school students to be brought up to speed.

Making Anatomy Engaging

Hedgepath and Helmich claim that anatomical information is often presented in a very dry manner or in a way that simply does not seem relevant to young people (1996). As a result, the question becomes how to best teach young people about their anatomy in a way that will be engaging and informative, yet will allow the students to feel at ease with a topic that can be sensitive or uncomfortable. One of the first steps is to incorporate students into the learning process; if students are able to describe what they would like to know about, educators can more easily explain why something like understanding their anatomy is important to their own personal sexual education goals (Hedgepath & Helmich, 1996).

Using active teaching techniques can turn something that can be dry and boring, like an anatomy lesson, into something that is exciting and interesting. Silberman (2006) describes ways to turn even a lecture into something with which students can actively participate:

  • make sure to begin with an interesting story or visual
  •  ask questions at the beginning so that students will be motivated to listen for an answer
  • give highlights of the lecture before beginning to raise the class’s general enthusiasm
  • use visual aids throughout so students can both hear and see the material
  • provide instructions on HOW to take notes
  • encourage students to reflect on their learning in groups so that students can learn from each other as well
  • provide a closing activity which will allow students to evaluate what they have learned and what their next steps should be in the learning process (p. 71-93)



Practical Applications

Too often sexual anatomy lessons simply include a fill-in-the-blank diagram for students to complete (most likely while they roll their eyes and pretend to be anywhere else). The following are examples of and resources for exciting anatomy lessons.

BBC Interactive Body

This page allows students to navigate their questions personally so that they can explore the body changes associated with puberty without having to raise their hand and ask their questions to class. It does a good job of showing how the whole body is affected during puberty so that when the student comes to the section on genital development it just seems like yet another part of the body to learn about.


Though this site includes links to websites like Wikipedia and WebMD, it also has interactive diagrams and videos that really explain the elements of sexual anatomy and how they connect to each other. This gives students a context for the anatomy that they are learning. One of my favorite links details the passage of sperm through the male reproductive system; it has good information but also manages to be pretty unintentionally funny. This is not something educators should be afraid of—acknowledging that in subject matter can be humorous and yet is still important increases how relatable the information is. The site also links to a number of different games surrounding both male and female sexual anatomy, which make the review process more exciting and engaging.

Advocates for Youth: Reproduction 101

This page provides a lesson plan that does an excellent job of incorporating the elements of an active training lecture. It begins with a pre-test where students are encouraged to fill out diagrams of sexual anatomy using whatever terms they know for each part. In going over the diagrams, the use of slang terms is addressed and part of the lesson becomes the educator explaining the importance of proper anatomical terms. It also includes a section of discussion questions where students are encouraged to think of anatomy as a starting point for understanding sexuality, rather than the only important piece of information.

By making anatomy something fun and interesting to learn about, educators can give their students the keys to understanding their own sexuality and maybe open the door to easier discussions in the future. If these lessons can teach students to replace “cookie” with “vulva” or “pocket” with “vagina” it will be a step in the right direction.



Deblinger, E., Thakkar-Kolar, R. R., Berry, E. J., & Schroeder, C. M. (2010). Caregivers’ efforts to educate their children about child sexual abuse: A replication study. Child Maltreat, 15, 91-100. doi: 10.1177/1077559509337408

Gartrell, N. & Masbacher, D. (1984). Sex differences in the naming of children’s genitalia. Sex Roles, 10, 869-876. doi: 10.1007/BF00288510

Hedgepath, E. & Helmich, J. (1996). Teaching about sexuality and HIV. New York, NY: New York University Press

Kenny, M. C., & Wurtele, S. K. (2008). Preschoolers’ knowledge of genital terminology: A comparison of English and Spanish speakers. American Journal of Sexuality Education, 3, 354-354. doi: 10.1080/15546120802372008

Martin, K., Baker, L. V., Torres, J., & Luke, K. (2001). Privates, pee-pees, and coochies: Gender and genital labeling for/with young children. Feminism Psychology, 21, 420-430. doi: 10.1177/0959353510384832

Silberman, M. L. (2006). Active training: A handbook of techniques, designs, case examples, and tips. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer

Wurtele, S. K. (1998). School-based child sexual abuse prevention: Questions, answers, and more questions. In J. R. Lutzker (Ed.): Handbook of child abuse research and treatment (pp. 501-516). New York: Plenum Press.

13 responses to “Learning Anatomy Effectively

  1. Yes! It’s so interesting how many slang names there are for genitals! Why people feel so uncomfortable about their genitals is still a mystery to me. I like the idea of having kids watch things in context to the body. I feel that so often the internal or external genitals aren’t put into context, the uterus is above the vagina, but the cervix is super small, so things can’t get through. etc.
    My only other comment is in the internet for classrooms and on your favorite link, why isn’t the penis erect? I feel like this would be a much more accurate depiction of ejaculation, vs. coming out of a flaccid penis.

  2. Logan, you do such a great job of breaking this down! It’s a topic that we often don’t address because many people don’t see the harm in using terminology like “cookie” or “purse.” However, there are so many folks who I see on a daily basis who can’t tell me what issues they are having sexually because they either can’t name their anatomy or they have a misunderstanding of where their anatomy is or what it does.

    It also doesn’t help that US society often sees correct terminology “dirty” and prefers the usage of slang term. A prime example of that is trying to look up any article with the word “vagina” in it while traveling on Amtrak – their wi-fi will flag any use of the word as inappropriate. So sad!

  3. Thank you for the great resources! This is so important. I’ve met far too many grown adults who don’t know the word vulva! Just naming the outside bits can redirect focus from just penetration to involving the whole fun zone. There is such power in words!

  4. I find it funny that in the study you referenced, the majority of parents said they taught their children anatomically correct terms but less than half of those children could successfully name them. This screams for an intervention at so many levels. Helping parents understand the importance of their word choice as well as working to shift the word choice used by media outlets is no easy task. The first step is making lessons in school more enjoyable for students. Silberman’s suggestions for increasing active participation among students would make a very effective guide to teaching proper anatomy terms while maintaining engagement. Thanks Logan!

  5. You are absolutely right about the need for anatomically correct terminology!!!! My parents used “woo-woo” for me and pretty sure “wee-wee” for my younger brother. Lol I think shame and lack of knowledge are the two biggest barriers. By using those cutesy words, parents are teaching their kids that genitals are private and to not be spoken of, and if so, use this cutesy word instead of the anatomically correct word. It’s also challenging generationally when parents are teaching their kids those cutesy words because those are the words that their parents used when they were kids. Therefore, I think the online resources are great for parents and their kids to do together, so that they’re learning together and kids will feel more comfortable talking about their anatomy. Nice job!

  6. Thank you for the resources! My colleagues and I are always looking for more ways to teach anatomy in a fun an interactive way. One resource I would like more educators to expand on is the clitoris and anus. We often only talk about the bulb of the clitoris and forget about the legs. Here is a link to a really great source for talking about the entire clitoris in 3D! Here ya go! https://ubcpsych350.wordpress.com/2012/01/26/the-clitoris-in-3d/

    Thank you for writing about anatomy! It is so so important!

  7. I read an online article (see link below) last fall about this very topic. It really fired me up about using anatomical language. The article is about a mother of a kindergarten child who was reprimanded by the school because when asked where babies come from, her child responded “a vagina”. She rants on about how giving cutesy names to our genitals gives children a sense that their is mystery, power and shame in those body parts. She says, “WHAT is the imagined corruption that takes place by empowering your child with accurate words?” (Moore, 2014). That article has coaxed me to question all the parents in my family about what anatomical genital terms they teach their children, if any. Only then did I find out that one of my sisters in law won’t allow her children (ages 7, 9 and 11) to say the word butt. And they are allowed to refer to their genitalia but only with the word “privates”. Sigh…she better not let those kids visit Auntie Amy’s house! 🙂 Thinking back now, my parents called a penis a tinkle.

    I really appreciate your suggestions for teaching anatomy in an engaging way. I know that sex educator, Ericka Hart, also suggests using color images when doing so to give kids a greater sense of reality. Thank you for brining up such an important part of initial sex education. As sex educators I think we take for granted that people know what their own body parts are called. It can seem like you are talking down to a crowd of teenagers when you have to tell them what their own bits are named but it is necessary and important work.

    Check out the article regarding teaching your kids the proper names for their parts:

  8. This takes me back to my anatomy class in undergrad. We had SO many diagrams to fill out (there was a whole workbook full of these blank diagrams), and while they are a useful study tool when preparing for the final exam, they did not initially engage my learning. I just viewed it as some tedious homework assignment that I might use later. It’s a wonderful idea to shift the memorization of anatomy into a more comprehensive learning experience.

    I was watching a video supplied by one of those popular sites (I think it was Buzzfeed) about an experiment they did with the female genital anatomy. On film, men (all appearing to be in their 20s) were instructed to draw a picture of their ideal vagina. I cringed the entire rest of the video as each of them, and the people running the experiment, called the vulva the vagina. No one drew a picture of a vagina, everyone drew a vulva. It never ceases to blow my mind how many people do not understand the difference. Maybe if schools had already started implementing the tips and tricks you thoughtfully suggest in this post, our society wouldn’t be so ignorant of these terms.

  9. I loved the article. I also think that it’s very important for children to know the correct terms for our body parts. How can we know if something is wrong if we never use the correct terms for it?

    I think that using something besides the usual diagram that we get in school is a great way to teach anatomy. I loved the links that you gave as references. I also love when teachers use models or puppets to teach anatomy. I know that most schools are far from thrilled when they see someone come in with a vulva puppet, but I think that it’s a great teaching tool that captures the attention of the students.

  10. This is a really great topic. It is precisely because we are uncomfortable that we have cutesy terms for genitals. Children can pick up on this, and the discomfort gets transmitted through the generations. I wonder if this also contributes to discomfort discussing sexuality in intimate relationships.

    A fun activity for parents or other adults could be a mock anatomical lecture — very dry and serious — using cutesy terms rather than anatomical ones. For example, The pee-pee includes the pea-in-the-pod and pocket, etc. What do these terms mean? What parts are they talking about? If a child was trying to communicate, how would a trusted adult know what they were referring to? Of course in the real world, there are contextual clues like pointing, but in an ideal world children would know their terms.

  11. Growing up I didn’t not use proper terms .In fact, I believe that I am the only one in my immediate family that regularly uses proper terms! When you said a woman used the phrase ” pear in my pocket”, it instantly reminded me of my grandmother and her use of the phrase
    “little boy in the boat”. This phrase was used to describe her clitoris but why? Are these phrases generated by embarrassment?
    I agree that most anatomy lessons are very dry. All of my experiences have consisted of the instructor teaching directly from our textbook and giving the class entirely too many worksheets.
    In a human sexuality class I took in undergrad, my professor told the class the we had to get through the “boring stuff” first. She was referring to the anatomy chapters. If educators are not enthusiastic about the material they are covering, how are students supposed to be interested.
    Your tips to teach anatomy were very captivating and very beneficial to retention and interest.

  12. What I liked most about this post is that it gives great suggests on how to present the topic. This topic is so important and so basic in our line of work, that its great that this article gives educators a place to start. I got really excited when I saw the outline of a possible session, it got me thinking of ways I could use it. I’d be really interested to see how this activity would work with a Spanish speaking community. I think I’d be fun to try it out with different age groups. I’m sure every age group would go through the activity differently.

    I like that this article talks about how its not only important for children to know the accurate names for their anatomy for medial purposes but also as a way to protect themselves. I recently attended a training for child sexual abuse prevention and one of the things we were taught was that children who had spoken up about their abuse were able to get their aggressors behind bars because they had been able to say what had happened to them using the correct terminology which stood up very well in court.

  13. Pingback: Christian Sex Education Anatomy – Teen Dream Models·

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