As Slate’s June Thomas recently pointed out on Brow Beat, there’s been an uptick in the number of vagina jokes on television this season. You can now catch Kat Dennings complaining about her customers’ attitudes toward her vagina, or Whitney Cummings asking “When did vaginas get so boring?” during primetime. Since when can networks get away with saying vagina all the time?
Since always, given the right context. As long as a word isn’t used to titillate and doesn’t describe sex or excretory acts in explicit detail, it is not considered “indecent.” Anatomically correct terms, which aren’t exactly sexy, mostly fall outside this category. The agency that regulates TV and radio broadcasters, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), has never fined TV broadcasters for using anatomically correct terms for genitalia, and has only seldom fined radio broadcasters. One notable exception is when Uncle Bonsai’s song “Penis Envy” got radio stations in trouble due to its frequent repetition of penis. Despite the term’s anatomical nature, the FCC deemed the lyrics (“If I had a penis/ I’d still be a girl/But I’d make much more money/And conquer the world”) indecent.
Even with slang terms, context is the key factor. In 1991, the FCC admonished UC Santa Barbara’s radio station for airing ”Makin’ Bacon” by the Pork Dukes because the song used euphemistic phrases like “Get down baby on your hands and knees, take my thing there and give it a squeeze.” In contrast, when some viewers complained about an Oprah episode aimed at explaining teenage slang for sex to adults, the FCC defended the show by saying that using these terms was necessary for Oprah to accomplish her goal.
Are there any words you can never use in any context? No words are per se indecent, but the f-word and the s-word come pretty close. In 2006, the FCC censured networks for utterances by Cher (“People have been telling me I'm on the way out every year, right? So fuck `em”) and Nicole Richie (“Have you ever tried to get cow shit out of a Prada purse? It’s not so fucking simple”) during live awards shows. But even with fuck and shit, context matters. The FCC permitted repeated use of these words throughout Saving Private Ryan, finding that the movie’s portrayal of the “horror of war” and “personal sacrifice…cannot be painted in airy pastels.”