Content advisory – curse words (derogatory words for women), rape
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about words. Truthfully, I spend a considerable amount of time thinking about words: working to find just the right one, balancing the familiar with the obscure, arguing in my head with my high school literature teacher about whether or not judgement should have an E in it. But there are a set of words that I’ve been worrying about more than usual because they seem to have become part of our wider social conversation.
There is a debate (or is it an arguement?) about the words, about taking them back, reclaiming them from their previously pejorative usage. But I’ve run into a problem – I’m trying to write about these words without actually naming them because I’m so clearly on the side of not wanting to reclaim them, of never needing to hear them again. So, I suppose, I shall have to write the words, despite my visceral dislike of them, and then perhaps I can banish them again.
It all started with the hats. Well no, it started when the then candidate, now president, was heard on tape saying that if he wanted a woman he could do whatever he wanted because he was famous, “grab them by the pussy.” The statement sparked outrage in some circles, and in others was dismissed as nothing more than locker-room talk, the kind of banter men share with each other when they don’t have to be bothered with the presence of women. It also gave rise to the hats, mostly some shade of pink (presumably because all women like pink?), with pointy ears to make them seem like the other kind of pussy (cats), worn by many at the Women’s March on Washington, and sister marches around the world, on January 21st.
So the word became part of the common vocabulary. Newscasters said it on live TV. Papers printed it above the fold. It was all over the internet, and I even heard the pastor at the church I was visiting the day after the march in St. Louis say it from the pulpit during her sermon … “a sea of pink pussy hats”.
And every time I hear or see it, it feels like my heart stops, and my lungs collapse, and I have to consciously remember how to move while a firestorm of fear and anxiety threaten to overwhelm me.
You see, I’m a rape survivor, and the men who raped me were quite free with their language, using every pejorative they could think of, lobbying at me every derogatory, insulting, belittling word they had in an attempt, I think, to justify what they were doing to me. If they could use their words to make me less than human then the things they were doing to my body could be excused – I was less than, a thing, an object, unworthy of respect, only to be used.
So when I hear these words – pussy, bitch, cunt, whore, slut, nasty – I hear the voices of the men who raped me. I hear them, and then I remember. I remember the terror, how their hands felt on my body, the smell of their breath, wondering if this would be how I would die. Any one of those words and I remember it all.
People on the other side of the debate, those who would seek to reclaim these words have told me that I’m being overly sensitive. They tell me I should just get over what happened to me, to leave the past in the past, and to move on. They tell me that these words are empowering to women, allowing us to reclaim some source of our, thus far suppressed feminine power. They say we can turn these words around, against those who would use them to denigrate and diminish us. It’s powerful, they tell me, to call myself a pussy, or a bitch, or a nasty woman because it takes away from the person who thinks it should make me ashamed, or embarrassed. It gives me naming rights over my own life, puts me back in control of who I am by taking away the words that others are using against me.
Intellectually it makes sense, at least to some degree. But that’s only intellectually. My heart, my soul, my spirit don’t get it at all.
Why, when there are more than 170,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary, would I choose the dozen or so words that have been used so intentionally to wound me?
Why, when trying to name and define myself, would I use words of those who have sought to control and limit me?
I’m not generally a fan of banning things. I think it often leads to giving them a kind of cult status, and more power than they deserve. So I don’t think a global ban on these words is such a good idea (though I enjoy dreaming about it) because it might well do more harm than good.
But that begs the question – what do we do instead?
First, we become better bystanders. We don’t let those words go by, no matter how casually. We interrupt people who are using them as jokes. We stop people who think they’re funny and ask them to explain why. Women have been doing it, but we need men to help us as well. We need men to be in those places like locker rooms, and back rooms, and sadly too often board rooms, and stand up for the women in your lives, the women you know, the women who are important to you. Don’t let the sexist jokes, the stereotypes, the catcalling, and the slurs go by. Don’t let women be judged by their physical appearance or their sexual experience (or lack thereof).
Second, let’s get creative. So many of these words are used when women challenge the assumptions of how we are supposed to behave, challenge the male-dominated power structure, speak our minds when we’re supposed to be quiet. Fair enough. I do those things a lot because the patriarchal system is killing us. But surely we could find some other words to fling at me when you think that’s what I’m doing. What about powerful, strong, courageous, persistent, passionate, outraged, angry? How about frustrated, fed up, brave, zealous, inspiring? And if you’re looking for words to describe a woman who is comfortable with her sexuality, who enjoys her body, try confident, expressive, free, impassioned, or spirited. You can easily attach any of these words to woman or person.
I understand the symbolism of the hats, and things that unite us are desperately needed in these hard, divisive days. I understand the importance of the pictures of a group of an estimated half a million people marching in Washington, D.C., but uniting ourselves behind a word that has been used against so many of those people falls flat, and leaves me wondering if I have a place in that crowd.
So, for me, and many of my survivor sisters, I beg you. Let’s leave those derogatory words where they belong – in the garbage bin.
Call me by my name, and if you need an adjective to describe me, call me passionate, or angry, or courageous.