Ask a Feminist is your guide to becoming a better human being. In chapter 1, Priyanka Sutaria tells you how to rid your language of sexist slurs.
So you believe in the full equality of men and women—congratulations, you’re a feminist, regardless of your gender. And here's a PSA: words matter. Part of being a feminist—which, as a male, means being a good ally—is recognising that language contains deep-seated sexist microagressions. Take the way pronouns ‘he’ and ‘him’ are used to refer to the larger sweep of humanity; HIStory, which erases the very stories of those who aren’t male.
Ridding our vocabulary of misogynistic overtones won’t happen overnight, but we can start somewhere. Here, we discuss why and how you must purge your speech of certain terms. And for those who argue free speech, know that that isn’t really a good excuse when those at the receiving end of these slurs are oppressed by them.
The rules are slightly different for men and women here. Just as blacks are the only ones allowed to use—and reclaim—the N word, ‘woke’ women too have the privilege of reclaiming some words of abuse. If you’re not female, you shouldn’t be using any of the following expressions. Plain and simple.
Fondly shortened to BC/MC, they translate to sister-/mother-fucker
Why you shouldn’t use them: They perpetuate the religio-cultural notion that the ‘honour’ of a family unit, or a household, lies in the chastity of the sister and the purity of the mother. They imply that the ‘rape’ of the sister or the mother is the ultimate way to attack a man’s honour. If you don’t believe us, just read Urvashi Butalia’s accounts of the Partition.
Deemed benign, but it's really not, as its history lies in oppressing women
Why you shouldn’t use it: The word has been directed towards women, as well as femme/effeminate individuals, usually in positions of power, or willing to fight for their place in society. Female boss cancelled your leave? Bitch. Hillary Clinton is unlikeable? Bitch. On the other hand, it is a word which can be reclaimed by women and femmes to represent themselves as powerful.
Around since the 11th C, it is perhaps Europe's oldest word for the vagina
Why you shouldn’t use it: Grose’s Dictionary of The Vulgar Tongue refers to the cunt as a ‘nasty word for a nasty thing’, identifying the vagina as something foul. While we’re at it, ‘pussy’ isn’t an acceptable alternative either. Used deleteriously to imply weakness (‘Don’t be a pussy, stand up to your boss’), it enforces what the ever-misogynist Freud referred to as the ‘negative space’ of a vagina, which, by virtue of not being a penis, is powerless. Ironic, considering it’s the vagina that expands to, you know, give birth—one of the most powerful (not to mention painful) acts in the world.
Used prior to the colonial project to refer to a dirty or untidy woman
Why you shouldn’t use it: The word is used to shame women who are sexually active, usually with multiple partners, because of the value placed on a woman’s virginity. Males have always been offered the consummate privilege of sexuality, while women have been historically denied that same. To refer to someone as a ‘slut’ is oppressive and reeks of the need to impose patriarchal power on them. Like ‘bitch’, however, it is also a word women can use to assert and reclaim their sexual agency .
A tool to control a woman asserting herself, especially in the workplace
Why you shouldn’t use it: Since time immemorial, it has been assumed and expected that men will occupy outside spaces while women quiver indoors. So when women began venturing and conquering all the spaces they were previously denied entry into, the ‘intellectual aggression’ that was offered to males became a way to shame women when they rightly asserted themselves.
Women/femmes have every right to have ambitions and to assert their authority—exactly the qualities that are praised in men. The use of such a misogynistic term only shows how they are viewed in the workplace. Besides, it’s like Beyonce says—"I'm not bossy, I'm the boss."
Why judge women's emphatic energy and voices so harshly?
Why you shouldn’t use it: Lower baritones are often associated with masculinity, and therefore conveniently considered ‘better’ than the higher-pitched sounds associated with femininity. Neither do all men speak in low, calm voices and nor do all women use ‘nagging’ tones, but women/femmes are more likely to be labelled negatively than males—especially in the media. Conversely, effeminate males with higher pitched voices are also ridiculed. When women/femmes express themselves, they are not ‘nagging’; the phrase is often used simply to shut them down. In other words, ~*sexism*~.
Yeah, because a male organ is the very paragon of strength and vitality...
Why you shouldn’t use it: No one needs testicles to be courageous, and they are most certainly not a measure of strength. Someone who ‘doesn’t have balls’ is just as likely to be brave, and someone who doesn’t is just as likely to not be. No part of feminine anatomy is ever equated with strength… but, as that famous quote goes: ‘Why do people say "grow some balls"? Balls are weak and sensitive. If you wanna be tough, grow a vagina. Those things can take a pounding.’
We shouldn’t have to explain this one
Why you shouldn’t use it: If you’ve been using the phrase to discuss how your sports team took a beating over the weekend, you are contributing to rape culture in one of its most unconsidered forms. The word ‘rape’ is defined by the structure within which the body is used as a medium to enforce one’s power over another individual, which basically implies the desire of the rapist to demean, degrade and defile the victim.
When you use the word ‘rape’ casually, you normalise the act (by normalising the linguistic category). The attempt to justify your use of language in the face of a global rape culture is a pathetic excuse to maintain the last vestige of power one can without actually imagining or committing the act itself. Why is rape equated to victory in sports and war? Because it justifies the need to impose power on others.
To be feminist is to change the way we think, act, talk and behave. It is active recognition of the patriarchal constructs which are ingrained into our behaviour. Just because these words seemingly hold lesser and lesser significance to those who use them, they continue to cause a great deal of disempowerment to marginalised communities. To call oneself a feminist, one actually has to BE feminist.
Have a question that's burning your bras? Ask a Feminist is your makeshift guide to the feminist way of life. Drop us a message on Facebook or tweet us, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will try to answer your questions as best we can. Follow the hashtag #askafeminist to keep up!
To show your support for what we do, please CONTRIBUTE and/or PRE-ORDER the books here.