Embracing “the C word”

The Other Patrick sent us a link this week, and it’s right in line with some things we talked about a while back in comments: Laura Penny wants to bring the word “cunt” into the light of day. Her basic argument – that it represents female sexuality as a powerful and possibly even threatening element – is intriguing and worth considering. The problem is that the example she chooses of a usage about which people got overly uptight is an incident in which one man called another man a “cunt.”

That usage is never going to be okay. Why?

There are gulfs and chasms and abysses of difference between referring to a part of female anatomy as a cunt and calling an entire person a “cunt.” She thinks because “prick” is a put-down, too, it’s all the same – but she’s mistaken. Being male has never been considered a bad thing to be. Being female has been, and continues to be. Calling a man a prick says he’s a particular kind of man that the speaker doesn’t like. Calling someone a cunt says the person is a woman, period, and any kind of woman is an objectionable thing to be. Additionally, men often call each other “pricks” in a teasing or even affectionate way, whereas “cunt” is always and exclusively an insult of epic proportions [ETA: in the U.S., anyway].

Any term which relies on the agreed precept that a whole demographic of people are automatically worthless just can’t represent egalitarian values.

I do agree that the word works just fine in its anatomical usage. As Penny argues, it possibly the least offensive slang term available for that collection of body parts, and actually beats the proper words because we don’t have a single word for the entire part as a woman experiences it – we only have a term for how men experience it through sex:

the medical descriptor “vagina” refers only to a part of the organ, as if women’s sexuality were nothing more than a wet hole, or “sheath” in the Latin.

Additionally, Penny talks a lot about how powerful female sexuality is, and that argument has never made sense to me. Sexuality shouldn’t be powerful; the power we invest in male sexuality is the whole reason it’s gotten conflated with conquering and controlling. We need to be stripping the power from male sexuality, and then when nobody’s sexuality is a particularly powerful thing, we can put sex in its proper perspective as a non-threatening part of being human.


  1. Laura says

    I’ve read claims by UK natives that the usage of “cunt” as an insult in Britain is not as serious an insult when applied to men (but that it’s still very rude to apply to women). More like “twat” in my American idiom, which is a mild insult rather than an insult of epic proportions.

    I agree that it’s a very strong insult in American, but I am not sure about “always and exclusively” unless that’s “always and exclusively in the US”.

  2. sbg says

    My brother once used that word and even explained/excused it away to me that there was no slang for male genitalia that was as effective in expressing how disgusting he thought something was (it was aimed at politicians, male politicians).

    And he had NO idea why I was so upset with him, despite me explaining it to him in small words.

    Certainly asshole is a much more disgusting word, if we’re going to refer to the body parts in question as a basis for the insult.

      • sbg says

        My brother, while I love him dearly, suffers from Nice Guy Syndrome. The reason he can’t get a girlfriend or laid is because women can’t see how nice he is, so they are all stupid, etc.

        Erm. I haven’t even thought about how to address that troubling attitude of his, or point out that he is not, in fact, very nice if that is the opinion he has on women and women pick up on that.

        Or maybe he is gay. I dunno. I was raised uber Roman Catholic, so it’s not like anyone in the family is rushing to come out. Statistically, there’s a good chance we’re not all hetero. πŸ˜‰

  3. GardenGoblin says

    I just don’t like the word. It’s an abrupt, ugly little sound. Can’t we have a pretty sounding word to describe that part of the body? If we have to use a slang term, can’t we use hoo-ha or nonny or even pussy instead? Cunt is just an harsh sound, like grunt.

    • Firebird says

      I agree, although I’m suspicious of my reasons for wanting a pretty word. FWIW, my understanding of the origin of the word is from old Saxon and that was kind of the sound of the language – cock comes from it too.

    • DM says

      Yeah, it’s a matter of preference, because ‘pussy’ gives me the creeps, so sibilant it feels sleazy to me, while ‘cunt’ seems firm and casual to me, just like ‘cock’ (though I’ve seen people who loathe that word, too). Wish there were more slang choices overall, though.

      • Casey says

        Yeah, pussy always weirded/squicked me out, and as much as I love the word cunt just because I find the sound to be funny/oddly satisfying to say (terse, abrupt and ugly with a hard-c sounds amuse me greatly for some reason), there needs to be maybe a greater spectrum of genitalia-related slang terms? IDK…

        Semi-OT, but this also reminds me how as a little kid I called vaginas “twinkie” and penises “pee-pee hose”…ah, things were so simple then.

    • Robin says

      It is a rather gutteral word. Then again, so is fuck, and I don’t have any problem with that one. Why the difference? Probably because fuck is a much more versatile word; it can be used as pretty much any part of speech. Cunt, on the other hand, is only ever a noun with some pretty specific connotations.

      Personally, I’ve always been partial to the British “quim”. As far as I can tell it doesn’t have any other meaning and isn’t used as an insult. Plus, “nasal” M-sounds are easier to transition into sounds of pleasure than “plosive” T-sounds. (Yay, linguistics!)

      • Casey says

        “Cunt, on the other hand, is only ever a noun with some pretty specific connotations.”

        Very true. Actually because of that, when I heard somebody call a bowl of pea soup they didn’t like “CUNTING PEA SOUP!” I kinda squirted water out of my nose with laughter. OTL

    • says

      See, for my part, I’d rather have the harsh sound. I’m a harsh girl, and hoo-ha/pussy/nonny all sound way too cute to me. (Also: “vajayjay”. Hate that one: what am I, six?) But then, as DM says, it’s a matter of preference. I can fuck until the cows come home, but I squirm just having to type “make love”. Ew.

      • Attackfish says

        I like the hard sound too, cunts, cocks, and fuck, all have lovely strong aspirations. I like aspirations, makes the words easy to say when you’re out of breath.

          • Patito Gigante says

            Up until the middle of the 20th century, “make love” meant to flirt or woo. I hear it in classic films a lot, typically as a playful accusation– “Why, Mr. Jarvis, I believe you’re trying to make love to me!”

            • Casey says

              Yeah, I’ve known about that for a while, and MUCH prefer the original definition of the term…”make love” in reference to sexual intercourse just seems so…eh…douche-chilly and saccharine? IDK, it’s hard to explain.

      • The Other Anne says

        Ugh, I HATE the phrase “make love.” I mean, it makes no sense to me either. What is the love you’re making? Is it the various fluids? The potential fetus? The hormones and chemicals being released that can foster infatuation? (Though the kind of hormones released during cuddling and whatnot are the ones which promote monogamy, loyalty, and the ability to stay together…in general, of course, and not considering outside influences such as the actual people and their individual personalities. I mean, the sex can be important in romantic relationships, but if we’re calling it the thing which “makes love,” that’s just one part of it…and then it makes it sound like the MOST important part and that’s kind of silly to me.) But I digress.

        I’m a harsh sound liker as well–I tend to like all the words my friends all hate, though, like nipple and moist. The only thing I don’t like about the word cunt and the idea of “taking it back” is the implication that by accepting the word cunt into common usage as any form of insult just continues the implication that any part of every woman is something to be ashamed of and hurt by. So pretty much just like what everyone’s said. As just a word to describe a part of my anatomy? Yeah, sure. But anyone using it better be careful about their context (around me anyway) because I definitely have a righteous temper! πŸ˜€

        • says

          Eeeeexactly. (Especially in re: potential fetus. NO THANK YOU SIR. NO THANK YOU AT ALL.) Plus, I’ve had sex without love, and it was good times. *Plus* plus, I dunno, the whole phrase just seems all soft-focus, Kenny G. music and “baby” as an endearment and I don’t know what all, and ew.

          Hate “moist”, okay with “nipple”. Hate “tummy” or “belly”, too: just too…juvenile-sounding? Maybe?

          Also, yeah. I *have* used it as an insult a few times, probably will again–I am not good about vocabulary, especially when I’m pissy–but don’t feel good about it. Generic girl parts shouldn’t be *that* much of an insult. (I’m okay with “twat”, which seems more on the level of “dick” or “prick”.) Although I hate my personal uterus with the fire of a thousand suns, so maybe I should find some way to make that an insult: like, the only thing person X does is be a pain for ten days a month, so…?

          • Casey says

            “Moist” is a funny word to me, I’m surprised at how many people, including many a friend and acquaintance hate it since I think it conveys very well the feeling of swamp ass I get in the summer.[/TMI]
            But, OMG I HATE TUMMY/BELLY TOO! Mostly due to it sounding so juvenile, yes. (and because my mom has indigestion/constipation problems which causes her to rub her stomach incessantly and revert to baby talk when she whines about it…we can’t afford to go to the doctor and I shouldn’t be so heartless but I think it’s annoying as fuck (‘cuz I’m usually the only person around for her to talk about it with).

            Has anyone heard of the word “twazzer”? That’s fun-sounding to me.

            • Attackfish says

              I like belly to describe the entire region (abdomen sound overly scientific) like I’ll say someone has a big belly, or that a kind of laugh is a belly laugh, and my dog is sitting on my belly, because actually, my stomach is a little higher up than where he is, and there’s a layer of muscle and skin between him and it anyway, and sometimes, no, it isn’t my stomach hurting, it’s probably my intestines but it might me my bladder, or any number of other tightly packed organs, and I’ll use a more general word until I’ve pinned it down better. I could use abdomen, but belly works just as well, unless I’m talking to my doctor, and people give me odd looks when I tell them I have a little abdominal pain, but I’m good to go.

              And as far as juvenile, the shortening of words and use of certain consonant sounds (bunny for rabbit, for example, mommy for mother or in Arabic, ummi, [my] mommy, for wahiditi, [my] mother, which is much more striking) and the addition of a long e sound at the end of words is part of a legitimate proto-language that makes it much easier for children of a certain brain growth state to learn to talk. Saying that something is inferior because it’s juvenile is another way of saying kids aren’t as good or as fully human as adults.

              • Casey says

                Yeah, you’re right. I didn’t really even realize my ageism…I’ve also got a massive double-standard ‘cuz of course I don’t mind when kids talk like that but when adults do (and they’re not interacting with a child) it just irritates me.

              • says

                Which is fine for kids, but I don’t particularly like, or seek, the company of children.I’m not all “argh, no children in a fifty-foot radius”, but…I hang out with adults. So I expect them to talk like adults. I’d be a little weirded out, frankly, if any of my friends referred to their “mommy” or “binkie” or whatever in a non-ironic way.

                It’s like toilet-training: sure, toddlers do disgusting things in their underwear, and that’s…disgusting, but you expect it from a two-year-old. (Annnnd reason #2 on the “Izzy’s Never Having Kids” list.) If my date pisses himself, on the other hand, we have a problem of one sort of another.

                All that said, I actually don’t think “belly” is a problem in non-sexual contexts–though I prefer “stomach”, inaccurate or not, or even “gut”–and “belly laugh” works fine for me. I think it just pushes my “ugh, NO” button when it shows up in erotic writing or dialogue.

                • The Other Anne says

                  Of course, then we’re looking at situations in which you are deciding what it means to be an adult, and what it means to be a child, which I don’t agree with in general but don’t disagree with when it comes to your personal choices in friends and reactions to behavior.

                  However, I do get kind of peeved when gamers who are girls/women or sympathetic men refer to gamer men as “immature,” or call them 12 year lds because they act reprehensibly. For one thing, it’s placing reprehensible behavior in an “all young people act this way category,” “maturity is reserved for adults” mentality that I find puzzling. It’s saying that REAL adults don’t act this way, but KIDS sure do. There’s no way children are mature enough to know right from wrong. Blah.

                  Granted, that’s kind of not the same thing as what you’re saying, but I find that kind of argument to be an ageist one. As a kid I found the words “mommy” and “daddy” uncomfortable, same as “mother” and “father.” I also had a very extensive vocabulary (more than I do now! You lose it if you don’t practice and college was a mind-killer) because I disliked recess and lunch breaks and tended, from elementary school through highschool, to not really go until I could go off campus. I helped clean the cafeteria with the janitors in elementary school (and that was actually very fun), graded papers for teachers in middle school, and read the dictionary in 9th and 10th grades. So having my youth being lumped into a group seen as the group that does bad things, can’t speak, or are immature doesn’t feel too great!

                  On the other hand…I was definitely younger the last time I said “tummy,” so I’m not sure how one would talk abut youthful language without involving wordage about the young…XD

                  • Attackfish says

                    it’s one thing to say that the language is characteristic of younger people, and another to say it’s inferior because of the age association as opposed to for some other reason.

                  • says

                    I’m not thrilled about certain usages of “immature” myself, particularly the ones implying that the only “mature” thing to do is settle down and start caring about linoleum and the PTA. That said, if we’re discussing childhood in re: clinical development stages, I don’t have an issue saying that most adults should have moved past said stages.

                    On the, er, third hand, what I actually mind about the language use in these cases–and this isn’t a moral judgment or anything, but more along the lines of hating “moist” or “nugget”–is adults actively trying to sound like small children, as opposed to small children naturally doing so (q.v. brain development) or adults reverting in times of stress. Maybe “cutesy-poo” is the word I’m looking for, rather than juvenile? Twee? One of those things.

                    • The Other Anne says

                      “Cutesy-poo” wordage, definitely, and I know people like that myself!

                      I don’t disagree with you on cutesy-poo language–it irks me, definitely! In the last few days I’ve just been seeing SO MUCH commentary on the internet making microaggressions towards youth in the “there’s no way adults act like this” way and a response has just been building. In particular this: http://fatuglyorslutty.com/ blog’s comments are rife with ageist claims that the perpetrators of the heinous harassment are “12 year olds.” I can say for a fact that when I was 12 I was treated way better by my male peers than at present now that we are adults. πŸ˜€ But, eh, yeah that’s getting more off topic. Oops.

                      I think my own word hypocrisy is that cutesy-speak at children bothers me to no end but I definitely use it on “my” cat sometimes. She’s just so fluffy and always has this great “I’m superior” face. And did I mention fluffy?

                    • Attackfish says

                      Baby talk to children past a certain age annoys the crap out of me, but children before and during the stage when they’re learning to talk actually really respond best to it. There has been some research done that suggests that the modulations in pitch match infant cries and that they affect brain chemistry in the children positively. The cutoff should be around three, though, at the most, and a lot of people address elementary age kids like that, and it’s grating, for me, and for most kids. And it’s frequently used by adults to condescend to kids and not answer questions, which really pisses me off.

                      As for the twelve year old thing, the Other Anne is right. I got better behavior out of my twelve year old peers when I was that age than I get from college boys, and I still get better behavior from twelve year olds now that I’m an adult. High School boys, not so much, but that’s so much more to do with the “boys will be boys” attitude.

                    • says

                      Directed at no one in particular: Ha! I knew 90% of Hathorians were actually huge language geeks (I am, too)! We could open a whole other blog about Words That Annoy Us! πŸ˜€

                • Attackfish says

                  Dunno, I still say that my dog hunts bunnies, and that’s aside from the fact that I babytalk to the animals. And when I’m sick, or in pain or recovering from a seizure or surgery, my parents suddenly become mommy and daddy.

                  With the exception of belly dancing and belly buttons, I agree.

                  • says

                    Ack, yeah. I was going to add something about regression-under-stress, but it slipped my mind. My bad.

                    I think “belly” doesn’t bug me in any context as an adjective, oddly enough.

                  • sbg says

                    Heh. I call all dogs puppies. I can’t help it. I know they’re NOT puppies, but they’re all puppies to me.

                    PS, my first word was puppy, much to my mom’s dismay. Maybe that’s why I’m fixated.

        • SunlessNick says

          What is the love you’re making? Is it the various fluids? The potential fetus? The hormones and chemicals being released that can foster infatuation?

          I’ve never thought about it this way until reading your comment, but it suddenly struck me as sounding like “make nice,” which is generally considered something false.

  4. says

    My personal favourite term for female sexual organs is ‘Peza’ (it comes from the Latvian, and there is a mark over the ‘z’ but I don’t know how to create one.) I like this word because when spoken it sounds like “pleasure” and so, to me, it references my experience of those parts of my anatomy.

    • GardenGoblin says

      Ooh, good one. Let’s use that one. Since all we feminists have a hive mind, it should be part of the collective stream of consciousness within the week, right?

  5. DM says

    Absolutely agree about stripping the idea of power from sexuality. Female sexuality is already frequently seen as the wild, frightening bogeyman waiting to ruin family and happiness and civilization as we know it, which is why so many cultures have ignored or tried to stunt it, and sexists love to wail about evil women and their genital mind control. Why buy into that? Sexual confidence in self and body shouldn’t imply manipulation over other bodies.

    • Attackfish says

      Maybe it’s more that we should rethink the way we think about the power of sexuality as opposed to disregarding it. My sexuality is a very powerful force… over me.

      • says

        Right, sexuality only has power over us (or not). I do know what DM is saying though, refuting those tired “pussy power” arguments. I think whenever anyone mentions women’s “powerful sexuality” in the general media, they mean that pussy power that renders men helpless. Ha. It’s framed as power over men when it’s anything BUT. It’s the biggest lie women are fed in this third age IMO.

        As far as cunt goes, I used to use it a lot before becoming feminist minded, but not so much nowadays. Women are so reduced to their sex always that I feel like I am doing that when I say cunt.

        • Attackfish says

          Pussy Power requires so much doublethink to believe that it would be laughable if so many people of assorted sexes and genders didn’t believe in it and use it as an excuse not to change things/subjugate women.

        • Attackfish says

          I’m all for reclaiming the word, (real reclaiming, not the weird shit Laura Penny wants) but I want to make it clear to the world, I have a cunt. I like my cunt. I amnot a cunt, and that person you hate so much can only dream of being as nice as my cunt, so stop insulting it by comparing them.

          http://www.sinfest.net/archive_page.php?comicID=3011 like this, without the pussy power bit. Respect the poon.

      • says

        I was definitely talking about the larger social context in which we treat sex like it’s this force that takes over the minds of grown adults and forces them to rape, cheat and do various unwise or harmful other things. Or a force that forces men to subjugate women, and women to like it. I’m tired of people using sex as an excuse for being assholes, and of society constructing loads of myths to make those excuses seem plausible – for men, mostly.

  6. Korva says

    Full agreement. Of course, I’m biased because I am pretty much asexual — but in my mind, this obsession with sex that our culture (and not just ours) has just strikes me as severely unhealthy in so many ways.

    As for the c-word, the linked article utterly baffles me. How can a “cunt” be both a positive, powerful, pleasurable thing — and the perfect word to express one’s utter contempt and displeasure? You simply can’t have it both ways. And to use it as the worst imaginable insult perpetuates the deeply entrenched hatred of women in general, and female genitalia and female sexuality in particular. Sadly, the author apparently did not reply to several comments making this point. The very first step to “reclaiming” the c-word or other terms for women or our anatomy would be to stop using them in a hateful context.

    Sexual words as insults are a pet peeve of mine in general because they are so very revealing of nasty underlying attitudes. I’ve been a feminist since my mid-teens (when discovering it saved me from my hatred of anything female born from my inability and unwillingness to identify with what society told me I should be and want) and yet to my shame I have to admit that I STILL use “fuck off” or “screw this” when I’m really pissed off. I instantly kick myself for it, hard, but I haven’t been able to stop altogether. Maybe it’s because to me sexuality *is* a negative thing that I want nothing to do with — but even so, I also don’t want to be part of the crowd that keeps the connection of hatred and violence with sex alive and kicking.

    • firebird says

      I went through a phase when I was really confused about my own sexuality where I thought perhaps I was just asexual. It’s cool to hear from someone who is actually asexual. Have you checked out the AVEN network at all? I found some interesting people there.

      In any case, I would imagine when you are really angry what comes out is partly coming from what is deeply rooted emotionally in what you first learned as angry words – for the same reason an angry person will swear in their native language. I would say don’t beat yourself up too much about it, even as you are trying to find ways of expressing yourself that say it better, if that makes sense. Sometimes we just have to give ourselves room to be human.

      • Korva says

        I had a look at the AVEN site, thanks for the link. They have a pretty broad definition of “asexual” there, which I like.

        • Firebird says

          Sure! It was one of my stepping stones, and I still have a friend from there on my Facebook. (Considering I’m only friends with about 40 people that’s actually saying something.) While I’m in a heterosexual relationship now, and would consider myself bisexual, I do not experience attraction as a visual phenomenon (rather, scent, touch, and emotional closeness are important), which is what was so confusing in a society that insists on visual sexuality. I still find mass market sexuality bewildering.

          In any case, I just noticed you use the word since it is still fairly uncommon and wanted to recognize it.

  7. Jen says

    What I found much more interesting than the Laurie Penny piece which was a bit of a puff piece IMO was the response from the guy who she called a ‘cunt’ publicly. Definitely a bit of a privileged whine about how her being a journalist gives her power and privilege over him, a white male. He, in a blog he contributes to, calls himself a feminist and uses this identification to justify the use of well-trodden sexist remarks (remarks which prompted Penny’s use of ‘cunt’) and basically tells Penny to ‘chill out, bitch, it’s just a joke’. here’s the link: http://thethirdestate.net/2011/01/on-being-called-a-cunt-by-laurie-penny/
    In this light, Penny’s piece looks apologetic and contrived, but at least she doesn’t look petty and ennnooormously pretentious.
    p.s. I’ve met this guy and while I wouldn’t call him a cunt I’d definitely call him a fucking douchebag.
    p.p.s. Read the exciting comments, especially the great feminist ones from some guy called Richard Seymour

    • Casey says

      Um…just as a heads-up, when you say “exciting feminist comments” do you mean there’s a bunch of sexist douchebags whinging on there? It’s difficult to tell sarcasm on the internetz.

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