My favorite word in the English language:
It has been my favorite for a long time. I remember watching a VHS cassette of Boys on the Side when I was a teenager. It probably wasn’t the first time I heard the word, but that moment was the first time “cunt” resonated with me. I fell in love with it. I loved how Mary Louise Parker felt kind of dirty and kind of empowered at the same time when she said it. I remember rolling the word around in my mouth. Feeling that hard “k” sound flow so naturally to the hard “t” sound at the end. The euphony alone had strength.
As I grew older I heard the “cunt” more often. I heard it in porn/erotica/smut, and I loved it more. The absolute unapologetic rawness of “cunt” spoke to my inner slut in ways I can’t even describe. Nothing like a well-placed “cunt” to make this cunt moist with anticipation.
I even loved “cunt” as an insult. I had no problem reducing a person to their genitals. I called boys pricks (another word I love the sound of) and girls cunts. Sometimes, for effect, I would reverse the gender. Did you know that boys really hate being called cunt? Shocking I know.
It wasn’t that I was unaware of how harmful the word could be. I am pretty damn sure I had been informed. Partly, I think, I believed the adages I had been taught as a child, “words only have the power we give them” and “sticks and stones…”
Oh the lies parents tell us to help us deal with the big bad world of adolescence.
And I believed them. They were useful to me. They taught me that so long as what a person said about me wasn’t true, I wasn’t to be bothered by it. I could let it roll off me. It also helped me to not be offended when someone called me a cunt. Learning that other words like “fuck,” and “goddamn” only made the toes curl of people who let them, I found a way to not give a fuck if someone called me a cunt. Same with “bitch.” So what if they called me a bitch? Doesn’t mean I was one. So what if they tried to reduce me to my genitals? Didn’t mean I wasn’t more than that. In those ways I have some damn thick skin (in other ways my skin is transparently thin).
My thick skin and the belief that words only have the power that we, as individuals, give them kept me using the word “cunt” indiscriminately for many years. My love affair with the “cunt’s” resonance probably perpetuated the periodic utterances as well.
I don’t use “cunt” indiscriminately anymore.
It isn’t because of tone. I still think people ought to handle insults to some degree or leave the argument. (I am not going to chase you down screaming insults if you decide to bow out of a heated debate.) It isn’t because I have a problem with reducing someone to their genitals. That will probably never be an issue for me. It certainly isn’t about becoming more accommodating. I become less accommodating with every breath I take.
No, I stopped using “cunt” in public speech as a insult for a very different reason. I learned something new:
My parents lied to me as a child.
Words don’t just have the power that we ourselves give them. They also have the power culture gives them. I think I knew this on some level already. I think, innately, it is what kept me cringing every time some racist bigot would casually let “nigger” flow from their lips. I felt the weight of that word as an oppressor, but somehow the same concept escaped me with “cunt.”
Perhaps, it was because I somewhat owned “cunt.” I mean I was a cunt. I was damn proud of being a cunt. I loved cunts. I could separate the term as an insult versus a term of endearment quite thoroughly. Not only could I do that, but I expected everyone else to be able to as well. I expected that any sensible person should automatically assume that if I called them a cunt it wasn’t to demean women but rather point out a particular assholishness in conjunction with their womanhood. I thought if they couldn’t, they were giving more power to a word than it deserved.
I was wrong.
My whole outlook on insults and “cunt” hasn’t completely changed, but it has changed significantly. Growing up and facing aspects of culture that are more subtle and flow as an undercurrent in our language and customs has forced me to address the fact that if nigger, faggot, dyke, spic, gimp, or any number of marginalizing slurs are unacceptable, then “cunt” should be too. I had to understand something about other marginalizing slurs before I did though. I had to understand that my parents lied to me about something I had grown to take for granted as being the truth.
Words. Can. Hurt.
Yes, if they hurt me, it is because I let them. To some degree, that is the case for most. Still yet, my use of a word, your use of a word, can either serve to perpetuate stereotypes or demolish them. That is the real power that words have. If I continue to use cunt as a slur in everyday speech I cannot expect that everyone will hear the times I use it as positive as well. That would be unreasonable. In reality, people pay more attention to every time a word is said in negative light than when it is used in positive light. (Remember asking your parents why they never complimented you? They did. We just choose to forget the compliments.) So even if every time I called a person a cunt as an insult I countered with using cunt as a positive attribute, my audience will walk away feeling more like the word cunt, the existence of cunts, as being negative.
This isn’t a big issue for reasonable people. Most reasonable people can handle the dichotomy for multiple meaning words, even ones with subtle underpinnings like “cunt.” The problem is the world isn’t made of reasonable people. The world is made of mostly unreasonable people, some of whom are trying to become more reasonable by fighting their own personal biases. Some aren’t fighting their biases at all. Some are looking for every opportunity to perpetuate their hatred, and these assholes are not only loud, obnoxious trolls, they are often terrifyingly powerful. So if I happen to call a woman a “cunt” as a slur around one of them, I not only run the risk of perpetuating a mere stereotype, I also run the risk of giving fuel to one of those hateful misogynists who would happily seek the subjugation of women.
So, yeah, I don’t use gendered or otherwise marginalizing* insults anymore in public. I use them in the private company of people that I have personally vetted to be reasonable enough to not consider my use of the terms as intending to perpetuate stereotypes. In public, I am incapable of vetting everyone that might hear my words. I don’t want to be the kind of person that gives words the power to marginalize groups of people based on an aspect of themselves that is not detrimental to the population as a whole. Being/having a cunt is not a bad thing. Being a slut is not a bad thing. There is no inherent wrongness to any particular pigmentation of a person’s skin. The need for abling devices such as wheelchairs, or psychiatric medication does not mean that a person is inherently less valuable to our culture. Insulting people for any one of these aspects (among many others) is privileged and wrong.
What I don’t understand is why other people who say they are on my side in fighting to keep women from being marginalized continue to use the term indiscriminately. I want to believe that people like Penn Jillette and Bill Maher are using the word “cunt” much in the way I previously used “cunt.” but I have a hard time believing they are incapable of understanding why their public voice necessitates a more discerning choice of words. It is so hard to believe because all it took was me reading a few people simply stating that they don’t use gendered insults to begin making sense of it all. I didn’t even have to be told their reasons before the connections started to form. I mean, these were people that obviously had no problem with tone, with intense graphic descriptions, but they objected to the use of the word “cunt” as a slur. What caused it? Then, it made sense. Still, rather than trying to make those connections, people with some of the furthest reaching voices in our community continue to marginalize a subset of the population for nothing more than adding shock value to their speech.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t groups in our culture that I think are undeserving of marginalization. Religious fanatics, absolutely deserve my vitriol. Misogynists, racists, trans phobes, and bigots of all breeds deserve my pure and utter contempt. Attempting to be more inclusive does not necessitate me tolerating intolerance. It shouldn’t for you either.
There are aspects of culture that deserve the strongest words we can throw at them. There are behaviors and attitudes that seek to make the word a horrible place to live. There is nothing wrong with parsing and defining everything that is wrong with those groups. There is something wrong, however, with allowing the vitriol to spill over into undeserving victims of our wrath.
It isn’t us just being crass when we use marginalizing slurs. It is us being bullies by contributing to a bigoted world. I don’t think any of us reasonable people want to serve bigotry in that way, so I will just have to consider that people who continue to use marginalizing slurs like “cunt” in public voice do not care if they are perpetuating misogyny. They may think they care, but they’d be wrong.
People who actually care about women don’t call them cunts (as a bad thing) in public.
*Here’s the deal. I still might use crazy as a term. I have found it to be an effective communicator in colloquial use as a descriptor for irrational behavior. I am working through my biases still and I probably won’t use it a ton. I will still likely use it some and you are free to criticize my use at anytime to help me learn.