On Using Sex Words as Pejoratives
You may have already heard about the Facebook group “Kill Your Hooker So You Don’t Have To Pay Her”. Apparently, after the group got reported as hate speech and taken down, the same person set up another group called “GTA Taught Me That If You Kill Your Hooker, You Get Your Money Back”. I don’t really have much to add about the issue, other than to point out that violence against sex workers is incredibly common, in part because they are often vilified, denigrated, insulted and disrespected. Plus, the police and legal system don’t take crimes against sex workers seriously. So I find this a symptom of a larger issue and I’m really glad that the Sex Workers Outreach Project has made December 17 the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.
What I want to focus on, though, is something that Seraglioletters pointed out. The folks in the facebook group called the bloggers at Feministing “worthless cunts”. While I personally find that annoying and offensive, Seraglioletters did a little research and found that the folks at Feministing called men with whom they disagreed assholes (here, here, and here) or dickheads (here, here, and here) at least half a dozen times. And I find that just as annoying and offensive.
One of the ways that sex-negativity is reinforced is through the use of sexual terms and body parts as pejoratives. Want to insult someone? Call them a cunt or a dick or an asshole. Had something bad happen? Tell someone that you’re fucked. Are you describing something unpleasant? Say that it sucked. And when we do that, what we’re saying is that there’s something bad about these body parts or these actions.
If you don’t agree with me, then ask yourself why you’ve never heard anyone insult someone by calling them an ear or an elbow. Or why you’ve never heard yourself heard anyone put anyone down by saying “feed you!” It’s the fact that we think of fucking someone as bad that “fuck you” becomes an insult. Western culture has a long history of seeing sex organs and sex acts as dirty, sinful, shameful and disgusting. Our language choices both reflect and reinforce that.
This may seem like a small thing, but small things add up. Each time we use a word as a pejorative, even if it also has positive meanings for us, we strengthen the negative associations. At best, this creates an ambivalence with regard to sex and at worst, it reinforces the idea that sex is something to be ashamed of.
Just to try it out, start paying attention to how often you say or hear sexual words used in these ways. Don’t try to change your habits (or someone else’s)- just notice them. You may be surprised at what you find. If you want, try to find other ways to express your frustration, anger or displeasure. It’s not easy- almost all of our pejoratives have to do with sex or religion and there aren’t many other options. When I’ve tried these practices, I’ve often found myself wishing we had some other words for these situations.
I don’t have any specific suggestions for alternative language, but I do think that the first step is noticing our habits. Maybe you’ll come up with some other words. If so, I invite you to post them in the comments. And in the meantime, let’s see if we can shed the negative connotations that we have with fuck, dick, cunt, asshole and all of the other sex words. Changing the ways that we use them seems like a good step.
Agreed. That’s why I always hate when people say “I was prostituting myself” as being a bad, bad, awful thing. Watch how you use that word too. As for calling someone an “asshole,” same deal. What would we do without our beautiful assholes? Someone suggested that could be changed to calling someone a “hemorrhoid” but then maybe that’s also not a good idea. Thanks Charlie for sharing more of your wisdom.
I am sick of genitalia being an insult. I feel “pussy” should imply great tolerance and resourcefulness. “That was so pussy of you to help me move, especially since I live on the 13th floor.”
However, I do think English could benefit from translating the curses of other cultures. There are so many elaborate, beautiful ways to swear, and all we get is “fuck,” “shit” and a few appendages.
I love it. Thanks for making the suggestion. That was really pussy of you. 😉
My mother uses ‘Arthritis’ as a curse word, because she can’t think of anything fouler or more evil to wish on someone.