Gendered epithets: Short-term battles vs. long-term wars

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

This Saturday, September 24, Slutwalk comes to Johannesburg, and thousands will participate to protest victim-blaming and to affirm the right of all women to wear what they want, and act as they please, without fear of being misunderstood as welcoming sexual assault.

Many will participate dressed in clothing that might be considered sluttish – in the traditional sense of the word – because part of the point of Slutwalk is to reclaim the word ‘slut’ and to say that others (rapists, as well as those who deny women agency in less violent ways) don’t have the authority to impute desire where none might exist.

As I’ve previously argued in the lead-up to the Cape Town Slutwalk, calling these protests Slutwalks runs the risk of alienating some supporters who see the word ‘slut’ as inescapably pejorative. It also runs the risk of creating tension between those sympathetic to the cause, but divided on the appropriateness of the name.

In fact, one unfortunate consequence has been that some who question the name are thereby assumed to be unsympathetic to the cause, despite their reasons for objecting to its branding. The equation has sometimes appeared quite simple: Object to the name, and thereby reveal yourself as (at best) only partially aware of the deep-seated patriarchy and resulting lack of understanding experienced by many (probably most) victims of rape.

Another example of this easy equation is highlighted by my previous sentence, where I use the word ‘victim’. Criminal agents have recently violated my home, three times in the space of a month. That makes me (and my family) a victim of their crimes. To call those who are victims of crimes ‘survivors’ instead of victims is a choice, not an obligation – it can signal a certain attitude or mindset, but we start playing very fast and loose with language when choosing not to use that signal is taken as indicating a lack of sympathy.

Words mean something, and they can have consequences. One way to be help being clear about potential consequences is to agree on definitions and to allow for the fact that increased miscommunication – and misattribution of motive – becomes increasingly likely if we can revise those definitions as we please. This particular slippery slope concludes with a world of Humpty Dumptys, all asserting that “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

Slutwalks have such momentum, and have achieved such significant consciousness-raising and debate, that even those who oppose the name need to acknowledge that they probably do more good than harm. I’d therefore like to appeal to a post-Slutwalk consideration of how we engage with such issues and causes in future – and in particular a consideration of whether gendered epithets like ‘slut’ merit a place in our discourse around social activism.

Besides the debates around whether (ostensibly neutral) designators like ‘Chairman’, personal pronouns like ‘he’ or words like ‘mankind’ perpetuate a gender bias, gendered epithets constitute another class of words that reveal a bias in our language and behaviour. Apologies to sensitive readers, but there are quite simply far more negative words used to describe women than there are to describe men.

‘Bitch’ is a mild example – not only because it’s sometimes used in reference to men, but also because it has been stripped of much of its sexist content in usages such as ‘to bitch about Arsenal’s defence’. But ‘cunt’, ‘twat’ or ‘whore’ have a visceral impact and malice that ‘cock’ or ‘prick’ lack. And then there is the word ‘pussy’, which, while applied mostly to men, is intended to accuse that man of being weak – just like a woman.

The primary question is really this: Why do these words not get the same attention and attract the same outrage as the words ‘nigger’ or ‘kaffir’? While I do believe that it’s possible to use all these words for effect – in humour, or to make a point about racism or sexism – most usages of them are instead in anger, and intended to silence or demean the target.

These expressions of contempt or hostility use words that are linked to a race or a gender, and as I’ve suggested above, that race is often black and that gender is often female. But while the racist versions of these slurs are unquestionably considered unacceptable, the sexist versions operate in a context where misogyny is so deeply entrenched that it can escape notice.

As Phil Molé argues in ‘The Invisibility of Misogyny’:

It’s not just the fact that misogyny is invisible that we need to face – it’s also the fact that this invisibility is a large part of what makes it the enormous problem it is. We cannot begin to properly address misogyny and the harm it causes unless we start being able to see it.

One aspect of seeing misogyny is perhaps recognising that words can be used to harm, and that when those harmful words are linked to race or gender, existing stereotypes regarding those races and genders can also be reinforced. Even if you use these words without holding sexist and racist attitudes, you can have little control over how your target perceives them, and the hurt they might cause.

In the context of this weekends’ Slutwalk, these targets include those women who have been subjected to hostility through being called a slut, and who find themselves unable to see the word as anything other than demeaning.

Furthermore, we sometimes forget other audiences – the genuine racists and sexists, who could overhear casual uses of such epithets, and interpret this to mean that their position is more broadly supported than is actually the case.

So while I can believe that the Slutwalk does more good than harm – and while I fully understand the point of calling it Slutwalk in the first place – I worry about how to reconcile it with the broader issue of how language can be used to reinforce misogyny. I imagine that many self-described feminists agree with me on sexist epithets in general, understanding them to be a subtle way of reinforcing negative attitudes towards a particular sex.

And if, in a few months or years time, a campaign is launched and marches are held to get people thinking about whether it’s appropriate to call someone a cunt, might it perhaps be the case that we’ll have little answer to someone who retorts “you’re simply missing the point to find ‘cunt’ offensive – why not simply reclaim it, just like you did with ‘slut’?”

Also read this interesting exchange initiated by Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels, which prompted many of the thoughts expressed above.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.