Debates on the C-Word

by Holly Combe // 3 February 2011, 12:50

Tags: aggression, alienation, censorship, chivalry, exclusion, freedom, language, misogyny, power, sexism, women's bodies, women's rights

Warning: I am going to use the C-Word in this post so please don't read on if you don't like to see it.

There are some very interesting posts from Laurie Penny and Harpy Marx about the swear word that still seems to have the most power to shock. In my enthusiasm about any feminist efforts to reclaim it, I possibly misframed Laurie's post a little when I commented, as it seems one thing she and Harpie Marx are agreed on is the power it possesses.

I accept there isn't a "right" answer to this issue but, rather than embracing that power or throwing the word out because of the way it has been used against women, my own personal preference would be to neutralise it.

While Harpy Marx's post is as well argued as I would expect, I have to admit I tend to feel a bit defensive when I see a woman making a case against the word cunt. I find myself torn between wanting to respect her boundaries regarding a word associated with womanhood that could therefore arguably impact on both of us, and my own preciousness over the fact the word has never shocked or hurt me personally as a woman. For me, it is just a word for a vulva and however much a misogynist might like the idea of it offending me, it really never has. I very much want to keep it that way and when I sense a degree of reticence being cultivated, I become resentful about the disadvantage I think it might leave me with.

It makes me squirm when men apologise for using the word cunt in front of me. I realise some of those men will be making an effort to respect certain feminist objections to the way the word has been used to oppress women but, in my experience, many more will reveal antiquated and unhelpful ideas about feminine delicacy. This leads me to the strategy of making it clear that I find such ideas far more sexist and offensive than a word for a part of my own body. This isn’t an invitation to be rough-housed or verbally abused to make some boorish statement about so-called equal treatment. Like plenty of other women and men, I don’t appreciate aggression from anyone. I just don’t object to a word that I am all too aware men may or may not use around me in order to prove a point.

I see what Harpy Marx and some of her commenters are saying about how "cunt" has been used historically but I think we have everything to gain from it losing its power to shock any more than any other swear word. (I don't really have a problem with not being able to swear in certain contexts. It's just the extra amount of power reserved for one particular "female" word that I take issue with as a feminist.)

We all know cunts are no nastier than pricks so if someone bitterly spews out "cunt" as if they are, I’d personally say "more fool them". That said, it's also obvious that I have no more right to tell another women not to be offended than she does to tell me I should be. I’d simply suggest that not being wounded by that word itself can sometimes enable us to move forward and critique the attitude that is sometimes behind its delivery.

Despite the above, any comments informing me I am a cunt will probably not be published. Apologies to any passing trolls who may feel suppressed by this ;-)

Photo by crafty_dame, shared under a Creative Commons Licence.

Addendum: I was not at the public meeting referenced in Laurie's New Statesman post so it would be appreciated if any comments could continue to concentrate on debates about the general use of the word being discussed, rather than any disputes connected to that meeting.

Comments From You

sianushka // Posted 03 February 2011 at 13:54

I am all for reclaiming and neutralising the word cunt. it is hard tho as although it is now for common for it to be used, it is still used to describe the most horrible, nasty people. i want it to be a word of power and woman-ness.

i'd really recommend the book cunt by inga musico. it's bloody brilliant!

Sabina // Posted 03 February 2011 at 14:12

I find this word amusing, like it's an insult to be called a vagina. Vagina has so many wonderful uses. I find the word no more offensive than being called a dick or prick or pussy. So I don't know why so many people apologise for it. I'd rather you just didn't use insults named after the human anatomy.

Not that I go around throwing random insults at people but I been known to use all four. It was only recently I've considered what it means in the grand scheme of things. Not that I'm naive and not known what a cunt was. I just stopped one day and really wondered why people got so offended with this word more than others and laughed to myself.

paul kelly // Posted 03 February 2011 at 16:25

i never have been able to understand why some women get so offended by the c word.

Since a little boy ive heard it. From my mother, sister, aunts, uncles. Does it mean my family are lesser people?

We all have tempers. Prick, cock and wanker are used often enough. Cunt is a very common word in my vocabulary. I work in sales and the women in the office use it as much as the men. I will never stop using it. I say it in front of men and in front of women (no difference) however not in front of kids.

Cock, prick etc are used in the same manner.

Sexual equality for all

Feminist Avatar // Posted 03 February 2011 at 17:20

There might be some interesting regional/ class differences on this. Where I come from cunt is a swear word, but is used to insult men and women, and is not a 'horrific' word by any means- moderately insulting with offense level determined by tone and intent (so you can be called a 'daft cunt', perhaps in an kindly but patronising or teasing manner, and not be particularly insulted).

Whereas, calling a woman a 'cow' (which is gendered as men don't ever get called this) is worse, and is always seen as insulting- you never get 'silly cow' in a slightly patronising but not mean way for example. Whereas it's a word people use on English tv all the time- grates everytime I hear it.

Amy // Posted 03 February 2011 at 18:34

paul kelly i totally agree with your comment. i have never really been offended by the word just like most of my male friends are not offended by being called dicks. my mum says cunt in my language all the time so i am sort of used to it, but when i say it in english people around me act as if it is such a big deal.
i personally do not like to swear at people cause i sound silly but rather at objects.

maggie // Posted 03 February 2011 at 18:41

Cunt isn't a swear word. I like it. It was used in mediaeval times under the pun quaint and used later in poetry such as to my coy mistress by marvell. I wouldn't say it in front of the relatives though, or my children or nephews or nieces. It's strictly for pillow talk.

So, I have no problem with the word. It has the same impact and strength as cock. You could say that het sex is cock in cunt or CIC.

My belief is that that other words such as bollocks or dick are unacceptable. I think those words are alongside cow, fuck, shit.

I defy anyone to say cunt or cock in front of older or younger members of the community. You won't. Why say it among your peers then? Are you being edgy?

Or is it that you just can't find the appropriate word?

Wanker is never acceptable in society. Ever. end of. It is a term of abuse that transends both sexes.

Why do we even need to swear?

Jennifer Drew // Posted 03 February 2011 at 19:04

The misogynistic swear word c...cannot be reclaimed because it is one of the most effective sexual insults men hurl at women and no prick or 'dick' does not have the same negative connotation as c... does.

Remember too there are innumerable misogynistic words men have created to define what they believe to be women's horrible and nasty (sic) sexual body parts whereas men's sexual organ is always glorified hence the term phallocentric male obsession.

Most women I know do not want to be referred to as c.... or even 'it' which one obnoxious misogynistic well-known male used when he was referring to a woman.

So perhaps instead let us call men sluts and cease apologising or minimalising male hatred for women. We have enough misogyny hurled at us as it is from malestream media without women attempting to minimalise the word c. Or perhaps women of colour should reclaim the word n......g because after all it is just a word is it not?

I am a human being not a c..... just as men are human not sluts.

After all words are just words are they not which is why homophobic and racist insults are not used to humiliate and dehumanise women are they - they are just words, words and yet more words!

Rachael // Posted 03 February 2011 at 19:52

Actually - the word "vagina" means 'sheath for a sword', I believe.

So it's not really that feminist...it is still naming women's body parts in relation to men's - as apose to seperate entities.

Whereas the original (way back before the Roman invasions) meaning for the term "cunt" was 'goddess' or 'high priestess'.

Of course - this was when Britain was primarily pagan (and before the Roman's brought patriarchy and Chritianity).

So, not enjoying the word "vagina" for the above-stated reasons. I prefer the word "cunt".

In fact...I find it quite funny, now when people attempt to use it as an insult! I always just say, "So you think I am a goddess? Thanks"!!!

In essence, I much prefer the word "cunt" anyway. Especially in sexual terms...it just sounds much more powerful and less clinical than "vagina" does, to me.

Antigone // Posted 03 February 2011 at 20:29

I've never found it to be particularly offensive but am careful to use it only in certain company so I am obviously very much aware of its power.

Paul above rightly mentions that words like prick and cock are also used as insults. But I think a possible difference is that male culture also provides a certain amount of pride in the male genitals too. Some of it can be quite "laddish" but I still think it's something women are yet to do. I guess I feel that it's the balance that we have yet to claim or get right.

Hyphen // Posted 03 February 2011 at 20:31

I live in Wales, and a lot of English tourists and students are amazed when they hear us referring to each other as "cons" in casual conversation. It's a term of endearment over here (most of the time). Even second-language Welsh-speakers use it this way. I've lost count of how many times I've been called a "daft cunt" when I've made a bizzare/geeky joke.

coldharbour // Posted 03 February 2011 at 22:18

"There might be some interesting regional/ class differences on this."

Being from Glasgow it's commonly used in a non-pejorative context akin to how the N word is used in African-American communities. Just usually means a dude/guy.

Holly Combe // Posted 03 February 2011 at 22:58

@Jennifer Drew. I appreciate you are possibly just being rhetorical when you ask if women of colour should reclaim racist words but I really don’t think that’s a question anyone else can answer. There is surely no “should” or “shouldn’t” because 1) some people of colour do and that’s their right and 2) some people of colour would find a white person asking the question very offensive.

In terms of the topic being discussed here, my view is that the amount of misogyny being hurled at us that means we can’t afford not to attempt to dismantle its power by taking the language as our own and refusing to let it exclude or alienate us as it is intended to.

Justa Notha // Posted 04 February 2011 at 06:29

I prefer pussy, personally, but my friend is squeemish of that word too.

I think that there is a lot that can be said for reclaiming a word to rob it of it's power.

Since I was raised going to women's music festivals, I though Dyke meant "strong beautiful woman" and didn't realize it was an insult until I was much older. I love having it still as an empowering word, and it has 0 power to hurt me.

My son think geek and nerd means "someone who's cool."

Maybe we can make cunt mean "Cumming Until theres No Tomorrow."

Lindsey // Posted 04 February 2011 at 09:07

I was thinking about this recently and agree that regional or even social group usage can make all the difference. The way I've heard it used, cunt is applied generally to men or women, like twat or nob or even like fuck as just a general expletive in toe-stubbing type situations. In contrast, bitch is used much more harshly and more specifically against women (in my hearing) and makes me much more uncomfortable.

Did anyone catch the 10 o'clock live show on channel 4 last night? They dropped a couple of c-bombs, most likely to appear edgy and daring.

emmy noether // Posted 04 February 2011 at 10:47

The C-word (how cute) has no emotional effect on me whatsoever.
That is because english is only my third language. However the word 'Fotze' has an emotional effect.
I knew a guy who referred to my Venushill as a cunt. He also stated that it was due to the historical context.
But it doesn't mean it NOW.
May be we should have a look for a beautiful name for our Venus, cunt, inner goddess, beef curtain,....
(not a brandnew idea, I know)

coldharbour // Posted 04 February 2011 at 10:50

"In terms of the topic being discussed here, my view is that the amount of misogyny being hurled at us that means we can’t afford not to attempt to dismantle its power by taking the language as our own and refusing to let it exclude or alienate us as it is intended to."

@Holly

That's a very good point, by adopting the definitions imprinted on us by patriarchy we only serve to diminish our autonomy. By reclaiming words we are defining and shaping our own culture and hence increasing our power and autonomy in the world.

@Jennifer

Much to your horror I'm sure the term slut is being reclaimed by many feminists as well.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 04 February 2011 at 11:53

@ coldharbour- I am from Glasgow too (well the surrounding vicinity!).

Becca // Posted 04 February 2011 at 12:07

I have never really understood the stigma surrounding the C word, terms like bell-end, cheesey helmet are derogatory terms for male members.

I started using the word cunt in my late teens, mainly because it is not a lady like word and it shocked some people. Some people think that it is just about the worst insult they could throw at someone, if that is the case they need to get a grip and some imagination!

HarpyMarx // Posted 04 February 2011 at 12:27

Holly, it's Harpy Marx not Harpie Marx. Cheers.

"I find myself torn between wanting to respect her boundaries regarding a word associated with womanhood that could therefore arguably impact on both of us, and my own preciousness over the fact the word has never shocked or hurt me personally as a woman."

But the point is isn't better to think about who is around, how they may feel when the word is conveyed? It may not shock you but it could offend others.

For example, do you swear in the workplace? I don't, not because I believe in not swearing but I am conscious about who is around. I recall a woman who hated having to listen to swear words in the workplace, she felt uncomfortable with it. As a union rep I took this up because I believe she has a right to feel comfortable in the workplace also can impact on equal opps and bullying/harassment policies.

Also, power relationships as well, what about when a male manager calls a woman worker a "fucking cunt"... What about that specific power relationships and others. The word conveys misogyny and while desperately trying to reclaim this word you deny that history.

On that issue, you don't discuss the power relationships between men and women, the intertwining of patriarchal capitalism where words have defined meaning over the centuries.

And on the issue of "prick" it hasn't got the same oppressive power connotation as "cunt".

Holly Combe // Posted 04 February 2011 at 12:31

@HarpyMarx. Sorry for spelling your name wrongly in two out of the three instances I wrote it (inconsistent as well!). I'll change it now...

Holly Combe // Posted 04 February 2011 at 12:59

@HarpyMarx. I wasn't suggesting for a moment that I don't consider the feelings of the people around me when choosing the language I use. (I must say here that I would certainly challenge any man who says he "doesn't like to hear ladies swear" but that's another debate and I would admittedly still avoid swearing around anyone who said they found it offensive, regardless of the reasons.) I also think there was an implication in the post that I probably don't swear in the workplace, as I said I "don’t really have a problem with not being able to swear in certain contexts" but I accept this was not explicit. I also hoped my post showed at least some consideration towards people who feel differently to me about the word and would not want to see it without warning. I realise the warning I gave was quite terse but this is an issue I have a strong opinion on and I think couching my views in a massive apology would have seemed hypocritical.

My discomfort does not relate to the imposition on me not to swear in certain circumstances but the influence other women could have on me to be shocked or upset by the word. It hasn't happened yet, despite trying to respect the boundaries of women who feel differently but I find the thought of it becoming an issue disempowering, as this seems to me to play into the hands of misogynists who use the word as a way to put us down or shock us into silence and therefore exclude us from a conversation.

I don't deny that "cunt" has been used in a derogatory way towards women historically but the fact remains that it has been used in lots of other ways as well. For example, the male manager calling a woman worker a "fucking cunt" is -in my opinion- doing a completely different thing to the woman or man affectionately referring to her or his mate as a "daft cunt". I think we do ourselves a disservice if we say there is only one inevitable reading of things. It's stifling and, for me, leads to feelings of hopelessness.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 04 February 2011 at 13:41

Swearing in the workplace is an interesting phenomenon. Because I agree that people shouldn't be made uncomfortable in the workplace. But, swearing often has sociological function in workplaces- it is a way of releasing stress and frustration, and demarcating certain areas as staff only (not for customers), highlighting the performative nature of customer/staff relationships- which actually act to reinforce 'good' behaviour (it reinforces that being polite to customers is an act, so you do it, rather than imagining that your behaviour should reflect your feelings, which might not be so 'polite'). It also helps create a shared language and so a sense of communal identity- especially because it is a language that is not allowed in all place and times. This can then exclude members who cannot participate in this language, and so power relationships come into play.

Holly Combe // Posted 04 February 2011 at 16:25

@Feminist Avatar. Interesting... That particular function of workplace swearing seems to present a massive can of worms, in terms of inclusion and equality. The simple solution is, of course, just not to allow swearing but that clearly denies workers the opportunity to continue making a distinction between the subordination of the act they have to put on around customers (particularly if those customers are often rude) and their true feelings. It also seems to admit defeat and allow the gender stereotypes that have oppressed and excluded women in the first place to continue. Other strategies seem horribly individualistic and place all the onus on the person being excluded to become "liberated". None of the potential solutions seem satisfactory. Anyone have any ideas?

...I would admittedly still avoid swearing around anyone who said they found it offensive, regardless of the reasons

I've been thinking about this further and I don't think I was being entirely honest here. For instance, if I challenged a man who said he didn't like to hear women say the word "cunt" and he demonstrated he had a double standard on the matter, I would obviously refuse to pander to his wishes at all. (I think it goes without saying that men should not be telling us not to use a word associated with female bodies and that it's particularly outrageous if they use the word themselves.) I do think it's important to make a distinction between actively reclaiming a word and just passively accepting it.

That said, I would still avoid using the word around anyone (regardless of gender) who didn't use it themselves and said it offended them.

Katharine // Posted 05 February 2011 at 16:27

What an interesting post and thread.

Personally, I use 'cunt' as an anatomical term with very positive connotations. I don't like any of the other words available to describe my vulva. To me, 'cunt' sounds strong and powerful (unlike, for instance, 'pussy'). So, it's 'cunt' for me (except in medical contexts!) I do think that by deciding to use language differently we can re-shape the way we think about the world.

The flip-side of this is that I don't use 'cunt' as a swear word or a derogatory word, because that would undermine its other use. Any word that's good enough to describe such a special part of my body is too good to describe, say, David Cameron (for instance). When I thought about that decision, though, I realized how very sexual swear words in general are (I know that's really obvious, but bear with me). I don't think penises are bad things, so why would I call someone a penis if I wanted to insult them? This has lead me to try and use swear words in general much less often. If I think someone is horrid, I'll say they're horrid. Words like thoughtless, vicious, disgusting, loathsome, etc also feature where I might previously have used swear words. (For the record, I don't go around insulting people/things all the time!)

This change of language isn't to be polite or avoid offending others, it's just the result of questioning the meanings of such words. Interesting stuff!

Anton // Posted 07 February 2011 at 09:41

I don't swear and call women 'cunts' (with the exception of senior American politicans who appear on my tv). Is this sexist chivalry?

Holly Combe // Posted 07 February 2011 at 10:48

@Anton: Seeing as you make an exception for women with power who you don’t like, I think you know the answer to that.

Please also see what I said in the post about boorish statements on “equal treatment”. Tone and context make all the difference.

JericaLily // Posted 07 December 2012 at 15:59

"Remember too there are innumerable misogynistic words men have created to define what they believe to be women's horrible and nasty (sic) sexual body parts whereas men's sexual organ is always glorified hence the term phallocentric male obsession. "

I agree with you on this. It carries a much more profound negativity than "dick" ever could. It is like they are telling you you're worthless and evil. Calling someone a dick is more, "you're a rascal!"

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