Taboo For Who?

Swearing is becoming more accepted in our society, but many people still consider 'cunt' taboo. Why is this? It's time we got over such silly squeamishness, Kate Allen argues.

Kate Allen, 19 October 2003

Most women accept that they have a cunt. As a descriptive word, it is becoming re-established, echoing its origins as the proper term for 'lady's bits' in Old and Middle England. It first appeared in the English language a good 1500 years ago, and was regularly used in texts such as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. So why do so many people consider it taboo or shocking?

in many people's eyes it is the worst possible term of abuse

'Cunt' fell out of usage for several centuries, and was not a commonly used word at the beginning of the 20th century. But by the 30s it was an insult for women in American English. It picked up further currency as the straightforward term for the female genitals with the release of DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover - it was the inclusion of the word cunt more than the word fuck which was responsible for most of the controversy around its publication. In the last 30 years there has been a substantial change of meaning in the way the word is used - it's now seen as an insult, in many people's eyes the worst term of abuse. But why is being called a 'cunt' so objectionable?

When used as a swearword, 'cunt' seems to convey profoundly misogynist connotations - that the 'nastiest' 'dirtiest' word someone could come up with was the word for a woman's vagina shows a deep fear of women's sexuality, argue those who object to its use.

But really 'cunt' is no different to 'dick' or 'prick' its taboo comes simply from its origin as a 'naughty' sex-related word. Opposing the use of 'cunt' is itself sexist, because it grants more respected status to a woman's genitals than to a man's. The extra level of offensiveness that many people perceive the word to carry implies a squeamishness about women's bits - this attitude is in itself sexist or even misogynist! We're beginning to get over that squeamishness, reverting the word back to its original meaning and reclaiming it as a descriptive term. This is a positive action, removing its negative connotations. Stage show The Vagina Monologues popularised this and more power to anyone supporting it.

can we as women be comfortable with our cunts if we also use the term as a swearword or term of abuse?

A word is only offensive because of the meaning we give it - if we refuse to see 'cunt' as an insult, or a derogatory term, its use cannot be objectionable to us. But can we as women be comfortable with our cunts if we also use the term as a swearword or term of abuse? It certainly seems a little schizophrenic to both celebrate the word and use it negatively. Again, we should look at the dual use of words for men's genitalia. A guy won't object if you refer to his 'dick' during sex play - yet he'll react in anger when he's called it in the street. Context is everything - to describe a penis as a dick is a statement of fact; to describe an entire human being as a dick is derogatory simply because it implies there is nothing more than that to them as a person. Why can't the same analysis apply to 'cunt'?

Perhaps the difference lies in which gender uses the word - women rarely call each other 'dicks' men on the other hand consider 'cunt' the greatest slur on their person. This say the word's opponents, is sure evidence of misogyny - men are afraid of cunts; they menace each other with the threat of being compared to one.

In a liberated world, with both sexes truly equal, perhaps this would not matter. Until then however, in a world where women are still oppressed and continue to fight against that, this imbalance in status surely has some relevance to what words we consider 'bad'?

Does that mean men can't use the word 'cunt' in an abusive way - that it should be reserved for women's use? Not necessarily. After all, if men can use it in a descriptive way, why not the other way too? The distinction seems facile. And distinguishing who can use a word on the basis of their sex seems unnecessarily discriminatory and separatist. Are you more offended when a man uses 'cunt' as a term of abuse than when a woman does? Should you be? And does that mean a woman using 'dick' as an insult is necessarily more offensive than a man using it? To be honest I don't know what the answer is. But I'd be interested to hear what you think.

About the author

Kate Allen

Kate Allen, 25, is a London-based journalist and political activist. Her favourite rude word is 'fuck'. Her latest hobby is radical cheerleading.

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