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What do the words “twat” and “dick” have in common? They are both gendered insults–words used to insult another person by referring specifically to genitalia (usually via a slang word), and which also includes the word “bitch.”* Gendered insults are so prevalent in the culture that they have been completely normalized and people often don’t even notice when they are using them, but “being completely normalized” is not equivalent to “unsexist,” and if you’re trying to create an environment within the skeptical community that is more welcoming to women (for the purpose of getting more women actively involved in skepticism), then you are going to have to break the habit.
*”Douche” is gendered and an insult, but it’s offensiveness to women is controversial. Some people claim that it implies vaginas are stinky and it is insulting because it makes the vagina’s natural state seem bad; some people claim that it’s a proven scam and thus it’s insulting because of its scamminess and thus isn’t gendered. I am in the camp that it’s a gendered insult and thus a no-no, but it’s not a hill I’d die on, and I can’t believe I’ve actually written this many sentences about it. And by this many sentences I mean three.
Explaining why gendered insults is sexist is confusing to a lot of people, partly because issues of politeness and decorum get mixed up in it. There are many different slang terms for genitalia which run the gamut from raunchy to euphemistic, and the usage of some of those terms is completely unremarkable and the usage of others is considered the worst word ever. Furthermore, what is considered unacceptable among one group of people might be considered positively literary among another, and there are no hard and fast rules regarding individual words. What I’m going to do is break down the three issues regarding gendered insults that cause the most confusing first, and then explain why you should stop using them if you want to be welcoming to women after.
It’s not about being prudish.
You could be in a biology class discussing the reproductive system, and pull out the C-word to answer a question about female anatomical structure. Is that sexist? No. It’s unprofessional (because you aren’t calling things in a science class by their scientific names) and it might get you in trouble with your teacher (depending on school rules and the teacher’s tolerance for vulgarity and/or why you decided on that particular word choice), but it is not sexism. Saying “cunt” when you are actually talking about female genitalia does not create an environment that is hostile to women. It creates an environment that is hostile to people who don’t like vulgarity. I’m not going to say that sexism might not be behind why some person chooses that word over others, but it’s not sexism.
It’s not about being a hypocrite.
Gendered insults are insulting. Period. It doesn’t matter if you are throwing around words like “pussy” and “twat” or “dick” and “prick”–an insult is an insult and whether you are male or female using words that refer to male or female genitalia, you are being rude. Period. Gendered insults are equally rude. It’s not nice to insult people (even if they have done something mean or bad), and if you are at the point where you are hurling insults at another person, male or female, you are being unmannerly. It is a breach of etiquette. If there’s a spectrum of insults, gendered insults are probably on the boorish side (because of their association with sex), but there are lots of other insults there. If your skeptical community is a place where lots of people use lots of insults, it’s not very welcoming to anyone.
It is about the balance of power, and demeaning women.
Vulgarity and rudeness aside, there is a special barb to female gendered insults (directed at men or women) that perpetrates a culture of hostility to women, for reasons that are historical and sociological, and very well entrenched. The political effect of female gendered insults is far greater than the political effect of male gendered insults, for two reasons:
1. Female gendered insults remind women that traditionally their role is to provide sex and offspring to males. They portray “woman” and “vagina” as interchangeable, and the global culture right now is one with high sexual objectification of women and very low political agency of women. Calling a woman a “cunt” or “twat” or “bitch” reduces her to the parts of her body that men have found useful throughout the millennia. Calling a woman a “vagina” may be more scientific or polite, but it accomplishes the same thing. Calling a man by these terms is an insult to women because it acknowledges the power differential; it insults him by putting him in the lower class and insults women by labeling them the lower class.
2. Male gendered insults do not carry any of the historic and political baggage that female gendered insults do. (Pulling something out of the air about goddess cultures or some historical matriarchy is not going to be a very good argument about the state of the world then and now, so save your breath.) Furthermore, “male” is “normal.” Male is the default assumption for just about everything, and so a male gendered insult is no worse than a non-gendered insult like “asshole” or “bag of hammers.” No one is insulted by being lumped in with the ruling class (versus the breeding class). Sure, references to male genitalia fall under the “rude” and “vulgar” categories, but that’s just because they are associated with sex and sex is bad. You want to know why sex is bad? It’s women’s fault. It’s their lust that has to be contained, and their offspring that needs to be controlled.
If all the skeptical community did was stop employing female gendered insults, it would make the environment more welcoming to women because it would stop emphasizing that women occupy a lower social position to men in the grand scheme of things. If the skeptical community wants to also attract people–any people–who are deterred by vulgarity and rudeness from joining groups, then it would benefit from dropping gendered insults altogether. It all depends on what message they are trying to send to what group, and that’s a marketing thing that probably equals common sense, and nobody likely needs reminding of that. I don’t know how many people in the world are put off by vulgarity or rudeness anymore. But female gendered insults? Very off-putting. Real problem.