As a child, I remember being afraid of finding myself in the midst of road rage, I still fear it because, in India, it turns quite ugly. Grown men furiously stepping out of their vehicles and spewing insults such as ma******d, behen***d or Behen ke l****, bringing each other down by demeaning their female family members. The hate-filled swear words targetted towards women always sent a chill down my spine and made my heart sink into my stomach.
After many years, I find that I am also guilty of using these words but in more humourous contexts with friends rather than aggressive ones with strangers. I’m aware of their sexist history but there just aren’t any alternatives. Trust me, I have tried to revolutionize the use of the swear words with males as the subject such as father****** and brother****** but have failed every time.
Another problem that I have as a regular user of swear words is that language has failed to provide women with swear words to express their anger. For example, when I’m walking down the streets at night and a few entitled men on their bikes cat-call me, I want to scream insults at them as a way of getting back, but I find myself stuck with misogynistic insults that I don’t want to use and even if I do, according to me, they are not enough to adequately castigate these cat-callers. So, what is the point? If I use them, I’m standing up for patriarchal and misogynistic values but if I stay silent then I’m rendered voiceless to vent out my frustration.
Why are most swear words demeaning towards women?
On 23rd July, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic congresswoman, called-out a Republican congressman for allegedly hurling a sexist slur at her on the steps of the US Capitol. During her speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, she said, “He called me disgusting, he called me crazy, he called me out of my mind. In front of reporters, Representative Yoho called me and I quote a ‘fucking bitch,’” This raised many questions on sexism and misogyny in professions where women are conventionally not found in, such as politics or finance.
People often consider politics to be a very masculine space where many men intentionally exclude women by shaming them. The President of the United States himself has a notorious history of using slurs against female journalists and reducing women to their genitals, you may remember his infamous words, “grab them by the p***y”. If you think I am exaggerating, let us look at the meanings these insults hold.
The meaning of popular curse words
Bitch refers to a derogatory way of addressing a woman that is unreasonable, malicious, aggressive, belligerent or bossy. Powerful women are often called ‘bitches’ as in the case of Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, and it is clear from her situation, no woman is exempted from these insults, even after her extraordinary journey and respect in the field, she is reduced to a misogynistic curse word. However, when we apply that to a man, bitch becomes a pejorative term for a subordinate or submissive man. Originally, bitch meant a female dog, and ‘being someone’s bitch’ means being subservient to their control so it is again demeaning females by linking them with subservience.
In our swear word collection, we have the classics mother****** and sister****** and son of a b***h. All of these words imply that men are the doers and women are the ones that are done-upon. The men hold the active role of ‘doing a woman’ while the woman is a passive party in the act. Germaine Greer, a feminist, writes in her book The Female Eunuch, “All the verbal-linguistic emphasis is placed upon the poking element; f***ing, screwing, rooting, shagging are all acts performed upon the passive female...”
The usage of sex and sexual organs in swear words
Phrases used to insult men are based on the honour of women related to them as it’s the mother or sister who’s honour is tarnished when someone calls a person a ma******d or behen****. However, baap**** is not nearly as insulting, because unlike a woman, a man’s status increases when he is sexually promiscuous. More so, women are not considered doers so baap**** doesn’t hold up to be true culturally as an insult.
Phrases that people use to insult women are associated with either their genitals– cu*t or ch*t and p***y – or people resort to shaming them for having sex– ra**i, wh*re, sl*t, ny*pho, prostitute. So, to insult a woman, people reduce her identity to her sexual promiscuity or her sexual organs.
People use insult words - p***y, c**t and ch*t to demean men as well; p***y is used as a synonym for cowardice in men and c**t, a really offensive word for vagina, refers to a stupid or unpleasant person. However, in this category of insults, there is a male equivalent - d**k or la**a in Hindi, which refers to an inconsiderate person. Some have suggested that women should start using male equivalents of misogynist terms to insult men but as I mentioned earlier, there is hardly any gravitas in calling someone a baap**** or bhai****.
In current times, many words have also become unisex in their use so now women can call men ‘slut’ as an insult, the same way men did to women. In Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, Melissa Mohr tells us, “With the development of feminism, many swearwords have become more equal-opportunity, not less. B**** can now be applied to men and women.” But the problem is, using mother****** or slut in a gender-neutral way does not alter its sexist origin. For example, a woman saying ‘don’t cry like a girl’ to another man or woman still means that having feminine qualities is unfortunate.
Even after reclaiming insults like ‘sluts’, their sexist origins still loom over us
In terms of intersectionality, we must acknowledge that most marginalised communities have faced the brunt of abusive language. A lot of words people would earlier use to describe marginalised communities such as f**, n***** and gay had negative connotations.
To combat these insults, feminists and marginalised groups have tried to reclaim these words and use them as empowering terms. For example, the word ‘slut’ is used in an empowering way in the feminist discourse now, the Los Angeles SlutWalk — a march that combats the stigma surrounding women and sexuality is an example of that. But the truth is that it is only empowering in a certain context and only when a member of that community uses it. When men, that have systematically held more power than women due to patriarchy, use these words, it is highly damaging to women. Even after reclaiming the words, men can still use these words to insinuate sexual violence or demean women.
How do we make swear words more inclusive?
One course of action can be to continue with the old terms and use them without considering their semantic meaning so they become meaningless but carry the same anger. But then the purpose of swearing would be lost.
Or we could choose the harder alternative and build new and gender-neutral profanities. Since we can’t do without swear words because they are scientifically known for being beneficial for us, we can create ones without a sexist past. This shouldn’t seem like a herculean task considering the number of words people invent every year. According to Global Language Monitor, around 5,400 new words are created every year; so why can’t we add in some novel swear words?