My friends and I went to a gig last week, of a band we absolutely love; soulful, lyrical music – the singer, in particular, has a great energy. But that night you could tell he was feeling sore, didn’t really want to be there. When called back for an encore, he said, ‘you cunts, you made me come back on,’ in a genuinely irritated rather than joking tone. I recoiled a bit: it’s a harsh word, and I was surprised to hear it come out of his mouth. I figured everyone says dumb stuff sometimes.
This story came up over dinner last night and things got a bit awkward, because my friend’s new boyfriend, whom she really wanted us to get along with (and we did, we really liked him) said he thought that people should say the word more often, to remove the stigma. A woman’s vagina is a beautiful thing, he said, and should be celebrated.
Poor guy, it was just him and the three of us girls, and I don’t think anyone agreed with him. We all found the word ‘cunt’ a bit hard to take because it makes a vile swear word out of our precious bits. It doesn’t have to be that way, he argued: if nobody got offended, the word would be deprived of its power. But if you accept that women’s sexuality is still often ignored or stigmatised, then the word ‘cunt’, used to mean base and nasty, does cut a bit.
As a teenager, for example, I felt that my own incipient sexual desires were shameful and needed to be hidden (Here’s Emily Maguire’s beautiful, down-to-earth piece about teenage girls’ sexuality from a few years ago). It’s a bit sad, isn’t it? I’m not saying all girls felt the same. Guys probably feel awkward about their sex drive too, but it’s different. We knew about guys masturbating and walking around with erections, in fact, I think my grade five teacher taught us about it in sex education, but girls’ sexuality was never discussed, at home, at school, or amongst my friends. We did, however, learn to put a condom on.
The prevalent myth is that men are sex-hungry testosterone fiends, unable to resist their bestial sexuality (hello Bettina Arndt). Women, on the other hand, are more emotional than physical, and besides, their orgasms are ‘complicated’. The corollary is that it’s normal for women not to enjoy sex, because sex is really for men. This doesn’t represent reality, but has an impact nonetheless.
How many women put up with bad sex, thinking that’s just the way it is or that the problem’s with them? How often is pleasing a woman just treated as an optional extra, and how frequently do we hear what a female orgasm consists of, and how to make it happen? And are men really these physical creatures, who never have sex for intimacy?
Women’s sexuality gives us power, in a way, but it’s also often used against us. Public figures, for example, have to strike a fine balance between being not sexy enough (frumpy and tiresome) or too sexy (unreliable, frivolous). Gillard, for example, is incessantly criticised for her unsatisfactory hairstyle, earlobes, and fashion. Sometimes it’s fun to gossip: I remember giggling about Gillard’s earlobes when she was on TV the night Rudd got elected. But it doesn’t feel good to have my petty loungeroom gossip continually replicated in the media. (Kate Ellis, on the other hand, recently attracted criticism for looking too hot, in coloured high heels on the front page of Sunday Life. But why can’t a powerful figure look like that?)
In this context, I don’t see how using the word ‘cunt’ as an insult is an effective way of redressing sexual inequality. It’s like saying you’re going to address racism by calling black people ‘niggers’. Sure, it’d be different if there really was a movement of women who wanted to reclaim the word ‘cunt’ and turn it into a positive (here’s an interesting NY Times article about the idea). Although, that said, I think I’d still feel a bit queasy about it: for me the word is so misogynistic as to be beyond redemption, and reclaiming it seems like a bit of a trite way of solving a deeper problem. Now I understand how the Slutwalk critics felt.