I read a terrific article on Women Under Siege this morning, on the appallingly high levels of sexual crime in Egypt, which are predominantly reported as sexual harassment or street harassment, but should be described as sexual assault or rape. Is the distinction that important?
“Well, yes, actually”, Bates argues. “It matters because there are such clear links between the language we use and the prejudice we practice.”
This has been a big issue for me lately. So many of the phrases we thoughtlessly use are deeply patriarchal. I use many of them myself. There are more of these kinds of sexist linguistic ticks than any of us could list or explain, but I’m going to discuss three glaring and particularly bothersome examples here. If there are others that particularly bother you please feel free to discuss them in the comments.
1. Having the balls:
See also: Grow a pair, grow some balls, ballsy.
People use this phrase all the time. Congratulating Andy Murray for having the balls to win a tennis match, criticising Nick Clegg for lacking the balls to take strong political stances. Horrendously enough, I was recently asked if I’d ever have the balls to commit suicide. The world and its mother is mocking Naomi Wolf this week for bigging up the vagina and its emotional and spiritual significance. But none of us really seem to question that in our language and so in our culture strength, nerve, daring and power depend on having testicles?
There’s no evidence of the veracity of the following Betty White quote, but I’m going to use it anyway. And by the way, I will be reviewing ‘Vagina: A New Biography’ in the next few days.
2. Man up:
See also: Don’t be such a girl, be a man.
I have used this phrase far too much, for far too long. I liked to believe I was using it ironically, but what does that even mean? I used the phrase to tell people that they should be less feminine, less emotional, less childish. More like men. Those tough folk who don’t feel pain. The strong half of humanity.
This one feeds into a social narrative that’s hugely harmful to men and women alike. In Michelle Obama’s DNC speech (which I loved overall) she told a clearly heartfelt story of her father, who struggled through MS to provide a better life for his children than he’d had for himself. Why?
You see, for my Dad, that’s what it meant to be a man.
Not a good parent, not a good American, not even a good man. That’s what it mean to be a man. Moments later she told an equivalent story about Barack Obama’s grandmother and the adversity she faced, in the form of systemic sexism:
Barack’s grandmother started out as a secretary at a community bank…and she moved quickly up the ranks…but like so many women, she hit a glass ceiling. And for years, men no more qualified than she was – men she had actually trained – were promoted up the ladder ahead of her, earning more and more money while Barack’s family continued to scrape by.
It reminded me of a great story I heard from a friend. Her parents got married in the late sixties (after her Dad came back from Vietnam) and quickly became very comfortable financially. Why? Because her mother earned more than her father, so when they got married his employer significantly boosted his salary to ensure that he was the primary breadwinner in his family. They recognised that the attitude was wrong, but took the money anyway and as an impoverished young person I can’t blame them. But he got that extra money ahead of someone else, someone like Barack Obama’s grandmother.
Michelle Obama is not sexist. And I’m sure that her speech was exhaustively tested and they factored in that a few feminist bloggers somewhere would take issue with the use of the word man and decided it was worth the hit. But I think it’s really important to recognise that the “being a man” rhetoric reinforces the glass ceiling. Men got promoted above Obama’s grandmother because of what it meant to be a man, because they had to be providers and head households so they needed to be paid more.
It takes a huge amount to actually dissemble that particular prejudice, largely because so many people still believe in the manly ideal. However, I can stop casually using a phrase that encourages it.
3. Suck it:
See also: Suck on that, suck my balls, suck my dick.
I cannot count the number of times that these phrases have left me close to tears. They are horrific. At best, they make it degrading and a sign of weakness to perform oral sex on a man, which is outrageously sexist and homophobic. At worst, and far more often, they are sexually violent expressions used in angry, threatening contexts. This phrase is used so frequently that I’m sure people will want to tell me to calm down and not make such a big deal of it (or they would if those kind of people read my blog!) In fact, I’ve spent the last few days delighting over Tina Fey’s wonderful memoir Bossypants and she uses the phrase twice in the book. I also heard it used in the final of an all-female, very feminist-orientated debating competition and seemed to be the only person who responded negatively. What that suggests is that we have been frighteningly desensitized to the use of these absolutely horrific expressions.
Let’s look at why they’re so horrific. Someone does something to offend you. You angrily suggest that a fitting punishment for them would be to suck your penis (whether or not you have one) because that would be a demeaning and painful thing for them to have to do. That’s an invocation of sexual assault as deserved punishment. That’s a frightening manifestation of rape culture.
“…the limits of my language which are the limits of my world fade away on every side into areas of fighting for concepts, for understanding, for expression, for control, of which the search for the mot juste may serve as an image. Everyone, every moral being, that is every human being is involved in this fight, it is not reserved for philosophers, artists and scientists. Language must not be separated from the individual consciousness and treated as (for the many) a handy, impersonal network and (for the few) an adventure playground. Language, consciousness and world are bound together, the (essential) aspiration of language to truth is an aspect of consciousness as a work of evaluation.”
“There are such clear links between the language we use and the prejudice we practice.” Changing the way we speak in small ways is simple, we can all do it, and it will change our political, social and lived reality.