Sexism and Swear Words


Warning: this post contains swear words. Even the offensive ones. Especially the offensive ones.

I find it offensive that the worst swear words, the most offensive, the rarest to be used and the ones that have the greatest impact are words for female genitalia.

When “dick” is a swear word so low on the list some kids can get away with it, when “cock” and “bollocks” are not far behind, “balls” doesn’t even count, why are slang words for female genitalia so bad?

Personally, I have always felt words only contain the power you give them, so many swear words have no effect on me. In a discussion with a friend about this post, she asked what the most offensive thing I could be called was, and I said “selfish”. There really is only one word that I find unacceptable for anyone to use and that word is “faggot”. Why? Because the etymology is that it means “burden”, and that’s just not a very nice thing to call someone. Particularly when you’re intimating that their sexuality is the cause of their being a burden on society.

But calling me a vagina? A penis? A female dog, a prostitute or poo? Yeah, I don’t really find that offensive.

That’s not to say I won’t react if you call me names, of course I will – you’re trying to hurt me and that’s offensive. The intent behind the words is a lot more important to me than the words themselves.

But I can’t help being continuously bothered that words for female genitalia outrank words that mean excrement in the offensive factor. Are you saying my genitals are more offensive than saying a person is akin to fecal matter?

Germaine Greer once said of cunt “it is one of the few remaining words in the English language with a genuine power to shock.”

In researching this post I tried to establish the etymology of the c-word, which wasn’t a hugely easy task. It seems to be widely disputed between being a German or Danish word for “vagina” or a Middle English word for “vulva”. Neither of those things are offensive to me.

“Pussy” was less hard to identify – starting out as a word for cat that evolved to mean woman, then evolved to vagina by the eighteenth century. It’s use these days seems to be exclusively reserved for calling a man feminine in a derogatory manner and referring to a vagina in an overtly sexual and/or derogatory way.

So why are words for males and their bits less offensive than females? I can’t help but think it’s yet enough example of the every day sexism we have allowed to permeate our culture in a possibly irritrievable way.

What’s the solution? I’m not entirely sure. I would suggest we start to take the power out of these words by refusing to find them as offensive as they currently are, but I know many women would disagree with me.

What do you think? Do you find some swear words more offensive than others? Would it offend you to hear the words ‘cunt’ or ‘pussy’ in everyday conversation?



  • Runs With Chainsaws.

    I don’t agree.

    It comes down to dilution, frequency of use.

    This is a case of the feminist’s lens making everything seem sexist. Male genital insults are more ubiquitous and more used and as with most language, that which is in use becomes more acceptable. This is caused mostly by the insults been leveled at men most often creating an environment where they either accept it, or continuously fight back. We have the former not the latter here.

    It is because men are subject to more ribbing, more suck-it-up, more invisible insults, that there are many more insults for a man and ergo, many variations of the male genitalia entering the common vernacular in the form of insults?

    What is happening is men are the butt of more jokes by men and women and the penis is a frequent way to get there fast.

    The quick fix to the perception that female genitals are a bigger insult is to use the insult more often and create new euphemisms for the vagina, though the problem then would be a feminist issue.

    That’s my problem with feminism:

    More men are insulted more often with a wider range of versions of their genitalia creating the more jarring effect of the lesser used female genitalia insults = Sexism against women.

    The fix – equally insulted women and think up many more names for their genitals.

    The result:

    More women are insulted more often with a wider range of versions of their genitalia creating the more jarring effect of the lesser used male genitalia insults = Sexism against women.

    There’s always a few ways to look at something, but if you sit and think of all the male genital insults you can, every single one of them and then look at how oft they are thrown around, then you can see that dilution and the easy-male-target are also viable reasons as to why you see things as they are.

    • Tamsin Howse

      To be honest, I’m not sure I agree that using the words more and therefore taking away their power would cause a feminist issue – I’m pro taking away the power of words. I think it would resolve this issue entirely.

  • Bradley

    When I was younger and working in hotels, I heard swearwords so regularly that I am now completely desensitised to any intended shock value. The only time I am likely to take offence is when the words are directed towards myself or my wife. Even then, the offence is very short lived.
    I honestly hope that this excellent blog is not in the throws of becoming the next “Mamamia”, looking for and finding sexism hidden in everything from an umbrella stand to a cup of tea. Seriously, if you deliberately go looking for something you are bound to find it. My head is still spinning following your recent article associating the consumption of certain foods with sexism.

    • Tamsin Howse

      I think a different article must have been read to the one I wrote about food and sexism. It was not about the consumption of certain foods, it was about the comments of people to women about what they eat and their bodies.

  • Maree Talidu

    I find the ‘C’ word to be utterly offensive and will never use it. For me it’s not the female genitalia being an issue, it’s the intent behind the word when it’s used. I don’t like the F word either and am at pains to stop my students using profanity of any sort, I don’t want them to become desensitised to foul language, but ‘C*nt’ makes me really, really angry. Not because I’m a woman and they are using another word for ‘vagina’ as a put down, but because of the power the word has taken on, the new meaning that has been given to it.

    • Tamsin Howse

      Completely hear you, and agree that the intent of the word being used can be incredibly offensive.

    • Jane Rankin

      There was an occasion when a person under discussion was called a C. The immediate response from someone was, “C’s are useful. Joe Bloggs isn’t”.

  • Kristel Wood

    Really well articulated, this was something I was chatting with someone about only recently. I really don’t think it’s turning everything into a feminist ploy to say everything is sexist, but certain things like our language do reflect what’s making up our culture and we aren’t there yet as far as there being not significant sexism…sure we are further along than 20,50, or 100 years ago and much more liberated and equal than a number of other cultures, there’s plenty that is subtle, maybe this is a more obvious (though it would seem not to some). I can’t stand the use of the C work because of how I’ve mostly heard it used as the height of insults, yes that keeps giving it power but unless we can collectively change everyone’s intent behind, it will take some time for language to evolve in a helpful way by constant use.

  • Laura

    Love this article. I performed in The Vagina Monologues at the start of the year and it made me a lot more comfortable saying the word cunt out loud (as in referring to my own body part). My boss (who was the incidentally the director of the performance) told me the word could be reclaimed and re-framed positively because it’s origins were in a fertility goddess. The word vagina translates to “sword sheath” from latin- not convinced this is the way most women consider their vagina.

    Words are so interesting! <3

    • Tamsin Howse

      Sword sheath!! That’s hilarious! And, sadly, demonstrates the sexist nature of language.