Boob. A Breast? Or a Fool?

e412ba0843ed5a18555a51ed4c185b32[1]The English language has more than 1000 words that sexually describe women or their body parts. Here are a few:

Babe, nymph, nymphomaniac, bimbo, fox, dog, beaver, freak, super freak, knockout, melons, tomatoes, whore, ho, dumb blond, shapely, pussy, boobs, hussy, slut, buxom, trim, troll, femme fatale, skank, goddess, jugs, bush, poontang, tart, loose, tramp, butch, bitch, Lolita, Betty, sex kitten, temptress, beast, promiscuous.

Sometimes neutral words take on a sexual meaning when they are applied to women. Call a man a professional and you’ll likely envision a doctor or a lawyer. But say, “She’s a professional” and “prostitute” may be the first thing that comes to mind.

An author was asked to rename a book title before publication. “The Position of Women in Society” seemed too suggestive.

“It’s easy” sounds like a simple task. “He’s easy,” might denote an easy grader. But say, “she’s easy,” and you’ll likely hear “sexually promiscuous.”

One-time courtesy titles, or even high titles, can take on sexual meanings. “Madam” is a polite way of addressing a woman. She may be the female head of household. But she may also be the female head of a house of prostitution. Mistress, another term for the female head of house, is now associated with adultery. “Lady” is a polite title. But “lady of the evening” is not. Even the highest status a woman can gain, “Queen” takes on sexual connotations when applied to a gay man or a “drag queen.”

And notice how these words are demeaning as well as sexual (“gay” is overcoming the stigma, but there’s  still a way to go). We could add drama queen and cootie queen to that mix.

Even the term boob, slang for a woman’s breast, is defined in the dictionary as, “a stupid or foolish person.” Odd that something so valued is also degraded. Is the appeal of boobs similar to the draw of a dumb blonde?

What difference does it all make?

In their work in anthropology, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf learned that words affect how we see. The Hopi Indians had no words to distinguish among the past, present, and future. And they had a difficult time with those concepts. Skiers are more attuned than most to different kinds of snow: powder, packed powder, corn, ice, slush, for example. Or, we so often use male terms to describe humanity – man, mankind, brotherhood, fellowship – that when people are asked to think of a person, a man generally comes to mind.

Words dig deep into our unconscious psyches, directing how we see ourselves and others. When we constantly hear sexual and pejorative terms describing women, women come to be sexualized and demeaned in our minds.

The language we learn is neither the fault of the men or the women of our society, in so far as baby girls and baby boys both grow up immersed in these words. What’s important is how we use language once we “get it,” and once we get that it matters.

Related posts on BroadBlogs
“Cock” vs “Down There”
Sex: Who Gets Screwed?

Words: Sticks and Stones? Or Shaping How We See Ourselves?

About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on December 31, 2012, in feminism, gender, objectification, psychology, sex and sexuality, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.

  1. I think it’s unfortunate that women are easily sexualized and demeaned more than men. I think though that one can argue that there are plenty of women who, by choice of appearance and actions, allow for this continued demeaning to go on. I can’t count how many women choose to dress so provocative for such simple occasions such as grocery shopping or simply going to an appointment. I think that men feel they are allowed to use this type of vocabulary so long as these select women continue to give them reason to. But as you have stated men have had control of this for so long, that maybe some of these women feel that they need to embrace this role of being “easy” or “a professional.”

    • One of the difficulties of life is that other people’s choices affect us. Some women and men do things that make their entire gender look bad.or that make their ethnicity look bad. So “you” do something and I suffer the consequences.

      Sucks, I know.

      Hopefully people can be educated to make these distinctions. Maybe I’ll write on this sometime.

  2. I’m not entirely convinced you couldn’t make this same argument the other way round.

    If someone is an idiot, one might refer to him as a “prick” (good since Shakespeare!), or a “dickhead”, or even a “wanker” (not perhaps common in the US, but going strong in the British-speaking world). Even the slang word “dork” means “penis” (look it up!). And if one botches a task, one makes a “balls of it”, or even a “cockup”. My old dad used to say in exasperation “What a load of old cobblers!”, without knowing that “cobblers” is old English slang for “testicles”.

    There may be more admirable terms, such as “jock”; but surely the derivation of this hypermasculine term has to do with what one puts inside one’s “jock-strap”?

    These are just a few I strung together off the top of my head. Since the earliest literature in English (e.g. Canterbury Tales), there has been a habit of using genitalia and other body parts as slang terms for both men and women. I am honestly not sure who’s winning.

    By extension, we also use other derogatory terms in a metaphoric sense: “You fucked it up, you total shit!”, both robust Anglo-Saxon terms of venerable vintage used in an unmistakeable way. (Even “futter” (pron. “footer”), which is probably not that common round your way, is innocently used by many Brits, e.g. “Stop futtering about and hurry up!” without their realising that it was once just as offensive as the four-letter word with which it shares its first two letters, and its identical meaning).

    I’m not even sure that using homosexual terms in a derogatory way is especially new. Many of my students use “gay” as a generally derogatory term, and I challenge them when I can. But the Victorians had a very rich vocabulary to describe homosexual behaviour (my favourite is “tipping the velvet”, a euphemism for what lesbians might do to each other), and I am certain that derogatory applications of these terms were common enough in their day. There was an entire Victorian slang called Polari, used by entertainers and theatre types, from which some modern words may be borrowed (Wikipedia has a generous list).

    (What would they have made of me in Polari, I wonder?).

    All good clean linguistic fun!


  3. BB,
    I found your blog today through Susan L Daniels new poem skank/goddess. She mentioned you and linked to this blog as her inspiration. I had to see what your writing was about. I like your clear and thoughtful approach to understanding how culture is transmitted and reinforced through language.

    I’ll be following your blog. It looks like I’ve got a lot to catch up on here. Thanks for writing.

  4. Wow, I had no idea there were so many different “names” for women! How many do men have? I’m a feminist so if someone(around me) says something sexist I usually have to say something! Of course we can’t forget men are becoming more sexualized and objectified too-but they have a long way to go to reach women’s current objectification!

  5. Excellent post, thought provoking as always–and because of the way the words were ordered in the graphic, I now want to write something about a skank goddess. If I do, I’ll link back. Happy new year!

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