Relationship Terms That Dehumanize Women

By  @ The Good Men Project

Like most American boys, I grew up knowing dozens of terms that objectify women’s bodies and diminish women by reducing them to just a single part. It wasn’t until my 20s that someone taught me, and I started to understand, just how dehumanizing and common all this was. Jean Kilbourne’s Killing Us Softly videos have been particularly eye-opening.

Meanwhile, we do a very good job of dismissing relationships as unimportant in American culture, even though most guys value them very much. These expressions below need to go the way of the dodo. And yes, some of these could be applied directly to men by women or have easy parallels. Those expressions need to go away too.

Expressions that eliminate free choice: 

Some of these are blatant, but some are more subtle like the notion that you can “steal someone’s girlfriend away from them.” Money, cell phones, and cattle can all be stolen because they can be legally owned. None of them, not even the cattle, have anything like human free will. But if you really believe that a guy’s girlfriend can be stolen, then you’re saying that she’s an object—property—and not a thinking human being who can make her own decisions.

Steal someone’s girlfriend: She’s an object without free will.
Do right things & she’ll be yours: 
There’s a formula that applies to all women because they’re all basically the same.
loversWin her heart: 
You win prizes, not people.
Trophy wife: 
She’s not a prize, she’s a person.
Take her off the market: 
She’s an object you can buy?
If you buy a woman a drink then she “owes” you some type of sexual favor. 
First, if you buy her a drink without her permission, she doesn’t owe you anything. That’s a gift and she is under no need to accept it or reciprocate. Second, if she agrees to let you buy her a drink, then she’s only agreeing to talk to you for the length of that drink; she is not agreeing to do whatever you want for the rest of the evening. Finally, if you think you’re being taken advantage of, then stop buying drinks for people.
Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free: 
She’s not a cow. See “owes you some type of sexual favor” for the rest.
Kept woman: 
Paying someone’s rent, keeping them in fine clothes, and otherwise paying their expenses does not mean you control every aspect of someone’s life, including what they do with their genitalia.

 Expressions that show disrespect for partner:

In theory, relationships are built on mutual respect and trust. Even in “traditional” relationships that Feminists disdain, there’s an assumption of separate spheres of expertise (paid work vs. childrearing). These expressions show no respect for a guy’s partner.

Treat them mean, keep them keen: Apparently, women don’t deserve to be treated nicely and, doing so will, in fact, lead to bad things.
Old ball and chain: Your girlfriend or wife is a nearly immovable weight intended to limit your movement.
Battle axe: Your girlfriend or wife is a lethal weapon.
Lovers_____by_the_river_4_by_anjelicekHarpy: Your girlfriend or wife is a mythical, filthy monster who lives for vengeance. Hmm, the living for vengeance sounds a lot like Elliot Rodger.
Bit on the side: She’s a person, not a “bit” which I’ve been told means “piece of a**” in this context. And I won’t bother to comment on the dishonesty inherent in having a second partner.
Make an honest woman out of her. Turns out honesty is based on sexual activity inside marriage and not the ability to keep one’s word. Who knew?
A lady on the streets but a freak in the sheets. Because double standards are so respectful.

Expressions that prioritize virginity. I have to admit that I’ve never understood the whole fascination of sex with a virgin. I wouldn’t want an inexperienced accountant or surgeon, so why would I want an inexperienced sexual partner? Whatever the deal is, these expressions say the only thing important about a woman is whether or not she’s had sex with someone before you.

Popping someone’s cherry. Do you really need someone with no experience so they’ll think you’re great in bed?
Sloppy seconds: Odds are anyone you have sex with who is 18 or older isn’t a virgin. Get used to it.
Leftovers (dating someone’s ex): See sloppy seconds.
When you get to heaven, you’ll be rewarded with virgins: Sexual slaves in heaven? Seriously? Doesn’t sound very heavenly for them.

If we start giving credence to the importance of relationships and stop belittling them, we might make our culture a nicer place.

This post originally appeared at The Good Men Project. It is lightly edited.

You might also like to read these posts from The Good Men Project:

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 March 18, 2015, in feminism, psychology, relationships, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. It’s good to be aware of all these double standards. Words make our world, in all kinds of subtle ways. Can I just point out though, that feminists do not necessarily have a problem with traditional relationships – I am a feminist and hVe been a stay at home mum for 8 years until recently. That’s just how it worked for our family. The thing is, feminists believe everyone should get to choose what they do, not have it thrust upon them.

  2. While I agree with most of this, some is a little disingenuous.

    Steal someone’s girlfriend: She may be a person and not a possession, but 99% of a romantic relationship is about ‘belonging’ to someone – or at least feeling that way. (For I am hers and she is mine.)

    Trophy wife: While I dislike the concept intensely, this is applied to marriages where to all appearances a pretty woman allows herself to be treated like a prized possession in exchange for a luxurious lifestyle.

    Take her off the market / Make an honest woman out of her: These are expressions that perhaps should be archaic, but does reflect a fundamental truth about recent history.

    Old ball and chain / Battle axe / Harpy: Metaphors pure and simple. Are we to banish ‘stud’ and ‘angel’ too? ‘Old ball and chain’ can be used affectionately, and surely ‘Battle axe’ is used as a sign of respect?

    • Metaphors are powerful. They communicate ideas into our subconscious. So they are very significant and not something to be dismissed.

      I don’t think battle ax is likely to be seen as a sign of respect by many people.

      Hopefully we have changed since recent history, and ancient times. And we need our words to change to reflect that. Otherwise we are more likely to stay stuck in the past mentality.

      • I don’t disagree, except maybe about the battle axe (which in my head translates as ‘here’s a woman you really don’t want to mess with’). But while there is plenty of gender bias in English that could do with being cleaned up, it’s far better to educate people on the meanings they’re not aware of than to attack any words that can potentially be used negatively.

      • Well, you could approach it from both sides.

  3. The importance of wanting to use the words I use and understanding what they mean are brought home to me so many times. Thanks. I had another word experience regarding the importance of words in the comments of an autism-post I had reblogged: http://wp.me/p5rjM4-X I depend on people like you and “GoneWild” to help me “see the light”.

    • I’m glad you have written about this sort of thing too. Words have effects on our psychologies, because we are bombarded by them, from the time we are very young and don’t have critical thinking skills, so they work a little bit like covert propaganda.

  4. I agree with your analysis about the dubious value of a virginal sexual partner–but, I think there’s a biological basis. If your partner is truly a virgin, you can be sure that any offspring are yours–and thus you don’t waste precious resources providing for the DNA of another. In some species, the new dominant male solves this by killing all existing offspring when he takes up housekeeping. (And, on the flip side, I think, this is the underlying basis for the evil-stepmother archetype.) The other advantage to an inexperienced sexual partner, especially for the woefully insecure, is that he/she will have nothing with which to compare your performance.
    As for the “virgins in heaven,” I think there is good evidence out there that the terrorists’ reward is, in fact, a translation error. It’s not virgins, it’s raisins, golden sultanas to be specific. They were a treasured treat in ancient times. Imagine the shock of the newly martyred when that mistranslated promise is delivered!

    • So glad to know that the terrorist “martyrs” only get raisins in heaven.

      On the point about the importance of women being virgins, But not men, women could get insecure about comparison, too.

      But you have to pay attention to your species. Cats mate with whoever and male cats don’t care. Among some primates a female mates with many males because the males of her species will kill babies that are not their own. So if she mates with a whole bunch of the males, they won’t kill the babies because they risk killing their own.

      And then there’s this: some theorists suggest that the reason guys can orgasm within a few minutes, while women require extended foreplay and have multiple orgasms, is sperm competition. Put simply, it means a lot of guys having sex with a single woman and letting the sperm fight it out for the available egg. And let the best sperm win!

      Not all human societies are concerned about female virginity. They tend to be more sex-positive and egalitarian. In societies where you don’t know who daddy is it’s more common that property is passed through females, and lineage is traced through females, which gives women power. Hence the patriarchal focus on female virginity.

      And yeah, you can expect to see a future blog post on all this.

  5. Nice post and truly said, you cant win someone like a trophy. None of the humans must be perceived as object that needs to be win to show people how strong and smart you are!! Every relation is based on trust and people fall in love because of someone’s nature not by some rules made by oneself!

  6. Some can be wrong, but other’s are just phrases or metaphors. Of course everything is bad or what feminists would feel about every little thing. And of course it’s about how it devalues women in a relationship when some terms are used for men too or both toward men too.

    “Steal someone’s girlfriend: She’s an object without free will.”
    No it doesn’t mean she doesn’t have free will. Cheating wouldn’t be seen as bad if a person could have the excuse as far as ” I couldn’t help myself or couldn’t decide for my lack of choice and free will”. We all know the woman chose to go the charming man and be seduced despite being in a relationship. I’ve heard the phrase “steal your man” or steal her man, and it goes the other way too. Not just women.

    “Win her heart: You win prizes, not people”. Taking it way too literal. Fact of the matter, is that women are the choosers and make the decisions in dating. So naturally men think of ways to be the most attractive with actions or word, as in creating attraction or something nice for thier loved one to have her appreciate him and “win her heart”.

    “A lady on the streets but a freak in the sheets. Because double standards are so respectful.”

    There are double standards with virgin and whore. but I understand what it means and only you and others have such a problem with the meaning and take it literally. Most guys want this, and yet like I said, it goes the other way. There isn’t a phrase but women have made a comment of liking a gentleman on the streets and freak in the sheets, or him being great in bed. Men and women don’t want their SO’s acting classless in out in public or trashy, but in private and in the sheets and that wild side unleashed is another story.

    “Sloppy seconds: Odds are anyone you have sex with who is 18 or older isn’t a virgin. Get used to it.”

    To me and how iv’e heard it is that it’s not really about someone who has had sex with someone before. It’s a term usually in reference to a man say making out with a girl, but after she’s already made out with the guy’s buddy before him. Or she has sex with a bunch of guys in a short period of time, maybe friends with each other and the guy having sex with her last after her with the others guys in this time just before him. It’s about timing, more than her having had sex with men or a man before you. I’ve heard women use that term about other women or it’s a general term.

    How about sugar daddy? You bring up like women are property and how that’s right.. What about such terms toward men. Such terms you say are about women being property or sexual property. Such terms like that are of or can refer to men as monetary property. Sugar daddy is like a man being wallet basically.

  7. “and trophy wife”. Well shouldn’t you be more upset of the men who marry or get in relationship with women for the sole purpose of her looks and her being their “arm candy”. Oh there’s another term related to trophy wife. Is the term really bad when it’s in reference to the situation of some relationships of rich men and their “trophy wives?”. This refers to such particular relationships, not a general, pretty woman ugly rich man. But the hot women who don’t have much as far as success, not the best personality, not too smart and really only thing going for them is their looks, hence “trophy wife”.

    • The fact that something is a metaphor and not taken literally doesn’t matter. It still communicates something.

      All language is symbolic. Whether something as a metaphor or symbolic it teaches us about the world and our place in it.

      I’ve written more about language here:

      Words: Sticks and Stones? Or Shaping How We See Ourselves?
      https://broadblogs.com/2010/11/10/words-sticks-and-stones-or-shaping-how-we-see-ourselves/

      • Why do you write about it against women, when women use some terms in relation to other women of “she’s his sloppy second” or can refer thingss towards men too. Stole her man used too just like steal his girlfriend. Men can be used as property though in a different way too. Like I brought up sugar daddy, like he’s simply a wallet. To me sugar daddy is no different than trophy wife except objects in diffferent ways. Trophy wife an object of beauty, sugar daddy the object of wealth. The man who has the trophy wife, might also be the sugar daddy to that wife..

      • I didn’t write it. I reposted it. A man wrote it, and mention that you could turn it around and that it’s a problem when we use these terms with regard to men, too. Maybe I’ll write something someday that covers both genders.

      • It was amazing to watch this video about dehumanizing women. I have notice beautiful actresses and models for a while. I always thought that the images were really actually them. Women are natural with their beauty as it develops in many different forms. There are obesity and anorexic women that are beautiful. I never understood depression about someone. Is that not being happy with them self and their life? Why are the magazines dehumanizing women by digitizing their images. I like how Kate Winslet commented on the magazine editors about how they changed her body to look more thin. Relationships can be more exciting when the couple are just natural and full of love. I would not want my woman to be something she really is not. People can make a difference to themselves by doing it themselves, by wanting to make things better with determination.

  8. It is easy to take such expressions for granted, to have no awareness of the underlying implications that they still carry. I really appreciate the list- will make me think twice before using any of them again for sure.

  9. Terrific video, thank you!

  10. This probably has to be one of my biggest pet peeves that men think they can “steal” one from another. Its true like the post says we have also have a say if we decide to leave on for another, they are basically making it seem like we have no rights or say. Especially the one about buying a women a drink and she owes you a sexual favor, This is just ridiculous to me ! That is reason why i never allow anyone to buy me nothing because i do not like to owe anyone anything. One time this guy I was talking to a guy and when I told him it wasnt working out becuase I didnt feel like we were going anywhere he started to yell at me about the things hes bought me and that I owed him a chance and a try. SO yeah thats whats pushed me to not take anything from no one. We are not sex objects we arent merely going to have sex with someone because they buy me something.

  11. I think that if a man actually cared about his girlfriend or wife he wouldn’t use many of these expressions when speaking of her. If he is using those expressions when speaking of her than theres something wrong with their relationship. The one time I do hear words like that coming from husbands is usually when they are drunk. The expressions that eliminate free choice are a lot more common and I hear them all the time. At the end of the day they are all humans and men shouldn’t be looking at them as objects. If women started doing that to men, then they would make it a big deal, even though its happening to women and they think its normal.

  12. While we’re talking about the dehumanizing nature of female terms, I would like to bring up the words “slut” and “whore,” which have always bothered me for their one-sidedness. In general, female terms are extensions of male terms (which are considered the default words). For example, “dude” and “dudette” or “governor” and “governess.” So why is it that the words with negative connotations towards sexuality are suddenly default female words? “Whore” and “slut” are automatically associated with the feminine. The word “manwhore” simply does not have the same impact, and is generally substituted with a more positively-driven word such as “player.”
    Another phenomenon that occurred throughout my high school years was the beginning of “that’s what she said” jokes. Suddenly anything that a girl said could be turned into a sex joke. For example, a female student could be trying to fit her binder in her locker. Suddenly saying “I can’t get it in” became a sex joke. It’s actually kind of remarkable how these jokes were literally being applied to anything a female said in everyday life (at least from what I heard everyday in high school). However, “that’s what he said” jokes never occurred, and if anyone tried it, it was not considered funny in the least. In my opinion, the one-sidedness of this kind of humor further isolated (and continues to isolate) women, emphasizing females as merely receivers of sex rather than taking part in a mutual act.

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