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Language Can Make Women Disappear

Words affect thought.

 

  • Europeans play football
  • Americans play baseball
  • Australians are bear-drinking surfies

A few years ago (when both language and culture were more sexist than today) Dale Spender asked some teens to play a game. She made statements like those above and asked if they could guess the rule behind the game. Girls were quicker to catch on:

You pretend you’re talking about everybody but you don’t. It’s only men.

Basically, they were using language to make women disappear. The boys had a lot of fun with this game.

Until she changed the rule. Read the rest of this entry

That’s Bitchin But Life’s A Bitch

That's bitchin!

That’s bitchin!

If you say, “That’s bitchin!” it’s good.

But if she’s bitchin, she’s annoying.

If “Life’s a bitch,” things are difficult.

If “She’s a bitch!” she’s difficult! (He thinks that’s bad.)

If “I’m a bitch!” I stand my ground. (I think that’s baaad – but in a good way!) Read the rest of this entry

Who Wants To Be A Piece Of Tail?

A piece of that?

Want a piece of that?

• Piece of tail

• Piece of ass

• Piece of “that”

That’s how a sexually attractive woman might be described.

Well, “attractive woman” is an overstatement. Attractive body part, maybe.

The whole woman isn’t wanted. Just a piece of her.  Read the rest of this entry

Women, We Are Men

Women, we are a part of the brotherhood of mankind. We are man. We are men.

Sounds odder than usual when you put it that way. Yet women can still be expected to live with the notion that we are “men” in our daily lives.

Man, mankind, brotherhood, fellowship. The generic “he,” as in Will Rogers declaration, “I never met a man I didn’t like.” With women it’s a different story?

The egalitarian Unitarian congregation I attend calls itself a “fellowship.” I heard women called men during William and Kate’s nuptials (yep, I watched the royal wedding). And four years ago when Hillary was running as the first serious woman candidate, I found it strange when she stated in a campaign speech, “Kitchen table issues … are ones the next president can actually do something about if he actually cares about it.” He? She thought Obama would win?

Some say it’s just generic. No one interprets all this as meaning men, in particular.

But how does this sound:

Problems arise when a player runs onto the field and his cleats catch the Astroturf and she falls on her face.

My husband asked, “Who are they talking about, a man or a woman?” Anyone still think “he/his/him” are understood as gender-neutral?

When I was a kid I heard that dogs were man’s best friend, and wondered why men like dogs so much.

Turns out, this manner of speaking has psychological effects.

Drake University sociologists asked college students to bring in pictures to illustrate chapters in a textbook. One group was given titles like “Culture,” “Family,” and “Urban Life.” The other group’s titles included, “Urban Man,” “Political Man,” and “Social Man.” Two thirds of those asked for “man” titles brought in male-only pictures. But only half of the students assigned generic labels did.

Another study found that men and women who used more male pronouns in their term papers drew more male than female images when asked to draw pictures illustrating sentences.

Even women’s interest in job positions is affected by male terms. So “mailman” has been changed to “mail carrier.”

With all the “he/him/his” and “man/mankind/brotherhood” still bandied about is it any wonder that when a group of students were asked to think of a typical person, most thought of a male?

As a result, men are seen as people, but women are seen as women.

And that creates all sorts of other effects. Medical and other research are more often geared toward men because they are people. Women are only half the population – a little more than half, actually! On the human scale, women fall a bit lower, and it becomes easier to see them as objects or property. (Or sex objects.)

And that affects how women are treated and what they will accept. More on all that later.

The way to break out of this problem is to consciously see what is currently below consciousness – and make change, including gender-inclusive language.

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Bitches and Dudes,” a.k.a. “Women and Men” on College Campuses

“Bitches and Dudes,” a.k.a. “Women and Men” on College Campuses

Researchers looking at the most commonly used words to describe women and men on college campuses made some interesting findings.

Labels for college men: guy, dude, boy (as in “one of my boys”), stud/homey

Labels for college women: babe, chick, slut, bitch

See a difference?

The words describing men are fairly neutral. The most negative term may be “boy,” implying immaturity, not manhood. But the phrase “one of my boys” is endearing and inclusive. “Homey” prompts thoughts of ghetto life – low class. But it also suggests streetwise toughness – a positive for men.

Stud is very positive, and was likely used a bit more ten years ago when this study was done. Player and pimp might be more common now, but they all create similar imagery: a sexually active man who is potent and adept at attracting women, getting women to submit sexually — and in so doing conquering them. Powerful imagery.

And words for women? They are all sexualized. “Babe” and “chick” indicate sexual attractiveness, alerting us to how important beauty is for women.

“Babe” infantilizes, but also suggests endearment. The term can also describe men whom women are close to. “Chick” may have come from the word chic, meaning fashionable. But thoughts of a baby bird do suggest immaturity, with the added hint of animal status.

“Slut” is the counterpart to stud, but without the celebratory salute – quite the opposite, in fact. “Bitch” can have a similar meaning as in, “A bitch sleeps with everyone but me.” Of course, “extremely unpleasant personality” can be an alternate meaning.

When men seem so interested in getting sex it seems odd to use words that shame women’s sexuality and contribute to sexual dysfunction. Perhaps it all makes conquest, and the ensuing rise in self-regard, that much sweeter.

On the whole, terms describing women are much more negative than those labeling men.

Language affects our minds, it guides how we see the world and ourselves. For more on this, see my post on how language shapes us.

When words describe women as sexual, secondary, and degraded, both women and men come to see them that way, at least unconsciously. We see the effects when less evolved men easily throw these sticks and stones at women, or when too many women swallow the terms, and without much of a whimper.

Originally posted on February 4, 2011 by

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Super Sloppy 17ths

By Genevieve Dempre

I realized I was a feminist the first time I gave myself permission to be angry with men. My first boyfriend in high school spent a lot of time undermining me in ways that felt like love. He’d tell me I was pretty but not sexy, and then have sex with me. He’d tell me I was smart, but then laugh with his brothers at how I was “ditzy.” He’d look deep into my eyes and tell me the world was ours, and how much he loved me, then tell me I was being crazy when I’d call him more than he liked, or when I’d ask for anything at all. He gave me what he wanted to give me when he wanted to give it to me, and I got to tell myself over and over again that it was what being in love was like.

That guy broke my heart when he broke up with me, and I felt like I lost my whole world. He made me feel like my world wasn’t any bigger than him and that any attempts to make it so were a result of me being “crazy.” After that I gravitated towards any guy who made me feel validated for a few minutes. I wanted to be friends with guys only—I told myself that women were catty and shallow, and that I just got along better with guys. Looking back on that time, I was desperately unhappy and also desperate to be someone who mattered. And the only people I knew who mattered were men.

I sat through marathon sports sessions and pretended to care. I cooked and I cleaned and I fetched beer and I sat by while guys made comments about other girls … girls who weren’t me, because I certainly wasn’t that girl. I wasn’t stupid and slutty and weak, I wasn’t obsessed with Sex and the City and bad alcohol, and I certainly didn’t get easily offended like all those other girls did, by stuff like porn and strippers and sexual comments.

I could keep that face on until I couldn’t. And that’s when the shortfalls of these guys became painfully apparent. When I missed my first boyfriend so much, I cried during sex with a one night stand and the guy asked if I was OK—and when I said yes, he kept going while I kept crying. When a guy cheated on his girlfriend with me and—nevermind that I was drunk and he was four years older and it was my first week of college—she stayed in a relationship with him but made sure everyone we knew heard about what an evil, dirty, boyfriend-stealing slut I was. When I was too drunk to drive home and asked a male acquaintance to drive me, and we had sex that I don’t fully remember—but he told everyone. And this stuff happened again and again, until it culminated in a night when at a fraternity party, someone grabbed a microphone and asked if anyone wanted their turn at “super sloppy seventeenths” with me.

I dropped out of school then. I felt so worthless I wanted to die. Everyone had figured it out: I was weak, worthless, stupid, and worst of all, a total whore. And after I hit rock-bottom I started to wonder why. Why was it that sex meant that something had been taken away from me and given to some guy? Why was it that guys could shamelessly talk about their sex lives, but I was supposed to be ashamed of mine? Where exactly did this slut label that was breaking my heart come from?

And then the first guy came back. After another painfully draining relationship with him, I got the opportunity to tell him to go fuck himself, to get his things out of the house and leave me to my life. I finally started living for myself. And I realized that straight white men are given power, but the rest of us have to find ours. That made me so angry and so determined at the same time, and something inside me fundamentally changed: I stopped accepting things for what they are and started asking questions about why they are that way. This changed my career trajectory in an insanely positive way. It changed how I relate to men, which led to a fantastic, egalitarian relationship with a man I plan to marry (I’m the one who proposed). And perhaps most importantly, it led to some deeply rewarding friendships with other women. Whom I stopped viewing as the enemy in my quest for male validation and started to see as fellow survivors of the patriarchy.

I found feminism like some people find religion. It changed my life and it made me whole.

This was originally posted on the Ms. Magazine Blog on March 31, 2011. The piece was part of a week-long blog carnival in honor of Feminist Coming Out Day.

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“Cock” vs “Down There”

When I ask students what they call a penis and a vagina in everyday words, two responses stand out: “cock” and “down there.”

The difference is telling. Cock: Cocky, proud, boastful, swaggering, self-satisfied. Image of a strutting cock, er, rooster.

But “down there”? Unspeakable. Embarrassing. Shameful.

Male sexuality is something to brag about, while female sexuality is something to hide.

The difference is reflected in Zestra’s difficulty getting ads on TV for a product that arouses women’s sexuality – while songs of “Viva Viagra” fill the airwaves.

The New York Times reports that TV networks, national cable stations, radio stations, and Web sites like Facebook and WebMD have all resisted airing ads for Zestra. Some agreed to broadcast ads in the early morning when most people are asleep. Others wanted disclaimers: “Not for people under 18.” Most felt that no amount of tweaking could make the ad suitable.

Many stations want to remove the words sex and arousal. Yet “An erection lasting more than four hours” is O.K.?

The manufacturer believes the resistance comes from our culture’s discomfort with women’s sexuality.

Meanwhile, normal processes of the vagina are shrouded in secrecy. Ads for one brand of sanitary napkins simply said, “Modess … Because.” Ok, that was the 70s. But even today women are embarrassed when tampons fall from their purses. Ever hear anyone say they had a “visit from Aunt Flow” when their period started?

Because female sexuality is deemed dirtier, more evil and more unspeakable, insulting slang for the vagina packs a bigger punch than slang for a penis.

Call a man a dick, and you’ve called him an idiot. Dictionary definition of dork: a whale’s penis. So a dork is a giant penis – an even bigger idiot.

But a cunt cuts deeper, moving into deeper disgrace.

Whether “down there” or “cunt,” it’s just degrees of shame.

We think that women will enjoy sex as much as men? In this atmosphere? It’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Georgia Platts

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A version of this article was originally posted on Sept. 30, 2010

Boob: A Breast? Or a Fool?

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 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 beginning to overcome the stigma, but there’s 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.

Georgia Platts

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“Bitches and Dudes,” a.k.a. “Women and Men” on College Campuses

Researchers looking at the most commonly used words to describe women and men on college campuses made some interesting findings.

Labels for college men: guy, dude, boy (as in “one of my boys”), stud/homey

Labels for college women: babe, chick, slut, bitch

See a difference?

The words describing men are fairly neutral. The most negative term may be “boy,” implying immaturity, not manhood. But the phrase “one of my boys” is endearing and inclusive. “Homey” prompts thoughts of ghetto life – low class. But it also suggests streetwise toughness – a positive for men.

Stud is very positive, and was likely used a bit more ten years ago when this study was done. Player and pimp might be more common now, but they all create similar imagery: a sexually active man who is potent and adept at attracting women, conquering them, getting women to submit sexually. Powerful imagery.

And words for women? They are all sexualized. “Babe” and “chick” indicate sexual attractiveness, alerting us to how important beauty is for women.

But “babe” infantilizes, while suggesting endearment. The term can also describe men whom women are close to. “Chick” may have come from the word chic, meaning fashionable. But thoughts of a baby bird do suggest immaturity, with the added hint of animal status.

“Slut” is the counterpart to stud, but without the celebratory salute – quite the opposite. “Bitch” can have a similar meaning as in, “A bitch sleeps with everyone but me.” Of course, “extremely unpleasant personality” can be an alternate meaning.

When men seem so interested in getting sex it seems odd to use words that shame women’s sexuality and contribute to sexual dysfunction. Perhaps it all makes conquest, and the ensuing rise in self-regard, that much sweeter.

On the whole, terms describing women are much more negative than those labeling men.

Language affects our minds, it guides how we see the world and ourselves. For more on this, see my post on how language shapes us.

When words describe women as sexual, secondary, and degraded, both women and men come to see them that way, at least unconsciously. We see the effects when less evolved men easily throw these sticks and stones at women, or when too many women swallow the terms, and without much of a whimper.

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

A friend once told me, “Words are nothing but frequencies in the air. If you don’t give them meaning, they won’t mean a thing.” Ever since he said that, I try to live my life as such.

This was a response to a blog post I made asking whether “whore” should be the “w-word.”  

“Words are only words” is great advice if you can pull it off. But most can’t. And really, words affect us all, whether we realize it or not.

As it turns out, language directs thought.

In the 1930s two anthropologists, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, learned that the Hopi Indians had no words to distinguish among the past, present, and future. Yet English uses a variety of tenses to describe specific points in time. Americans are intensely time-sensitive. Hopis? Not so much.

The anthropologists concluded that words are more than labels. Language affects how we see the world, ourselves, and how we behave.

Women are more likely to respond to a help wanted ad if the job description is “mail carrier” and not “mailman.”

In fact, we use male terms to describe humanity so much – man, mankind, brotherhood, fellowship – that when people are asked to think of a person, a man comes to mind.

When women or people of color are called words that are disrespectful and demeaning, they – along with everyone else – can internalize the notions, experiencing the words as reflecting some sort of real reality: They aren’t worth quite as much as others.

Words like whore or slut are especially powerful because women’s sexuality has long been connected to profound shame. The n-word takes African-Americans back to a time of degradation and dehumanization.

Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can also hurt us when they dig deep into the unconscious psyche of indignity and humiliation.

Georgia Platts

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