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Sticks and Stones Do Hurt

Words matter, so let’s ditch the ones that denigrate women

Many of us remember a time when the only acceptable way to refer to a married woman was by her husband’s name: Mrs. John Smith. Lots of us probably shudder to recall patronizing terms such as “authoress” and “lady realtor,” and applaud the rise of gender-neutral terminology such as “flight attendant” and “police officer.”

But our language is still pockmarked with pejorative words that apply only to women — words we don’t even realize are damaging, even misogynist. Case in point: the word “slut,” which still has hugely harmful power. It’s launched at a girl or woman who, by someone else’s standards, has had too many sexual partners … or perhaps more commonly, when someone wants to spread a rumour to that effect. (If it’s used about a male, it’s always in a positive, joking way.)

It’s a bad enough word on its own, made far worse when you realize there’s no male equivalent. In fact, the words that relate to a male’s sexual activities are all positive. There’s no insult of equal power aimed at men, because our culture still encourages men to engage in behaviour we punish women for. Have you ever heard someone talk neutrally or positively about a woman’s “sexual prowess”? Have you ever heard a teenage girl spoken of approvingly for her “conquests”? Now think about how casually we resort to words like — apologies for repeating them here — whore, skank or bitch, and then about how we have no similar insults for men.

There are plenty of other examples. We dismiss a female politician as being like a “schoolmarm” (a word that’s never used any more except as a putdown), but what about all those male politicians who talk down to or lecture us? And when we say someone’s “nagging,” it’s pretty much a sure thing that person is not a man.

Women continue to be identified by their status as a mother or grandmother in contexts when men are allowed simply to be themselves. An Associated Press sports item that ran in many Canadian newspapers this summer described a hard-fought match between two champion tennis players as a “battle of the moms.” No doubt both Serena Williams and Evgeniya Rodina are proud to be mothers, and of the fact that they’ve returned to top form after giving birth. But can you even imagine a sports writer describing Patrick Marleau trying to score on Carey Price, or Chris Sale pitching to Vladimir Guerrero Jr. as a “battle of the dads”? Of course not.

These are not small things. When we unthinkingly accept our language’s biases, we’re supporting unfairness. That’s because when we call a woman a slut, we’re also reinforcing generations’ worth of restrictions on women’s personal lives and sexuality. When we refer to a prominent woman as a grandmother first and an esteemed professional second, we undercut her achievements. When we describe women’s intimate conversations as gossip, we trivialize them. When we make mother-in-law jokes, we play into cruel stereotypes.

Our language has grown and improved and will continue to do so. One way we can help it become more fair and kind is by asking a simple question: Would I describe a man that way?

By Nancy Payne