What if words matter? Thoughts on “pussy” and “slut” and word baggage

Having just returned from a visit to the Pacific Northwest where I lugged suitcases across Oregon and Washington, I have baggage on my mind. Currently, my unpacked suitcase is swollen with my finds from the Portland Saturday Market and Pike Place Market. And dirty laundry. Ah, if only it were filled with Voodoo Doughnuts, but those don’t travel so well. Alas, my suitcase will be far easier to unpack than the baggage that comes along with words. While away, a lively debate ensued among some feminist friends of mine about the word “Slut” and its usage in the many SlutWalks taking place around the world. As I missed this glorious and erudite debate, I am posting this carry-on- size food for thought about words and baggage.  (For some posts on  Slutwalk, see  here, here, here, here, here, and here)

Before my holiday, I posted on what I saw as the unnecessary (and sexist) use of the term pussy in Super 8 (Super 8 and The Monstrous Pussy” at Womanist Musings and “Super 8’s ‘Super Pussy’” at Ms. Blog). Reading through the comments, especially those at the Womanist Musings thread, which include many claims that the use of the word is “historically accurate,” got me thinking – can words ever truly  be “reclaimed” or, to stick with the baggage metaphor, unpacked? Granted, Super 8 is not trying to unpack the word “pussy” – rather, the film uses it in its common sexist meaning – i.e. pussy=coward=being like a woman.

But, could “pussy” be put in a pleasant new bag, one with nice polka-dots or a furry peace sign? Some think so. Some also think “cunt” could be repackaged into a term of feminist empowerment.

As for myself, I think it is difficult to entirely reclaim words as they cannot be drained of their historical baggage.

Words matter.

In fact, they matter so much that they almost have a material weight to them – a baggage that cannot simply be ignored or erased.

Words are like suitcases, carrying with them all manner of meanings and socio-historical links.

I don’t think we can easily “reclaim” words any more readily than we can “reclaim” lost baggage at the world’s most disorganized airport.

(And, as for Speilberg and Abrams, well, they likely travel first class and don’t have to think about the “baggage” some of us on the other side of the privilege matrix must lug around. And their baggage, is of course, filled with BALLS, not pussy – which, are, I might add, far more vulnerable than the mighty pussy!  Thus, isn’t “Don’t be such a testicle” more apt? I would love to hear that in a summer blockbuster sometime!)

What if we used the word ‘virgin’ in accordance with its original meaning?

In her text Willful Virgin, Marilyn Frye offers a sketch of what she calls “wild women,” or “willful virgins,” suggesting that a reclamation of the term virgin is a necessary feminist move. According to Frye’s redefinition, a virgin is an independent feminist who refuses to kowtow to patriarchal norms of femininity, attractiveness, or sexuality. Virgins, she argues, know that “Their sexual interactions are not sites where people with penises make themselves men and people with vaginas are made women.”  Rather, virgins are wild and willful humans, not subjugated property. This revamping of the word takes it back to its original meaning, according to Frye:

“The word ‘virgin’ did not originally mean a woman whose vagina was untouched by any penis, but a free woman, one not betrothed, not bound to, not possessed by any man. It meant a female who is sexually and hence socially her own person. In any version of patriarchy, there are no Virgins in this sense.”

Here that purity ball fanatics? There are NO virgins on our patriarchal planet as patriarchy rules out female freedom from male dominance. Granted, according to Frye’s concept of the term, there are many ‘demi-virgins’ or ‘near virgins’ – they are those women not controlled by male bosses, leaders, lovers, etc. However, I am not sure if we have any true virgins as even the woman who is sexually and socially her own person lives within a society in which rape, sexual harassment, and sexism are rampant. She lived within a society that does not allow women to be entirely free of male dominance.

But, how does Frye’s recuperation of the term differ from the use of virgin in common parlance today? Well, currently we use virgin to mean:

  • someone who is ‘holding out’ until marriage and may have promised their virginity to dear old dad in a sick, incestuous romp known as a purity ball
  • someone who is ‘tantalizing jailbait’
  • a female who has not had vaginal sex (apparently oral and anal don’t count)
  • someone who is sexually naïve and may very well be unf***able (as in ‘not hot’ via sexist standards)

Most often, the term virgin is used in association with women as the female body is the one designated as property within patriarchy. Ironically, this is in keeping with the original meaning of the term. Yet, today, ‘virgin’ is not used to refer to a free woman, but to designate whether a woman’s vagina has been penetrated by a penis.

Historically, virgin was often used to mean ‘unmarried’ – as in not owned by a man. A virgin was thus property for the taking (sadly, not all too different from today…).  Another interesting historical tidbit is that the so-called ‘Virgin Mary’ was actually the ‘Young Mary.’ As Barbara G. Walker documents in The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets,  “Hebrew Gospels designated Mary by the word almah, mistakenly translated ‘virgin,’ but really meaning ‘young woman.'” Kind of puts a dent in the whole miraculous conception narrative, doesn’t it? Yet, this narrative took hold because it is so useful for patriarchy. Or, as Walker puts it, “The impossible virgin mother was everyman’s longed-for resolution of Oedipal conflicts: pure maternity, never distracted from her devotion by sexual desires.”

Currently, the cultural fixation on female virginity is accompanied by the excessive sexual objectification of women. As such, females are given the message to be as sexy as possible, to be sexually desirable, but to simultaneously stay ‘pure.’ This paradigm results in the designation of ‘non-virginal’ women as ‘sluts’; the cultural message is too ‘look slutty’ but not ‘be slutty.’

Now, if ‘slut’ were a compliment, that would be one thing. But it is not. It is far from the female equivalent of male terms such as stud, player, pimp, or manwhore. As Jessica Valenti writes in her book He’s a Stud, She’s a Slut, “Men can’t be sluts…there isn’t a word-let alone a concept-to signify a male slut.” This is key as slut is the flipside of virgin: both terms are about controlling women. Even male purity balls make this agenda clear via their focus on not defiling someone else’s future wife!

While the reclamation of the term virgin is a nice theoretical dream, the reality is that within heteronormative corporatist patriarchy, women are the booty anyway you slice it – whether one is ‘hot virgin booty’ or a ‘dirty slut,’ our culture still defines women via their sexual availability (and desirability) to men. The use of the term virgin today is almost reaching fetish proportions. As if the cult of  virginity perpetuated by abstinence only education and the cultural espousal of virginity hawked in popular culture were not enough, we know have re-virginization surgery – a female genital mutilation procedure rapidly gaining in popularity. Too bad we don’t have a re-virginization of the term itself that would return it to what it once meant – a free woman. Wouldn’t that just put a nice spin on ‘purity balls’? Instead of the sick celebration of female as male property they are now, they would become feminist fests where females could declare their refusal to be owned or controlled by any man.