5. slut talk

This is the manuscript blog; Best read in sequence so start with 1 and work your way through. Enjoy!

The Master and the Mistress of the household once enjoyed much the same status, yet today, mistress is so associated with ‘dirty’ meanings that the difference between an ‘Old Mistress’ and an ‘Old Master’ is enough to make you snigger. And so it is with a multitude of words in the English language that are intended to insult and demean and humiliate women in a way that there is no equivalent for men. IT’S SLUT TALK!

It makes women feel wrong and debased as well: and it promotes guilt and doubts. Which is just another way of saying that it works.

Why is it that every study that has ever been done indicates that men over-report their skills (and the amount of housework they do) while women under-report theirs? Why do men even THINK that they qualify for a job when the KNOW they only possess 40% of the required skills, when women who possess 90% of the required skill set believe they probably won’t be able to do it?  Such behaviours are learned; they are not genetic.

(And it is interesting how both sexes share these assumptions; both women and men are likely to think the man is more capable of doing the job! Even when he is a dud!)

I worry about these findings: what are the cultural blind spots that always ensure men are more visible, more talented, more to be taken at their word? Is it the men themselves or the way they have defined their role in society while they have controlled the public realm?

Every study shows that men’s voices carry more weight than women’s. (And it is true that if a man ever presented my research that men talk too much – he would be taken much more seriously than I would be.)

At the same time there are myths that women are garrulous, nagging and empty-headed; they are hesitant when they talk, go round and round in circles, and don’t finish their sentences. Yet I have found no evidence for this in my research – and neither has anyone else! But when I say it, and demonstrate it – the words and meanings evaporate into the ether because we have no name that would reinforce this evidence.

There can be no doubt that slut talk is a contributing factor to the visibility and power of men and the vulnerability of women.

Sheryl Sandberg urges us to ‘Lean In’, take a seat at the table; at the same time she acknowledges that women who do, are often penalised for such confidence and audacity. When the definition of womanhood is of one of nurturing and caring, women who don’t behave according to the stereotype are not proper women.

Not that proper women are held in high esteem either  – but the ones who break the rules and ask for a pay increase and the corner office  – can be considered even less capable than women who go quietly. And the ones who stand up for themselves – according to both women and men – are unlikely to make good working colleagues!

This says Hanna Rosin, is why no matter the status or the success, there’s always that little voice in your head that urges you to be nice (p35).

Lois Frankel talks of the thin pink line that women must walk between being aggressive and acceptable, and her negotiation tips are interesting, amusing, and useful. ‘We all have to deal with jerks’ she says, ‘and we want to send them to hell. But we want them to think it will be an enjoyable journey’. Tough call sometimes!

I agree with her analysis; but I think it is another job that’s added to women’s already unfair workload.

Over and over again there are questions as to why women haven’t progressed further along the road with ‘the equality project’ as Anne Summers (2013) appropriately calls it. It’s a good term. And she provides a rational explanation for the delay: the misogyny factor. ‘The embodiment of resistance to the equal participation of women and men in our society; (p21). I agree. But how does this work?

What I want to do is to try and pin down this misogyny factor. To look at the way that misogyny is embedded in the everyday language we use – and how it is that we don’t usually notice it. It is cumulatively toxic for women and I want to expose it – and get beyond the symptoms to the cause.

There are areas where women have been incredibly successful; for not much more than a century we have been allowed access to education and already we are more than half the students and generally are getting better grades. And there are reasons for this.

Hanna Rosin (2012) quotes a study done in the dorms of American students where they found most of the boys were in the dorms playing video games (and watching porn) while the girls dorms were empty; they were in the library working.

She also outlines the significant economic gains made by women over the last decade – as they begin to dominate many professions such as accountancy, auditing, pharmacy, medical technology, GPs, Vet Science etc.

But at Yale, one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the USA, a group of women students filed a complaint against the university for ‘tolerating a hostile environment on campus’. The students referred specifically to a campaign in 2010 where fraternity freshmen stood outside the women’s dorms and chanted: NO MEANS YES: AND YES MEANS ANAL (p17).

I was shocked when I read this. It brought back some of the feelings I had when I first read Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch: ‘Women have no idea how much men hate them’.

The same men who stood outside the dorms in this campaign also referred to the women students as sluts! ‘Girls in the dorm complained about the double standards, about being called sluts, about not being treated with respect’ says Hanna Rosin (p22). They didn’t have to do anything other than exist to warrant such abuse!

Yale is a university where women have become the academic stars. So significant has been the drop in male enrolments across America that the private universities have introduced affirmative action programs for males – weighting the male students with anything from 6 to 9 points on their admission scores. (It is illegal to do this in state universities.) This dramatic move hasn’t raised many protests; there doesn’t seem to be the same righteous anger about injustice if affirmative action applies to males!

So even when women do jump through the hoops and over the hurdles, and experience success, this is how they can be treated. The attitude that is the source of such behavior goes much further than disrespect or humiliation. It’s a war-cry – a declaration of women as sluts and unworthy of consideration. In fact – there’s really no word that would cover what I mean about this aggression and malevolence that passes for ‘boys will be boys’.

Women simply don’t have the words to name this base behavior; we need more   to name what it means to be on the receiving end  – words that don’t link women with being in the wrong when they are just a target, not an agent.

Most significantly, for the language to be a fair resource for both sexes – women need more words that name men: particularly when male behaviour is disgraceful, irresponsible, cruel, brutal and sexually unwelcome.

I believe that it’s the failure of the English language to fairly represent the way women view themselves and their world, which helps to explain WHY women are seen to be wrong and without authority. Why we underestimate our skills, and even why we think we need to be nice. For some of us niceness is not necessarily a personality characteristic  – it’s a survival skill!

If women could name the world – no doubt they would see themselves as the central force of the universe and view men as irresponsible, uneducated, needing endless ego massage, requiring constant supervision – and often dangerous: and  forever making a mess that had to be cleaned up afterwards.

(And for such comments I am likely to be called anti-male, whereas the men who chanted  outside the women’s  dorm have not been called anti-female and would probably protest loudly if they were!)

It’s the inequality that’s the issue; the one-sidedness of it all. It’s the blind spots and the biases when ONLY men have the right to imprint their sense of self on humankind. And build a whole knowledge structure based on it so that those who don’t meet their norm are wrong. This is how authority and credibility and power and are maintained.

In the long distant past when names were devised for human roles and behavior – there was often a form of gender parity for women and men. King and Queen for example: (though it was generally the case that the Queen was only as important as the King – if no King could be produced.)

But the words that were associated with women soon became slutty.

Being of noble birth was no protection for a woman: the male retains the status while the women descends into the abyss of sexual promiscuity. Take Courtier and Courtesan for example: the courtier still commands the respect due to the aristocrat but the courtesan – although an upper class female – is still a woman who sells sex!

King and Queen haven’t done so well either; Kings may keep their kudos but Queens are another matter entirely; Elizabeth I referred to herself as the ‘Governess of all England’ and while a Governor may remain a man of substance, a governess has slipped far down the social scale and although she sometimes becomes a slut (particularly in men’s novels) she does not always descend into the depths of depravity. (See Jane Eyre!)

We may still show some deference to the Lords of the Manor, but there can be no doubt about the occupations of the Ladies of the Night; likewise with Sir and Madam. A ‘Sir’ may be a titled gentleman, a Baronet; but a Madam is more likely to own a brothel.

Patron and Matron were once equivalent terms, and when I was asked to be a Patron of the Alliance of Girls Schools, I did ask whether I could be the Matron! But it just got to be too difficult to explain and to use. So many people thought I was barmy wanting to be called Matron!

Some words have gone too far to be reclaimed. New ones are necessary.

Even words that start out life as positive – slide into sluttery over time. The word ‘tart’ for example once referred to someone warm, and affectionate but now comes under the heading of sexual appetite.

Prostitute, call girl, trollope, strumpet, broad, hooker, ho, skank, slut, scrubber, slattern, nymphomaniac, wench, floozy, harlot, hustler, moll etc; and while whore, and wench and harlot once referred to either sex —–guess what? They now just refer to slutty women. That’s how the English language works. And how women are sexually – and therefore as a gender – discredited.

Of course it is almost as bad for a woman to be sexually unavailable (its often more dangerous) as it is to be sexually promiscuous. ‘Frigid’ was a word that was used in my day to describe any girl who wouldn’t ‘come across’. I did note that the males who used such terms never questioned that it might have something to do with the limitations of their own sex appeal! That he didn’t get sex was entirely the fault of the girl! 

Bachelor and spinster were also words that were overloaded with meaning in former times.

‘Bachelor’ and ‘spinster’ and even ‘old maid’ (at 20!) might well have suggested the lifestyle of single women and men. However, where the bachelor supposedly chose his status and was deemed to be attractive and fancy free – the old maid was left on the shelf, unwanted, unable to find a man, embittered and barren, ‘who was a prim nervous person who frets over inconsequential detail’.

While these meanings linger – the lives of women have changed a great deal over the last fifty years. (The language however hasn’t kept pace with the shifts.)

Women are not necessarily dependent on men today in western countries. In the US 40% of wives now earn more than their husbands and this is challenging the old sexual relations. (Even one Bible teacher reported to Hanna Rosin that she had to stop teaching the stories about men being the head of the house – because for most of the kids in Sunday School, their mother was the breadwinner!)

It’s not so long ago that marriage was the only career open to women and they were humiliated by the status of spinster (still the legal term for single women on many official forms!).  Some high status men however – whose words take up space in the public sphere  – still think the world revolves around them and that what women want is to get a good catch and get him to the altar!

Former US Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, periodically finds herself grilled on why she never married, most notably in 2011 with host Piers Morgan, who asked her with startling condescension whether she was ‘high maintenance’. “Do you hold out hope?” he inquired patronizingly. (Liza Mundy p71)

This says it all.

Currently no matter what we do, what ever we accomplish, or how well we succeed, we are always defined in relation to men and their desires/ fantasies.

There are no words that name our autonomous achievements; and this is a distinct drawback in our efforts to advance the equality project. Without our own words we are still defined as the sluts – and good for one thing only! This is part of the misogyny factor.

 

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