(Katherine Woolford wrote this as a final paper for HIS 384: Gender and Sexuality in Modern America, with Professor Margot Canaday. The prompt was to create an additional lecture for a topic that was missing from the course.)

Through history, marginalized groups are labelled with the intention of putting people in boxes. These labels allow for structured hierarchies, easily identifiable because these words carry with them qualifications of good and bad, lesser and greater. Some of these labels, such as slut, queer, bitch, and swish, are inherently gendered or sexualized and have negative sentiments. Their history shows the evolution of how society regulated these groups, and how even these groups would divide themselves. All of these words became popular with the intention of dividing and ostracizing groups that were considered outsiders or undesirable, and many were oriented around upholding strict gender roles. Recently, there have been movements at the close of the 20th century to reclaim these pejorative labels in solidarity and resistance to these oppressive expectations of what is normal.

Many of the topics we’ve discussed so far in class have included these labels. Today’s lecture will focus on how these words were used politically and personally to invoke a sense of power, belonging, or lack thereof, even as some of the terms underwent cultural initiatives for reappropriation.

Many gendered slurs were originally used as medical categories and as swear words referring to human anatomy, but the 20th century is when they were first applied to people based on their personality, in a manner intended to insult. According to the Encyclopedia of Swearing, cunt was originally used in the 1200s, but along with many other anatomical, four-letter Anglo Saxon words, it only became a pejorative to be applied to a person’s attitude instead of their body in the 20th century.[1] The same time period bore witness to the addition of multiple pejorative terms for homosexual men. The Encyclopedia of Swearing states, “The naming of homosexuals directly reflects public attitudes toward this sexual condition or preference.”[2] So, as homosexuals were defined in connection to their gender roles than any acts they performed, it became more about the type of person somebody was rather than what they did. The timeline is as follows: faggot – 1918, fag – 1923, dyke – 1931, queer – 1932.[3] These recent additions followed the first use of homosexual as a clinical term at the end of the 19th century, and were spurred by the military’s desires to keep homosexuals out of the armed forces.[4] Therefore, early on, the slurs for homosexual men were more related to their femininity and their submissive, or receiving, role in sexual intercourse. This was considered to be inversion of the sex, and a mental perversion. When labelling this abnormality, the term queer meant strange or odd at its beginnings, and was used descriptively and about sexuality (i.e., “he is queer”) in 1919, and later applied as a noun (i.e., “he is a queer”) in 1930s.[5] The changing of adjective to noun reduced a person to that singular identity, forcing these people into groups with whatever stereotypes and prejudices were associated with them.

Slurs and negative labels oriented at sexuality, such as queer, faggot and swish, were strategically associated with political movements that involved regulation of outsiders. All three were all assigned to men who did not ascribe to expected gender roles.

As discussed in earlier lectures, faggot and queer were used by doctors and enlistment officers in the military as a means of isolating feminine men unfit for duty. To spot a queer man, an enlistment officer might notice a man that “acted sort of peculiar, walking around with his hands on his hips… [H]is manner was not masculine… The expression with the eyes and the gestures… If a man was walking around and did not act real masculine,” he could be identified as queer.[6]

More recently, faggot and queer are used to police men, both homosexual and heterosexual, for behaving in too feminine a manner, bringing gender roles in to connection with sexuality once again. In Shawn Meghan Burn’s analysis of heterosexuals’ use of the terms queer and faggot as negative or insulting epithets for their friends, she finds the prevalence of this anti-gay language is dangerous whether or not a gay person is on the receiving end of the slur. Fag and queer are tossed around among college-aged male friend groups as defense mechanisms to defend against any insinuations (real or not) of a “less-than” qualification of their masculinity. Burn warns, “This behavior perpetuates anti-gay prejudice and violence by suggesting that it is socially acceptable to exhibit bias against gays.”[7] This out-group policing of perceived effeminacy or abnormalcy is unnecessarily hostile, putting gay men in an environment where they are constantly reminded of their statuses as outsiders.

Once the condition of homosexuality was newly understood in regard to sexual object choice by midcentury, some gay rights advocates turned on members of their own community. In-group policing of the queer community during the 1940s-1960s was rooted in politics. Hoping to gain legal protection and medical recognition as accepted members of society, many gay men embraced gender roles and masculinity while ostracizing and abandoning a large portion of the gay community in the process. Swish was applied to gay men who did not uphold traditional masculine ideals, effectively ostracizing those that were “other.”[8] The politics behind this can be explained by Social Theorist Michael Warner, who describes the significance of naming groups: “the way a group is defined has consequences for how it will be mobilized, represented, legislated for, and addressed.”[9] This strategic political move of separating the masculine gays from the effeminate was just as effective a method of creating a sense of “us vs them,” as the policing effeminacy in heterosexuals is. Within the gay community, the term swish caused a purposeful divide along the all-too-familiar gender roles that seem impossible to escape in the 20th century.

Instead of state regulation, or social regulation as a means to a political end, women are are called sluts and bitches by men and women alike to police and regulate female sexuality and to enforce gender roles. Philosopher Lauren Ashwell stipulates that gendered slurs lack (Loftin, 2007) neutral equivalents. Bitch and slut may be used in a sentence where “woman” could be inserted in their stead, but the meaning of the sentence would be altered, unlike slurs related to nationality or ethnicity. This is because slut and bitch carry with them the implication of a woman doing something in a way that is inappropriate; i.e. a slut being “woman who has sex with more than an appropriate number of partners for a woman,” and a bitch being a woman who “is disposed to be more boisterous, more assertive, more selfconcerned, and so on than is appropriate for a woman/than a woman ought to be.”[10] In the workplace, these gendered swears were found to be legal grounds for sexual assault claims, as described in Catherine Mackinnon’s legal history of sexual harassment in the 1970s: “terms of abuse directed at [a woman] at work such as ‘slut,’ ‘bitch’ and ‘fucking cunt’… would have been almost irrelevant and would have failed entirely in its crude purpose had the plaintiff been a man.”[11]

At a talk presented by the Princeton Perspective Project, (Wo)man Up!, Ella Cheng, Grace Larsen, and Anna Mazarakis described their tribulations while holding elected positions of authority over men at Princeton. All three women recalled incidents where they had to discipline men in positions below them that were disrespecting their power, and all three used a derivation of the phrase, “not to be a bitch,” or “I hate to be a bitch about it,” followed by a request for the men to do something they should have already been doing.[12] The word bitch, in these cases, was used regarding women who were assertive in their positions of power, with the intention of taking any earned power away from them and ascribing it to an unflattering personality trait. Professor of Law Yvonne Tamayo declares: “bitch remains an unequivocal expression of hostility used to denounce, harass, and insult women who, by acting outside of their prescribed gender roles, threaten the established paradigm of power as an inherently male characteristic.”[13] And where a woman is bossy bitch, a man is a boss. The male equivalent has no negative connotations. The term bitch calls gender to the forefront when describing someone in a position of power, and it is precisely the gender of it that makes it into a distasteful word.

While bitch describes and regulates a woman’s personality, slut is used to regulate a woman’s sexuality. Tanenbaum describes slut bashing as “verbal harassment in which a girl is intentionally targeted because she does not adhere to feminine norms.”[14] Typically, slut-shaming between adolescent girls happens when one girl develops faster or guys pay more attention to her. This sparks a competitive hostility among girls, who will then use these harsh words in order to emotionally hurt their competition while playing up their own desirable virtue by contrast. The goal seems to be to restrict the so-called slut’s sexual successes or power to fall in line with the rest of the pack, levelling the playing field.

In the 1990s, there was a surge of feminist and gay rights activist initiatives to take back the hurtful meanings of words and create a new sense of community under them.

Queer was reclaimed by the gay community to provide unity to those who do identified as any form of “other,” regarding sexuality. It is considered by some to be the success story of slur reclamations, as there has since sprung whole genres of study such as Queer Theory, Queer Politics, and Queer History. Queer Nation is often credited with the first moves towards reappropriating the term queer. A subset of the AIDS activist group ACT UP!, Queer Nation was formed in 1990 with the slogan “We’re here. We’re Queer. Get used to it!”[15] When the label of queer was used hurtfully, it invoked a sense of being different. In its process of being reclaimed, this sense of difference was unifying. It now included all sorts of LGBT members. Galinsky et al. describe this phenomenon as follows: “This kind of self-labeling has several potentially positive consequences. The historically negative connotations of the label are challenged by the proud, positive connotations implied by a group’s use of the term as a selflabel. Where ‘queer’ had connoted undesirable abnormality, by the fact that it is used by the group to refer to itself, it comes to connote pride in the groups’ unique characteristics.”[16] Sociologists and historians Harper, White, and Cerullo laud the word’s call for reflection, saying, “Queer culture … in its openness and its nonspecificity, potentially suggests the truly polymorphous nature of our difference, of difference within the gay and lesbian community. The minute you say ‘queer’ you are necessarily calling into question exactly what you mean when you say it.”[17] It’s nearly all-inclusive, but nuanced enough that each person who identifies as queer can make it their own.

Slut has been undergoing a strongly feminist rebranding, as women are owning their sexuality by tossing aside societal expectations of and restrictions on their bodies. This reclamation has been historically attributed to Kathleen Hanna in Bikini Kill, when she began to write SLUT on her stomach in lipstick at concerts as early as 1992.  Planned Parenthood Federation of America editor Leora Tanenbaum writes: “Hanna upended the ability of slut hecklers to judge her by beating them to it and embracing the word. Her message was: ‘OK, you’re right; I am a slut. I sleep with whomever I want. So what?’”[18]  Today, hundreds of women annually join the organization SlutWalk to protest rape culture. They rally behind the label of slut in order to emphasize that a woman can be a sexual being, but that does not mean their rapists are entitled to their bodies. Regardless of sexual history or attire, a woman is never asking for it. This is a big change since Catherine Mackinnon’s observations in the 1970s that a promiscuous woman was often thought of as un-harassable, because she was used goods, or “too damaged to be further damaged” [19] By destigmatizing the word slut, women may find comfort and solidarity with others who wish to be free of sexual double standards of sluts vs studs, or the expectations of chastity. The SlutWalk organization describes the power of this sense of unity: “we have a stake in the language used to describe us, it is something we can challenge, it can be stripped of it’s power,” just as Kathleen Hanna intended when she scrawled the four letter word on her stomach at her concert.

Other recent cultural trends include sex positivity and anti-slut shaming movements, which aim to teach that each person has the right to do with their body as they so desire, and that is a personal choice, and should not be regulated by men nor women. Comedians Corinne Fisher and Krystyna Hutchinson were proud of their sexuality as women and created the podcast Guys We Fucked, hoping to spread the notion that women do not have to hide nor regret their sexual encounters.[20]

However, even with this reclamation, there is now a very dramatic difference between out-group and in-group usage of the words. The reclamation has been focused on in-group usage, as seen by the gay community calling themselves queer, and women calling themselves and close friends sluts, and has proven very empowering for those that choose to do so, but outsiders have not been granted the same permissions. A stranger calling a woman a slut or a heterosexual person using calling a queer person queer is still considered hostile, and of course, many individuals will never find it acceptable to be called one of these terms.

Additionally, because of the very recent nature of these movements for reappropriation, there is a strong generational divide, with older members of the each community all too familiar with the hostilities associated with such words.[21] Further, some feminists don’t think the term should be reclaimed. Leora Tanenbaum voiced her concerns about increasing usage of such a potentially harmful word. While she hopes that some day the word will not be so harmful and carry such negative weight, she worries the message will be lost on people who aren’t in the know, and that will perpetuate its usage in a hateful manner. She says, “Simply put, most people aren’t in on the joke, which creates more issues than it solves,”[22]  and adds her fears that “taking up ‘slut’ as a crystallizing call to action is doomed to hurt women rather than help them,” because using it freely without everyone understanding the reclamation will invite hostile users to think it is acceptable to keep using.[23]

Even as groups of feminists and LGBTQ activists put in their effort to destigmatize hurtful words, some people will continue to want to hurt others by using them, which may prevent total societal redefinition of these terms.

For students to read, I would assign:

  1. “What You’re Really Saying When You Call Me a Bitch” by Emily Heist Moss, in everyday feminism http://everydayfeminism.com/2013/10/you-call-me-a-bitch/
  2. “THE REAPPROPRIATION OF STIGMATIZING LABELS: IMPLICATIONS FOR SOCIAL IDENTITY” by Adam D. Galinsky, Kurt Hugenberg, Carla Groom and Galen Bodenhausen, in Psychological Science http://faculty.wcas.northwestern.edu/bodenhausen/reapp.pdf
  3. I Am Not A Slut by Leora Tanenbaum, Chapter 2: “Are You a ‘Good Slut’ or a ‘Bad Slut’?” and Chapter 8: “Can ‘Slut’ Be Reclaimed?”
  4. “6 Reasons You Need to Use the Word ‘Queer’” by Zachary Zane, Pride.com http://www.pride.com/queer/2015/8/04/6-reasons-you-need-use-word-queer
  5. Why SlutWalk? Because We’ve Had Enough! http://www.slutwalkdc.com/#!aboutus/cjg9

I pledge my honor that this paper represents my own work in accordance with University regulations.

Works Cited

Ashwell, L. (2016). Gendered Slurs. Social Theory and Practice , 42 (2), 228-239.

Burn, S. M. (2008). Heterosexuals’ Use of “Fag” and “Queer” to Deride One Another. Journal of Homosexuality , 40 (2), 1-11.

Chauncey, G. (1985). Christian Brotherhood or Sexual Perversion: Homosexual Identities and the Construction of Sexual Boundaries in the World War I – Era. Journal of Social History , 19 (2), 190-192.

Galinsky, A. D. (2003). The Reapporpriation of Stigmatizing Labels: Implications for Social Identity. Psychological Science , 5, 221-256.

Harper, P. B. (1993). Mutli/Queer/Culture. Radical America , 24 (4), 27-37.

Hughes, G. (2006). Encyclopedia of Swearing. ProQuest ebrary .

James, S. D. (2013, Nov 12). Gay Man Says Millenial Term Queer Is Like the ‘N’ Word. Retrieved 5 7, 2016, from ABC News: http://abcnews.go.com/Health/gay-man-millennial-term-queer-word/story?id=20855582

Kane, A. (2014, March 9). ‘Guys We Fucked:’ The Anti-Slut Shaming Podcast That Everyone’s Talking about. Retrieved 17 2016, 04, from AlterNet: http://www.alternet.org/guys-we-fucked-anti-slut-shaming-podcast-everyones-talking-about

Loftin, C. (2007). Unacceptable Mannerisms: Gender Anxieties, Homosexual Activism, and Swish in the United States, 1945-1963. Journal for Social History , 40 (3), 377-396.

Mackinnon, C. (1987). Sexual Harrasment: Its First Decade in Court (1986). Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law , 109.

Morland, I. a. (Ed.). (2005). Queer Theory. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Tamayo, Y. A. (2009). Rhymes with Rich: Power, Law, and the Bitch. St. Thomas Law Revoew , 21 (2), 281-301.

Tanenbaum, L. (2015). I Am Not a Slut. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

Warner, M. (1999). The Trouble With Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life. New York: Free Press.

[1]Geoffrey Hughes, Encyclopedia of Swearing, Armonk, US: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 2006, ProQuest ebrary, 235.

[2] Ibid., 8.

[3] Ibid., 236.

[4] Canaday, Margot. “Policing Sexuality in the Progressive Era and Jazz Age.” Lecture, McCosh 28, Princeton, NJ, February 10, 2016.

[5] Hughes, Encyclopedia of Swearing, 376.

[6] George Chauncey, “Christian Brotherhood or Sexual Perversion: Homosexual Identities and the Construction of Sexual Boundaries in the World War I – Era,” Journal of Social History 19, no. 2 (winter 1985): 190-192.

[7]of Law or r, Law, and the Bitch,nt and would have failed entirely in its crude purpose had hte  described in Catherine Mackinnon Burn, Shawn Meghan, “Heterosexuals’ Use of “Fag” and “Queer” to Deride One Another,” Journal of Homosexuality 40, no. 2 (Oct 2008): 4.

[8] Craig Loftin, Unacceptable Mannerisms: Gender Anxieties, Homosexual Activism, and Swish in the United States, 1945-1963, Journal for Social History, 40, natre have been movements towards39sms: Gender Anxieties, Homosexual Activism, and Swish in the United States, 1945-1963, up ACT o. 3 (Spring 2007) 580.

[9] Michael Warner, The Trouble With Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life, (New York: Free Press, 1999), xxv.

[10] Lauren Ashwell, “Gendered Slurs,” Social Theory and Practice 42, no. 2 (April 2016): 228-239.

[11] Catherine Mackinnon, “Sexual Harrasment: Its First Decade in Court (1986),” Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law, (Harvard University Press), 1987: 109.

[12] Larsen, Grace, Ella Cheng, and Anna Mazarakis. “(Wo)Man Up!” Lecture, Princeton Perspective Project, Campus Club, Princeton, NJ, April 28, 2016.

[13] Tamayo, Yvonne A, “Rhymes with Rich: Power, Law, and the Bitch,” St. Thomas Law Revoew 21, no. 2 (Winter 2009): 281-301.

[14] Tanenbaum, Leora. I Am Not a Slut (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015), 4.

[15] Adam D. Galinsky, Kurt Hugenberg, Carla Groom, and Galen Bodenhausen, “The Reappropriation of Stigmatizing Labels: Implications for Social Identity,” Psychological Science 5 (2003): 233.

[16] Ibid., 231.

[17] Phillip Brian Harper, E. Francis White, and Margaret Cerullo, “Mutli/Queer/Culture,” Radical America 24, no. 4 (1993): 27-37, quoted in Morland, Iain and Annabelle Willox, ed. Queer Theory (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)

[18] Tanenbaum, I Am Not a Slut, 35.

[19] Mackinnon, “Sexual Harrasment,” 110.

[20] Alex Kane, ‘Guys We Fucked:’ The Anti-Slut Shaming Podcast That Everyone’s Talking about, March 9, 2014, http://www.alternet.org/guys-we-fucked-anti-slut-shaming-podcast-everyones-talking-about (accessed 17 2016, 04).

[21] Susan Donaldson James, Gay Man Says Millenial Term Queer Is Like the ‘N’ Word, Nov 12, 2013, http://abcnews.go.com/Health/gay-man-millennial-term-queer-word/story?id=20855582 (accessed 5 7, 2016).

[22] Tanenbaum, I Am Not a Slut, 282

[23] Ibid., 287