I really, really do not like the word “pussy,” and I’ve mentioned this before. I think it’s crass and infantilizing and it makes me really uncomfortable. When I hear it used, I immediately think less of the person who said it.
Friends of mine know that it’s a triggering word for me, and the considerate ones reevaluate their language. I no longer consider the inconsiderate ones friends: thoughtless usage of the word (and the anti-woman subtext that frequently accompanies it) is a dealbreaker for me.
So why is it that I still like Bo Burnham? I’ve enjoyed his work for many years, and was excited that his latest standup show what? is on YouTube. It’s a bit of a departure from his previous work, and questionable words are sprinkled throughout it, but I still laughed a lot and really enjoyed it. Why?
The answer is probably, at least in part, “I am a hypocrite,” but I think it also has to do with intention, at least as I perceive it. In most instances, Bo’s usage was satirical, meant to (I think) poke at people who unthinkingly use problematic language. When he said ”pussy,” it was intended very differently than when comedian Daniel
Tosh uses it. I know there is a difference here because Bo does not make me want to punch my television screen, and Tosh does.
Last week, I also encountered someone who used this word-I-do-not-like-very-much, and I barely even batted an eyelash. I was at “Get Wet,” a sex-positive SHS-sponsored workshop led by Megan Andelloux, a sex educator/badass activist who runs Rhode Island’s Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health (where I would love to one day be employed, ahem). She spoke about sex and contraception and porn and body parts, and her presentation was full of diagrams and sex toys and velvet vulva models and slang—lots and lots of slang. In her introduction, she explained that she bounces back and forth between using neutral medical terms and the kind of words you’re more likely to hear from bros in the dining hall, but coming from her they didn’t bother me one bit. Somehow, “pussy” stings less when I know the person saying it can identify, explain, and exalt the clitoris.
I guess it makes sense that context and attention to sensitivity make a big difference. I do believe that you should be able to call your body parts whatever you want, and Eve Ensler taught me the value of word reclamation. But I still believe that words equal power, and that we should consciously avoid hurting others, and that if someone’s vocabulary makes my stomach drop, I have every right to call them out on it or avoid being exposed to them and their hurtful behavior in the future.
So I guess I’m still confused. Is my language policing any different than, say, body policing? Can black-and-white personal values be situationally dependent? What do you think, readers?
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