Talk About Pussy

“Grab ’em by the pussy.” — Donald Trump
“Language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation.” — Angela Carter

In every workshop I lead for parents about talking to kids about sex and sexuality, we play a “Language of Sexuality” bean bag toss. I say a word relating to sex and sexuality and participants throw a bean bag to each other and think of as many synonyms for that word as possible. For example, if I say penis, participants come up with shlong, snake, sausage, one-eyed monster, rod, salami, tool, member…you get the point. From a pedagogical perspective, it is intended to cultivate a level of fluency and comfort with the full scope of terms that people use in regards to sexuality. It is also an opportunity to recognize which words are difficult to say and/or hear, which ones make us laugh or cringe, and also to acknowledge how individualized our experiences with the words may be.

Although the synonyms for vulva are fewer, and often more elaborate (cf. “Downtown Dining and Entertainment District”), “pussy” always comes up during the toss. Usually there is a brief discussion about how the participants — primarily the moms — feel about using pussy as a common language for female genitalia, on a par with using “dick” or “cock” for penis. (So far, most participants have said they’d choose pussy over something “cutesy” like Va-jay-jay, or something more charged, like cunt.) In general, for the parents in my workshops, pussy has crossed the threshold from being automatically offensive into being a little edgy but mostly acceptable in casual contexts.

In a recent workshop, that conversation morphed into a discussion of the use of the word “pussy” to describe a cowardly or weak person, usually a boy. We touched on how our culture has delineated that anything associated with womanhood would necessarily be weaker than that which is associated with masculinity, and most agreed that was clearly outdated.

The dispute became more heated when a participant asked, if there are no women around, is it inherently bad for guys to use the word pussy in the pejorative sense? When guys are just talking to guys, the argument went, what’s the harm in using it that way? Just #brosbeingdudes and all.

I don’t necessarily believe that we should give any one word too much power. And by allowing it to be used casually, the argument could be made that ultimately, it won’t be seen as a weapon. I also understand that within a social group there may be norms that those outside of the social group would not necessarily agree with.

Furthermore, I do not like to be the thought or word police.

(I also want to acknowledge that I am by no means saying that all men engage in derogatory discourse behind closed doors.)

But please consider the brilliant words of Angela Carter:

“Language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation.”

She has it right: words are the tools that people use to maintain their powerful, dominant status. Language, specifically “charged” language, is one way that people who have reduced others to mere accessories (ready to be grabbed up and used, regardless of their preference or choice), to continue to promote themselves and solidify their position.

Which is why one cannot just dismiss this type of conversation, as Trump did: “This was locker room banter, a private conversation that took place many years ago.”

Parents: our kids are also watching and listening! Rather than bemoaning how the level of discourse has devolved, use this opportunity to have open and honest conversation. Our kids will likely see the memes:

Vanna does not want to turn those last letters.
There are T-shirts, too.
Tattoo-ready!
‘Nuff said.

Don’t waste this opportunity to talk about the word pussy with your kids. Yes, I am serious.

Ask them: do you know what they’re talking about when people use the word pussy? How does it make them feel to hear that word? Where have they heard it used? Do they think it is ever OK?

Share with them your values about the use of language and the importance of thoughtful expression. Remind them that our words shape our thoughts and actions, both on an individual level and as a culture.

Along with the valuable discussions about sexual assault, abuse, patriarchy, rape culture and more that these most recent recordings have sparked, let’s also take some time to consider the power of the word itself. Talk about pussy.