Surely you've become aware of the rather unfortunate discussion about "legitimate rape" that's taking over our Internet airwaves and making us feel yet again that society is at the very least, mired in some incredibly antiquated thinking. If you haven't, a brief catchup: Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri said on Sunday that pregnancy doesn't usually occur in cases of "legitimate rape" because women's bodies have some magical power to shut things down and prevent sperm from fertilizing egg in the case of rape. Research indicates that this is not remotely accurate, and, yes, this is an awful thing to say because it implies not only a lack of understanding of human biology by Akin, but also the belief that women are going around lying fairly consistently about rape, to the extent that legitimate and illegitimate types of the crime exist. Further, of course, is the definition of the word legitimate. This is a word that means legal, lawful, rightful, valid. Pairing legitimate and rape presents a semantic conundrum in itself, which Akin acknowledged Monday after meeting with a firestorm of criticism. (Research also indicates that if you talk about "legitimate rape," the people of Twitter will hunt you down and make you apologize, and, yep, that happened.)
But it seems clear that we're having some problems, here, and not just with Akin. Let's give everyone the benefit of the doubt, just for a moment, even if we don't fully believe they deserve said benefit. Is it possible that a lot of people, perhaps men of a certain age, perhaps of a certain political party, simply have not been informed that there are some words and phrases and general beliefs that it would be prudent not to say or support? Words that will be taken as anti-woman, even if the people speaking claim they did not mean them that way at all?
Instead of this continuous cycle of foot-in-mouth/backlash/apology that we seem to have gotten ourselves into, wouldn't it be nice—and wouldn't it maybe even help us get to the good stuff, you know, on the road to talking about important things that we can do to help our country grow and improve—if we could actually learn from our mistakes and change certain attitudes? Each time we are forced to listen to yet another antiquated, misinformed, women-undermining discourse on the "legitimacy" or lack thereof of rape, those who do know that this is antiquated, misinformed, and undermining thinking have to spend all sorts of time and energy explaining why this sort of thinking is not OK, instead of doing other things. In a utopian world where gender equality was real and people respected people, you'd think these would not need to be discussions at all.
Herewith, a few words and phrases that have become stumbling blocks for a variety of men, and sometimes women, in the public arena—and what one should know before using them:
"Women's Issues." The trouble with this phraseology is twofold. First, the idea that you can separate "male" and "female" issues is overgeneralized and silly. It takes two to tango; there's a sperm and an egg. Birth control, abortion, pregnancy, rape, marriage, gender equality: These are not "women's issues," these are everybody's issues. Placing them under the pink polka-dotted umbrella of "women's issues" all too frequently indicates a) a clandestine attempt to belittle while also hoping to get props for talking about something that is "other"; b) a thinly veiled attempt to win over the important "lady voter" base; c) that you have no idea what you're talking about. If there are not categorical "men's issues" there should not be women's ones, either, and if you must say "women's issues," be aware of how and why you're saying it. (The media, here, are as guilty as anyone else of lumping everything together in this generic bucket, and then forgetting what all they put in it in the first place, or ignoring it entirely until the next time "women's issues" come up.)
"Slut." Throwing this word around, as we saw with Rush Limbaugh as he referred to Sandra Fluke, who was speaking in support of President Obama's plan to make birth control available to women via their insurance plans, is a dangerous gambit. A few of the rare people who can get away with calling themselves or each other sluts are those who are attempting to reappropriate the word as something empowering or for teaching purposes, i.e., SlutWalk participants. (We don't agree with calling people mansluts, either.)
Here is one good way you can use the word slut: "Wow, did you see [public figure] said women were sluts for using birth control? He/she should be discredited entirely, and, in fact, I'm not sure why we were listening to him/her in the first place." See also ho, town bike, whore, and any matter of phrases that indicate that female sexuality is vile, illicit, and quite possibly dangerous. If you do feel that those words are necessary to indicate such, ask yourself, who, exactly, that female sexuality is dangerous to. If your answer is men, try again. Note: If you're using the term prostitute, use it to convey exactly what it is, not a woman who you believe to be a "slut."
"Vagina." In this case the trouble is not the word, but fear of the word. In June, Michigan Rep. Lisa Brown was blocked from participating in a House debate over an education bill because, during a debate over a package of abortion regulation bills, she said, "Finally, Mr. Speaker, I'm flattered that you're all so interested in my vagina, but 'no' means 'no.'" Rep. Mike Callton responded, "What she said was offensive ... It was so offensive, I don't even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company." That just takes us back to 9th grade health class, where only the most immature kids were prone to giggles and red faces at a mention of anatomy. Don't fear the word and certainly don't let your fear of it cloud decision-making or block discussion, because embarrassment, mockery, derision, or ignorance about a female body part says more about the censuring body than it does about women or men using the word. And then there's Brown's take-home point: "If I can't say the word vagina, why are we legislating vaginas?"
"Birth Control." To say that a woman who uses birth control is, as above, a slut—or lazy, a bad or immoral person, taking advantage of the taxpayer, or irresponsible, you are uninformed. Making good decisions about birth control is part of being a sexually active adult, and it's not even a "women's issue"—it's an issue that all people should consider. Oh, and Foster Friess, your birth control joke about women putting aspirin between their legs? See also antiquated and misinformed.
"Abortion." You can, of course, say the word abortion, and you can talk about abortion. But don't base your discussion of abortion in the idea that a) abortions are for the lazy, slutty types who apparently don't use birth control, even as you describe those who do use birth control in the same way; b) women who have abortions are destroying society; or c) women should not have the right to choose what happens to their bodies. While we're here, the phraseology "pro-life" is inherently just a wee bit manipulative, don't you think?
"Legitimate" and "Illegitimate" Things. For every "legitimate" action there is an equal and opposite reaction, which is to say, be careful with these words, because by implying something is "legit" you imply that something else is not. Hence, with Akin, "legitimate" rape is either a charge of rape that is not a lie, or a rape that is somehow "valid." What does that even mean? Of course, his apology doesn't help matters much, because he still doesn't quite seem to get what he did wrong: "I was talking about forcible rape and it was absolutely the wrong word." Forcible rape? As opposed to the non-forcible, consensual kind? As President Obama responded to that: "Rape is rape."
"Rape." Rape jokes, specifically. We talked about this extensively a while back. Is it ever OK to make a rape joke? To be truly, truly safe, you might just want to avoid it. But if you do make one, make it funny. Don't make it sad, don't make it scary, don't make it a threat, and... Well, maybe just don't make it.
"War on Women." This phrase has become problematic for me with regard to how it's been co-opted as a political tactic. Fine, win me over as a women, but to say that someone else is "warring with me" and therefore that I must come over to your side, since you're apparently my ally, places me as an object between two dissenting bodies. How about, instead, no war at all? Women don't really dig this war thing, historically speaking. If you must use this phrase, say, as a rallying or motivating cry, make sure you're using it for the right reasons, and that women's rights (not "issues") are the subject, but women not the "object."
You may disagree with any and all of what I just said, whether or not you're in public office. But here's another thing about these words and phrases, and the way we live now: It's beneficial to update yourself on the whens and hows and whys of using or not using them, and what actual women think about you and your policies and beliefs when you do use them. It's also wise to be aware of how people will likely react, online or in real life, if you do. Because if you are in the public arena—especially, if you are a politician, celebrity, or person with a voice that is heard by more than, say, your own private echo chamber—your statement is unlikely to be ignored, and may even result in your impending dismissal from the position of power that you currently hold.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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