When it comes time to speak about sex and sexuality, we seem to have a very limited, very disassociated vocabulary for it, whether it is used inside of the bedroom or out.
The words we know of are either dangerously four-lettered (cock, dyke, fuck, tits), tediously medical (labia, intercourse, buttocks, ejaculate), or overly cheesy (pleasure rod, love cave, va-jay-jay, sanguine monster of mating).
But the one word (in my humble opinion) that trumps all vulgar wordage, the one word that holds an immense amount of power and riskiness within its four letters, is cunt.
Even seeing it spelled out in all its glory gives me a tremble.
And I’m not the only one. Feminist and woman of letters, Germaine Greer, has said that “[cunt] is one of the few remaining words in the English language with a genuine power to shock.”
There is just something about that word that shakes us to our cores.
For me personally, cunt has always deplored and interested me. Deplored, because it encapsulates an essence of disparagement that is seen as shameful and forbidden. And interested, because in anything forbidden there is a sense of morbid fascination in the off limit things we dare not do, think, or say.
But why does the word cunt incite in us such mortification? Who was it that put the idea in our heads that this particular word is strictly unmentionable? Where does this apprehension and disgust stem from?
I suppose it’s best to start at the beginning.
I first heard the word cunt in high school. A group of juvenile teenage boys was horsing around as they walked to their next class; they were shoving each other lightly, ridiculing each other with wide smiles on their faces.
And then one fellow decided to take the playfulness of the moment to the next level by emptying the remains of his water bottle on the top of his friend’s head. A bit of hell broke loose.
There was a scramble, a few giggles, and then a look of upset on the face of the wet one. “You fucking cunt!” he yelled, shaking his hair and wringing out the hood of his jacket.
Suddenly, it got quiet. After a lighthearted exchange of demeaning words hurled towards each other—”pussy!” (another word I’ll get to in a moment); “cock sucker!; asshat!; butt muncher!”—cunt was the one word that halted all the fun. No one was laughing anymore.
Next came a slew of commiserations and apologies from the evildoer as they continued walking to their next class, but the fun and games were irreparably sullied by the strength of the C-word.
After witnessing that incident, I stood in awe at the word cunt. It held such power, such authority—enough to stop a group of silly boys dead in their tracks upon the utterance of such an insult.
I would even go as far as to say that cunt is the Queen of all profanities.
But cunt isn’t just used to describe an unpleasant person. It’s an adjective that classifies a particular type of female genitalia.
“A cunt,” a guy friend of mine told me once, “is a dirty vagina. It usually smells and is really hairy.”
“A pussy, on the other hand,” he continued matter-of-factly, “is a normal, clean vagina. Guys typically want to shack up with a pussy because it’s hairless and smells nice.”
So let’s recap:
Cunt: unclean, unkempt, unapproachable.
Pussy: normal, sterile, desirable.
I finally understood.
After that conversation, I looked to my own genitals and wondered if it fell underneath the label of a dirty “cunt” or resembled the perfection of a clean “pussy.”
I remember wondering, If a vagina is hairy, but is washed with soap and water and is drenched in Victoria’s Secret perfume, is it still a cunt?
These were the questions firing off in my subconscious as a teenager.
As Susie Bright states in her book Full Exposure, “We’re primed to use sex words for hostility but squeamish to use them for warmth or sex.”
I wonder why.
You’d think that an explicit word such as cunt—which, amongst many negative definitions, is meant to describe one of the most sacred spots of the female body—would be used a bit more widely than in the context o an insult.
Cunt is really no more or less reprehensible of a word than rape or war is, which many of us can say without so much as a shudder.
What, then, are we so afraid of?
Undeniably, there is a richness and audacity to cunt that overpowers any and all descendants of original dirty language. Same thing goes with the word pussy (which unfortunately has also been used and abused in ways that have altered it into a derogatory adjective).
Though it doesn’t encompass the same kind of verve that cunt does, pussy is one word that many women tend to shy away from — myself included.
Robin Williams once famously revered “pussy” as one of his most favorite curse words. (His least favorite, by the way, was cunt. Which poses the question: Are pussy and cunt that antonymous? But I digress.)
I’ve been loathe to refer to my vulva as “pussy,” though in times of sheer, unadulterated pleasure this word has escaped my mouth. Pussy is just one of those words that has always left a bad taste in my mouth (no pun intended!). I can’t say it without sounding careless.
Perhaps it’s the grimy way in which it’s used in porn. X-rated film actors hiss and grunt this word without much abandon. It’s excessively used, almost to the point of exhaustion, which in many ways takes away the novelty of it—and I truly believe there is a novelty to it, and to cunt.
But what other synonyms do we have to choose from? Vagina certainly doesn’t pack the same carnal punch, nor does vulva.
The only times I’ve ever heard the words cunt and pussy used in a relatively positive light has been in written erotica. And it works because I am left to my own devices, to discover and pronounce those words in my own tone, with my own security and carefulness.
The way in which Anais Nin, for instance, used cunt in her writing was pertinent, titillating, and—dare I say?—beautiful. Erotica (at least in what I’ve read) is more likely to use cunt with acceptance and grace.
Cunt is much easier on the eyes than when it is vocalized with the mouth.
So is it possible to reclaim this word? It is possible to reconstruct it from a censored slur to a good and rightfully explicit word used favorably? (Perhaps in the way the Italians do when they refer to something as fichissimo, which literally translates as “the cuntest”—meant as a superlative to describe something as very good or “cool.”)
Can we move from using ridiculous-sounding verbiage like va-jay-jay to describe vaginas, and instead replace it with something more brazen and sumptuous—that being cunt?
I think so… but only if there is a common knowledge around it being seen as a positive adjective, rather than a despicable one. And especially if we choose to use it without the weight of cynicism or repugnance.
We have the power to dramatically transform the hold strong words have over us. We have it in us to escape from vocabulary bondage and see a word like cunt as a feministic blessing, not a curse.
It’s all about our tone, intention, the context in which we use it, and finding forgiveness in the fact that it is only a word.
Our only problem we will face is the way using such words will be received by others who are still caged by simple expressions.
Several days ago, as I was in the midst of writing this piece, Jonathan, knowing this and being the good sport that he is, challenged me as he uttered:
“I love your cunt.”
I felt an alarm set off in my body and winced a bit, the word leaving me reeling— all before I could even let his compliment settle it.
I’m allowing it to settle in as I type this.
He loves my cunt.
My cunt smells beautiful.
My pussy is precious.
It’s sentences like those that give me hope for a word so wrongfully misunderstood.
Humor me for a moment and whisper the word cunt under your breath a couple of times.
Now, answer me this: How/what did you feel saying it aloud? What’s your history with the word cunt? And if not cunt, what word do you use to call/describe your vulva (if you have one)?
Update: In 2016, I had the honor and privilege of performing the piece “Reclaiming Cunt” from Eve Ensler’s play, The Vagina Monologues. Take a listen to my performance here.