What’s the worst word that you can think to call a woman?

(Warning: foul language below)

When I asked you that question, you probably thought up a few examples. Words like bitch, whore, slut, or cunt. There are a few more specific examples, words like prude or ugly or fat, but those four examples are the more general terms that you might use to refer to any random, unpleasant woman.

So, in other words, the worst thing that you can call a woman is a woman.

And, in some cases, these insults refer to very specific types of women as well. Bitch, for example, when defined as offensive, is “a malicious, spiteful, or overbearing woman” (emphasis my own). The ‘bitch’ is a pro-active woman, a take-no-shit sort of woman. The ‘bitch’ will not accept being ignored, being taken advantage of, or being belittled. This is the reason why many feminists have moved to reclaim the word ‘bitch’, because, while many people may use the word ‘bitch’ as an insult, there should be nothing wrong with a strong, competent woman.

Words like ‘whore’ and ‘slut’ also refer to a particular type of woman; a promiscuous woman, or perhaps a woman who merely takes charge of her own sexuality. The use of these words as insults is meant to shame women for being sexually active; while the use of the word ‘prude’ is meant to shame women for not being sexually available.

The type of insults that we use reveal something about the way that we as a society view these specific people. If you call someone a ‘slut’ in a negative way, then clearly you don’t feel all too keen about women who are sexually active. If you want to make someone feel bad by calling them ‘fat’, then you don’t think highly of people who are overweight.

But let’s turn our attention around for a moment. Let’s ask this instead: what’s the worst word that you can think to call a man? Well, according to the logic of the last time I presented this question, you’d think that the worst thing that you can call a man is a specific type of man.

Well, yes and no.

Once again, you probably thought of a few examples of insults when I asked you that question. Men get called fag, queer, sissy, or girl. Hell, earlier today, I listened to a man trying to insult and belittle another man by referring to him as ‘half-woman’.

In other words, the worst thing that you can call a man is a woman, or a gay man.

And why does this matter? Why am I bringing this up? Well, it matters because, as I said before, the type of insult that we choose reflects how we view a specific type of people. If we as a society use ‘woman’ or ‘homosexual’ as an insult, then what does that say about the way we feel about women or LGBT+ people? But, more than that even, these insults enforce the way that we behave.

If a woman wants to avoid being called a slut, then she will act in a particular way that, she hopes, will mean that she won’t be called a slut. She will dress differently, relate to men differently, walk differently, dance differently, flirt differently, date differently, and so on and so forth. She won’t be fully free to explore her own sexuality, because her sexuality will constantly be judged and viewed by others who are too quick to label her with an insult.

And if a man wants to avoid being called a woman or a gay man, then he will have to shave off any hint of femininity about him. This fear of being insulted this way will affect the way that he dresses, the hobbies he enjoys, the food that he eats, the stores that he feels comfortable going into, the way that he relates to his male friends, the way that he relates to his female friends, the way that he relates to emotional trauma and tragedy, the way that he relates to any emotions at all, and so on and so forth.

Men will not talk about their own feelings because they don’t want to be perceived as ‘too girly’. And yet, despite this, men still have feelings; they just aren’t fully explored or understood.

Men are encouraged toward violence and dominance and aggression – all of which can be very harmful, both to themselves and to others.

But this doesn’t matter, right? Just as long as they aren’t a woman, or gay. Wouldn’t that just be the real tragedy? (Please read a heavy dose of sarcasm here)

And, end of day, changing our behaviour so that we aren’t perceived in this way is just ridiculous and nonsensical. Because there is nothing wrong with being a woman. There is nothing wrong with being a gay man. There is nothing wrong with being a virgin, and there is nothing wrong with having slept with many, many partners (just make sure you stay safe).

And, more than that, there is nothing wrong with identifying with one gender, and still not perfectly aligning with that gender’s roles. Women should be allowed to be aggressive and assertive without the fear that they’ll be undermined as a ‘bitch’; I mean, if men are encouraged toward that behaviour, then why can’t a woman do it?

Men should be allowed to enjoy baking, or talking about their feelings, or dressing up in any which way they want, without having their identity thrown into question.

We are all of us people, and people are built from balances: the balance of good and evil, the balance of reason and emotion, the balance of masculinity and femininity. Not one of us are one thing and one thing only. We should not have to deny whole parts of ourselves in order to fit into a narrow definition of what we should be.

Because you know what really sucks? Policing the way that other people can and cannot express themselves and their identities through the use of insults that undermine whole groups of people. And even if you wanted to ignore the fact that the threat of these insults forces people to shave off parts of themselves and deny themselves certain experiences – it just isn’t okay to use an entire group of people as a way to undermine and belittle someone. People are not insults, and the simple act of being who you are should not turn you into one.