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Laurie Penny: In defence of the “C” word

Men have so many words that they can use to hint at their own sexual power, but we have just the one. Let’s use it and love it.

[Health Warning: as you'd expect, this piece contains language that some may find offensive. Proceed with caution.]

It is, according to Germaine Greer, the one word in the English language that retains the power to shock. This week, after the third BBC newsman in two months – this time the revered Jeremy Paxman – dropped the c-bomb on live television, it appears that the world's best-respected broadcasting operation is in the grip of a collective and extremely specific form of Tourette's syndrome, whereby presenters can't help but slip the worst word of all into casual conversation. One is reminded of those playground horror stories of cursed words, infectious words that, once read or overheard, niggle away in the forefront of your brain until, like poison, you're forced to spit them out, with deadly consequences. But what – ultimately – is so terribly offensive about the word "cunt"?

The word shocks because what it signifies is still considered shocking. Francis Grose's 1785 A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue defines "cunt" quite simply as "a nasty name for a nasty thing". All sorts of people have a problem with 'cunt', even those who normally considerthemselves progressive and enlightened: last week, for example, I was invited to speak at a public meeting where I happened to use the word in reference to a member of the audience.

Horrified silence fell in this roomful of hardened activists, followed a few seconds later by nervously appreciative laughter. The incident later exploded on the internet, with some complaining that I had had no right to use such a provocative and shocking word at a meeting; that the word is too aggressive, too graphic. These, for context, are people who are currently cheerleading calls for a general strike and/or the overthrow of the government, but they still consider a young woman saying "cunt" in public a little too, too much.

What is it about that word? Why, in a world of 24-hour porn channels, a world with Rihanna's "Rude Boy" playing on the radio and junior pole-dancing kits sold in Tesco, is the word "cunt" still so shocking? It's a perfectly nice little word, a word with 800 years of history; a word used by Chaucer and by Shakespeare. It's the only word we have to describe the female genitalia that is neither mawkish, nor medical, nor a function of pornography. Semantically, it serves the same function as "dick" or "prick" – a signifier for a sexual organ which can also be used as a descriptor or insult, a word that is not passive, but active, even aggressive.

There are no other truly empowering words for the female genitalia. 'Pussy' is nastily diminutive, as if every woman had a tame and purring pet between her legs, while the medical descriptor "vagina" refers only to a part of the organ, as if women's sexuality were nothing more than a wet hole, or "sheath" in the Latin. Cunt, meanwhile, is a word for the whole thing, a wholesome word, an earthy, dank and lusty word with the merest hint of horny threat. Cunt. It's fantastically difficult to pronounce without baring the teeth.

It is this kind of female sexuality – active, adult female sexuality – that still has the power to horrify even the most forward-thinking logophile. Despite occasional attempts by feminists such as Eve Ensler to "reclaim" the word cunt as the powerful, vital, visceral sexual signifier that it is, the taboo seems only to have become stronger. Media officials avoid it with the superstitious revulsion once reserved for evil-eye words, as if even pronouncing "cunt" might somehow conjure one into existence. The BBC wouldn't be in half so much trouble if James Naughtie had called Jeremy Hunt MP a "prick" or a "wanker" or a "cold-blooded Tory fucker".

For me, "cunt" is, and will always be, a word of power, whether it denotes my own genitals or any obstreperous comrades in the vicinity. The first time I ever used it, I was 12 years old, and being hounded by a group of sixth-form boys who just loved to corner me on the stairs and make hilarious sexy comments. One day, one of them decided it would be funny to pick me up by the waist and shake me. I spat out the words "put me down, you utter cunt", and the boy was so shocked that he dropped me instantly.

Ever since then, "cunt" has been a cherished part of my lexical armour. I use it liberally: in conversation, in the bedroom, and in debates. I only wish I could hear more women saying it, more of us reclaiming "cunt" as a word of sexual potency and common discourse rather than a dirty, forbidden word. If the BBC continues its oily pattern of vulgar logorrhoea, I'd like to hear Julia Bradbury saying it on Countryfile. I'd like to hear Kirsty Young saying it on Desert Island Discs.

Men have so many words that they can use to hint at their own sexual power, but we have just the one, and it's still the worst word you can say on the telly. Let's all get over ourselves about "cunt". Let's use it and love it.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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The High Court is right to rule the benefit cap is "unlawful" for lone parents with small children

The idea this ill-judged policy helps people transition from the social security system into paid work has been exposed as a myth. 

Thursday’s High Court decision that the benefit cap is "unlawful" for lone parents with children under the age of two is another blow to the Tories failing austerity agenda. It is failing on its own terms, it's failing our communities, and it’s failing the most vulnerable in our country – including the victims of domestic violence and those facing homelessness.

The judgment handed down by Mr Justice Collins was damning. Upon considering the impact of the benefit cap, he concluded that “real misery is being caused to no good purpose.”

The government’s claims that this ill-judged policy helps people transition from the social security system into paid work have been exposed as a myth. Seven out of eight households hit by the cap have very young children, are too ill to work or have a work-limiting disability. The spiralling cost of childcare has left many unable to find or afford good quality childcare in order to allow them to work. In some cases, families lose up to £115 a week, pushing them into deeper into poverty.

Labour warned the government of the impact this policy would have on lone parents with very young children during the passage of the Welfare Reform and Work Act. We tabled amendments to exempt lone parents with young children. They refused to listen and thousands of families have been pushed into poverty as a result, including survivors of domestic violence.

Many parents are perpetually stuck in insecure, poorly paid work on a zero hours contract, with the majority of their earnings spent on childcare. Alternatively they are unable to find work which fits around their childcare responsibilities and are then subjected to the benefit cap resulting in families struggling to make ends meet. Just under 320,000 children now live in households likely to be affected by the new lower cap, which was introduced last November. This is at a time when one in four of our children are growing up in poverty.

Despite these obvious barriers facing families with young children, particularly lone parents, it has taken a brave group of campaigners to challenge a government which lacked the foresight to see the real damage they are inflicting with another one of their disastrous austerity cuts. The Government’s own evaluations show that only 16 per cent of families impacted by the benefit cap move into paid work compared to 11 per cent who would have moved into work anyway.

For too long, this government has pushed our children into a lifetime of poverty, as punishment for parental circumstances, whilst continuing to give hand-outs to the privileged few.

What a difference a year makes. Only last July, the Prime Minister on the steps of Downing Street pledged to “fight the burning injustices” facing our society. Not only has she failed spectacularly, her government continue to pursue policies that are further entrenching these injustices.

It is clear that the benefit cap hits the poorest in our society the hardest. This judgment is a further blow to Theresa May’s unstable minority government and I implore the Prime Minister to accept the High Court's judgement and end this discriminatory policy against lone parent families.

This is the latest in a series of judgments found against the government in relation to their austerity programme. After rulings on the bedroom tax, Personal Independence Payments and now the benefit cap, the government should now accept the ruling instead of spending yet more taxpayers’ money on an appeal. 

Labour has proudly stood against the benefit cap, its discrimination against parents with young children and the government’s cruel austerity programme which has caused too many people real misery.

A Labour government would immediately implement the High Court ruling and only a future Labour government will transform the social security system so that, like the NHS, it is there for the many in our time of need.

 

Debbie Abrahams is shadow work and pensions secretary.

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