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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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What will Labour's new awkward squad do next?

What does the future hold for the party's once-rising-stars?

For years, Jeremy Corbyn was John McDonnell’s only friend in Parliament. Now, Corbyn is the twice-elected Labour leader, and McDonnell his shadow chancellor. The crushing leadership election victory has confirmed Corbyn-supporting MPs as the new Labour elite. It has also created a new awkward squad.   

Some MPs – including some vocal critics of Corbyn – are queuing up to get back in the shadow cabinet (one, Sarah Champion, returned during the leadership contest). Chi Onwurah, who spoke out on Corbyn’s management style, never left. But others, most notably the challenger Owen Smith, are resigning themselves to life on the back benches. 

So what is a once-rising-star MP to do? The most obvious choice is to throw yourself into the issue the Corbyn leadership doesn’t want to talk about – Brexit. The most obvious platform to do so on is a select committee. Chuka Umunna has founded Vote Leave Watch, a campaign group, and is running to replace Keith Vaz on the Home Affairs elect committee. Emma Reynolds, a former shadow Europe minister, is running alongside Hilary Benn to sit on the newly-created Brexit committee. 

Then there is the written word - so long as what you write is controversial enough. Rachel Reeves caused a stir when she described control on freedom of movement as “a red line” in Brexit negotiations. Keir Starmer is still planning to publish his long-scheduled immigration report. Alison McGovern embarked on a similar tour of the country

Other MPs have thrown themselves into campaigns, most notably refugee rights. Stella Creasy is working with Alf Dubs on his amendment to protect child refugees. Yvette Cooper chairs Labour's refugee taskforce.

The debate about whether Labour MPs should split altogether is ongoing, but the warnings of history aside, some Corbyn critics believe this is exactly what the leadership would like them to do. Richard Angell, deputy director of Progress, a centrist group, said: “Parts of the Labour project get very frustrated that good people Labour activists are staying in the party.”

One reason to stay in Labour is the promise of a return of shadow cabinet elections, a decision currently languishing with the National Executive Committee. 

But anti-Corbyn MPs may still yet find their ability to influence policies blocked. Even if the decision goes ahead, the Corbyn leadership is understood to be planning a root and branch reform of party institutions, to be announced in the late autumn. If it is consistent with his previous rhetoric, it will hand more power to the pro-Corbyn grassroots members. The members of Labour's new awkward squad have seized on elections as a way to legitimise their voices. But with Corbyn in charge, they might get more democracy than they bargained for.