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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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.