Ask Surly Amy: Privileged Bitch?

Dear Surly Amy
With all this talk about “Elevatorgate” I thought I’d ask a question about male privilege and insults. I was reading this article: http://is.gd/GG8hmd and I posted it on a chat room with a the comment “She’s a privileged bitch.” This sparked quite a debate on my use of the word “bitch.” I’ll spare you all the details of the debate, but the tl;dr version is that the argument was the use of “bitch” is anti-feminist because of it’s an engendered term. I try to pay attention to my male privilege, and conceded several points they made. I intend to use the term much less often than I already do, but I can’t get over the fact that nearly every insult is a privileged statement against some group. “Moron” was used to describe mentally handicapped. “Dick” is exclusively a male insult. Etc.
Am I showing my privilege when I use “bitch” and being anti-feminist, or am I just using yet another insult that has a checkered past?

Dear Rubbs,

I’m not really sure if this is about privilege as much as it is about being insensitive. Technically, it depends on how you are using the word and in what way. In fact, this question is very interesting to me as I often use the word to describe my friends in a playful manner but I also have also been hurt by it when it was directed towards me in anger. And for the sake of this discussion we are just going to respond to the question of the word, “bitch” and not to other the words mentioned that each carry separate connotations.

And I say we because I decided the best way to answer this question was to call in for some linguistic back-up!

I sent a note to ex-Skepchick and skeptic-friend, Dr Karen Stollznow.

For those of you who may not be familiar with Karen, she has a doctorate in linguistics. She is also the cohost of Point of Inquiry and the Monster Talk podcast. She is the “Naked Skeptic” columnist for Skeptic magazine, contributing editor for Skeptical Inquirer magazine as well as a paranormal investigator and all around awesome gal. She even has a blog called, Skepbitch. I honestly couldn’t think of anyone more qualified to answer this than her. Here is Karen’s response:

Hey Amy!

“Bitch” has many different meanings and usages.

Of course, it can have negative connotations; it can be wielded as a term
of abuse to label a supposedly “malicious” woman, or used as an insult
term to emasculate a man. It can be used with positive connotations; as a
self-referential term to mean “a strong, powerful woman”, or used to show
solidarity and familiarity between friends, both male and female.

“Bitch” may be seen as “anti-feminist” by some, but there has also been a
movement by feminists to reclaim “bitch”. However, the most salient usage
of the word is as a term of abuse, usually directed towards women. The
pejorative sense usually wins out.

Women can be especially sensitive to men using the term, because it can
seem as though “bitch” is a gendered insult that has no equivalent term
for men. In this way, “bitch” can sound hostile to a woman, towards women
in general, and even sound misogynistic.

There aren’t any hard and fast rules as to when and where “bitch” is
appropriate or inappropriate. If you use the word, even when intended as a
positive term, you are still likely to offend someone. This comes down to
the listener’s interpretation and that can be unpredictable.

Unless it’s intended to be an insult, I’d recommend people just try to be
sensitive to their audience. That can be difficult to predict too, and I
don’t believe in psychic abilities. :)

Karen. x

Thanks so much, Karen!

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Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. He was using it to insult a woman in a way that he probably would not have used it to insult a man, and when people do use it to insult a man, they’re calling him less of a man by insinuating he is weak and therefore feminine, i.e. “whiny little bitch.” So yeah, in this case, he should have known it’s a misogynistic term.

    Here’s a quick rule of thumb: No matter how many other ways people may use the word, when you’re using “bitch” to describe a woman as bad, mean, or difficult, as in “you’re such a bitch!” it’s always misogynistic.

    1. Bah and guys just get called assholes or dicks.

      It depends on the context, if you’re calling Hillary Clinton a bitch for being strong enough to do all the things she’s done in her life, you’re sexist. If you’re calling your boss a bitch because she’s female, you’re sexist. If your ex girlfriend cheated on you, then she’s a cheating bitch.

      Same way you might call a mean, cheating ex bf a cheating dickface.

      I acknowledge womens continuing disadvantage and struggle in society and support it. I’m not however going to be overly PC just because it offends people.

      I’ll use colorful language when it’s due or when it’s funny :P.

  2. I’m more concerned with this growing use of the word “privileged” to casually write off opinions people disagree with. It used to be: you can’t possibly understand you’re white. Or: you can’t possibly understand you’re male. Now we have: you can’t possibly understand you’re privileged. This last one is the least defensible because it can’t easily be countered with a photograph. It’s a lovely trap, too. If you agree with the speaker’s argument then you have risen above your short comings and are applauded. If you disagree the the speaker you are trapped by your background and clearly don’t “get it” and will probably never “get it.”

    How about we as skeptics focus more on the quality of facts and opinions and focus less on backgrounds and labels? Just pretend the person you are talking to is a dog (or bitch, if you will) and react to what is said rather than any preconceived notion of who you think is saying it. I think Amy and Karen’s response, as informative as they were, buried the lead. Why is the quality of the ad hominem more important than the fact that we should discourage the use of ad hominem in general?

    1. The term “privilege”, I find, is more often than not an extremely valuable tool in understand the power dynamics at play between various groups. I’ve very rarely seen it used as just a means of writing off some individual or group without further thought and context attached, and I’ve NEVER seen it applied to an individual or group that didn’t indeed benefit from some particular social privilege and some kind of higher standing on some kind of hierarchy.

      The various protests I hear about the use of the word “privilege” (which, again, I find very valuable in terms of understanding these social relationships) remind me of weird, reactionary things I’ve heard before like “the word Cracker is just as offensive as n****r!” or “why isn’t there a straight pride parade?” or “what about men’s lib!?”, etc. Context means a whole lot, as does history behind a social issue, as does who has the upper hand in a given dynamic. In the issue of “privilege”, discussing and drawing attention to the upper hand itself is the whole point.

      Annnnd, it strikes me that these objections to the term privilege typically come from exactly the people who would benefit the most from not having their privilege questioned, critiqued or deconstructed. i.e the people who have the most to lose from this becoming a widespread concept / tool.

      Which is not to say I think those people’s opinions are invalid simply because they possess a fair amount of social privilege… just that I’m not sure their motivations for objecting to it are entirely without bias.


      1. When you say, “I’ve NEVER seen it applied to an individual or group that didn’t indeed benefit from some particular social privilege and some kind of higher standing on some kind of hierarchy. ” Regarding privilege doesn’t everyone fall into this category somewhere?

        My understanding of privilege was that all people have it to some extent somewhere, some have more and some people’s is considered less valuable in certain circumstances.

        I agree it’s a useful concept, but if it is employed without reason and explanation then it’s just another nasty ad hominem a particularly nasty one in that the emotional weight behind it makes it very hard to continue a discussion once it’s used in that manner.

      2. Agreed, Natalie. Not to mention that ad hominem doesn’t apply in this case. An ad hominem is when you use a character trait that is irrelevant to the discussion at hand to dismiss someone’s statements. For example, “How can we trust your statements about feline behaviour when everyone knows that you enjoy mint choc ice cream?”

        It’s perfectly legitimate to look at relevant aspects of a person. In this case, there are certain people who, due to their privilege, are likely blinded to many aspects of the discussion at hand. When they make statements that show this blindness, it isn’t unreasonable to say that they are showing their privilege.

        Far from being a dismissal of someone’s opinions, it’s addressing them.

        That’s not to say that it can’t be abused – it’s important for people to take the time to explain how someone’s privilege is interfering with their ability to see the issue. Simply calling privilege may be fine as shorthand, but it isn’t enough.

        1. “Not to mention that ad hominem doesn’t apply in this case. An ad hominem is when you use a character trait that is irrelevant to the discussion at hand to dismiss someone’s statements.”

          In what sort of conversation would “privileged bitch” not constitute an ad hominem? Corgi breeding perhaps?

        2. I think you have a core misunderstanding of what an ad hominem is. It has nothing to do with relevance. I can say you shouldn’t talk about the importance of paying your taxes because you were convicted of tax evasion. Its relevant, but it’s also an ad hominem. This is because it’s an attack on the person, not the argument.

          Ad Hominem is any statement that attempts to undermine the credibility of an argument based on assertions about the arguer. For example, if Hitler had advocated against animal cruelty his argument would not be immediately dismissed because he’s Hitler. We still have to examine the argument and determine if it has merit.

          Similarly I am privileged in having attended school and with my natural talent in grammar. This doesn’t mean my correction can be dismissed if I am helping an under privileged person write a resume.

          1. “I think you have a core misunderstanding of what an ad hominem is. ”

            I believe I have exactly the same understanding as you do. “Privileged bitch” is an epithet not a nuanced description of someone’s social background. If you don’t believe me try it in your next few face-to-face discussions. If your opposite finds in a reasonable and cogent observation I’ll withdraw my objection.

      3. “Annnnd, it strikes me that these objections to the term privilege typically come from exactly the people who would benefit the most from not having their privilege questioned,…”

        I agree. This it what makes it so insidious. If the argument were completely without merit it would be easy to dismiss. We all have a background that informs our decision-making and it is good for us to understand this. I object to two things. First I has been used dismissively in skepchick. Search for the phrase “get it” in recent topics and you’ll see many examples. Secondly it is very imprecise. We were speaking specifically of male privilege. Are all males privileged? If I understand a point about feminism have I overcome my privilege?

        To me if you are arguing a point you should be able to do so in such a clear and convincing as to overcome whatever baggage your audience might have. If your idea depends on shared experience to understand then argument is futile to begin with. Dissecting baggage is a tangent. If your idea can be communicated to an intelligent and interested audience in spite of their backgrounds then dissecting baggage is irrelevant.

        1. Are all males privileged? If I understand a point about feminism have I overcome my privilege?

          Yes and yes. Seriously, this concept isn’t that hard to grasp.

          Men are far more likely to benefit from being male than women are to benefit from being female and the ways in which they benefit are typically far more significant as well (quality and opportunity of employment vs. getting a free drink at a bar). This is why the concept of “female privilege” is incoherent. Privilege denotes the preponderance of circumstances.

          Privilege erodes to the extent that people are aware of its existence and attempt to act equitably. So, yes, understanding privilege helps to overcome it.

          1. “Yes and yes. Seriously, this concept isn’t that hard to grasp.”

            Are you saying I don’t get it? :-)

            I should have used punctuation for emphasis. The question is: Are *all* males privileged? I don’t think most of the benefits people say accrue through a penis would apply to a Dalit for example.

            “Privilege erodes to the extent that people are aware of its existence and attempt to act equitably. So, yes, understanding privilege helps to overcome it.”

            I agree with this as a general statement and it is good advice for bridging many differences.

          2. I should have used punctuation for emphasis. The question is: Are *all* males privileged?

            I understood you the first time, and, yes, ALL men are privileged over women in our culture. This follows directly from how the concept of privilege is defined. Men have privilege because they are part of the set “male” and we live in a culture where males receive disproportionate benefits simply for being male. So, if you are male, you are privileged.

            I don’t think most of the benefits people say accrue through a penis would apply to a Dalit for example.

            Not to the same degree, but I am certain that male low caste Indians were and are better off than female ones. Think of privilege like a bonus that one gets. If one is low caste you might get a -50 penalty, but being male confers a +20 bonus, so a male Dalit nets out at -30, while a female Dalit is down at -50. Gender based privilege may occasionally be less significant than other forms of privilege, but it doesn’t disappear.

        2. This post makes it pretty clear why you don’t like discussions of privilege… you actually might have to consider yours! It’s everyone else’s job to explain things to you, and if they can’t get through to you it’s because of some irrelevant “baggage”. YOUR life and YOUR experiences are the default, apparently, and you are entitled to have things explained to you on your terms without having to consider other people’s circumstances. Yep, still not “getting it”.

      4. For me the problem with using ‘privilege’,is that it is necessarily a sterotype. Any time a person is automatically pigeon-holed into some artificial category because of some external trait,there are likely to arise incorrect assumptions about that individual’s beliefs,background,strengths,weaknesses,prejudices,
        social standing,opportunities,resources,and life story.These are the things that make up an individual.
        Certainly,there are statistical differences between groups,but an individual is not a group,and the only way to really know anything about an individual,is to get to know them before you put a label on them,or file them into some artificial pigeon-hole.
        It is a human trait to want to shortcut that process and to make quick assessments of people for expedience sake,but this,in my view,is what leads to some of the most corrosive aspects of human nature:Racism,jingoism,sexism,homophobia,xenophobia,
        classism,etc. Life is more complex than that.Individuals are as well.

        1. It’s not a stereotype. A stereotype is an assumed set of characteristics one imagines a certain group to possess. “privilege” doesn’t imply any particular group. There’s LOTS of kinds of privilege. Male privilege, white privilege, cisgender privilege, straight privilege, able-bodied privilege, monetary privilege, etc.

          And use of the term privilege doesn’t denote any kind of characteristic about the person other than the fact that they possess certain social and cultural advantages (and potentially other more basic, practical advantages too).

          Discussing the fact that a certain person has a certain kind of privilege doesn’t mean you’re saying that they necessarily behave in such-and-such a way, or take those privileges for granted, or are bigoted towards other groups, or ANYTHING like that. Privilege is possessed whether you choose it or not, whether you’re aware of it or not, etc. Males, no matter how enlightened or feminist they may be, STILL have advantages that women don’t.

          Privilege isn’t an insult. It’s a way of discussing certain forms of social inequality.

          And… this might sound a little snarky, but becoming really defensive about people drawing attention to your privilege (especially given how the non-privileged group never gets the OPTION of remaining unaware of the disparity)… getting defensive about it just, to me, absolutely embodies the sense of entitlement that often (but not always) goes along with privilege.

          A black guy cannot ever go through life remaining ignorant of white culture or take for granted the benefits of being white, a white person can remain ignorant of black culture and not suffer any consequences. And then, when someone draws attention to those issues, the white person reacts defensively saying “don’t pigeonhole me! rah rah!”, that’s entitlement, and it’s not cool. Likewise with, say, cis people getting to take their gender and sense of comfort with their bodies for granted, straight people getting to take marriage for granted, men getting to take the sense of personal safety and security for granted, etc. etc.

          Privilege is just about calling attention to that stuff. It has NOTHING to do with stereotypes or dismissing people.

          1. P.S. I have privilege too, btw. I’m white. I’m able-bodied. I’m mentally healthy. And I even have certain more specific kinds of privilege within the under-privileged categories to which I belong. A relative degree of “passing privilege” for instance (look it up).

            Having those privileges doesn’t mean I’m a bad person. It just means I was fortunate in certain ways (while unfortunate in others).

            The important thing is that you just don’t take your privileges for granted, and that you don’t deliberately perpetuate or exploit those social inequalities you happen to benefit from.

          2. Your post script contains some elements of why I wrote my original comment. When defining privilege,certain parameters will be drawn.Male vs female,black vs white,etc. But what makes up an individual person is a highly complex set of parameters.For example: Healthy vs sick,rich vs poor,educated vs non-educated. But even that is a simplification.Take health for example.Is a paraplegic privileged over a quadriplegic? Is a wheelchair bound person worse off than someone using a walker? How about an obese person vs average weight person? Diabetes vs cancer? Let’s look at education.Is a high school dropout less privileged than a high school graduate? How about a rich Harvard school student vs a scholarship student? Does IQ convey advantage? 100 vs 160? how about 84 IQ vs 120? Personality is important too,Who is more likely to succeed in life a charming outgoing person,or a shy introvert? Psychology may play a part too.Do the well adjusted do better than the depressed or borderline personality? Families play a role in a persons advantage too.Who is better off,the rich lonely abused and isolated or the poor but loved and supported individual? Height has been shown to affect success too.Is 6’5″ privileged over the 5’5″ person? Good looks are known to help as well.Do you think an attractive person has the advantage over the unattractive person all else being equal? I can go on and on and on with this,but the point is,that you can find a particular trait that theoretically coveys advantage,but don’t generalize to an individual who may have a dozen strikes against them that you have no knowledge of.Until you really know someone,you have no real basis for telling them how good they have it compared to anyone else.

          3. Discussing or mentioning someone’s privilege in one area doesn’t mean someone’s discounting the ways a person might be underprivileged in another. I feel like you’re sort of taking certain ways the term “privileged” is occasionally misused and projecting that onto the term as a whole.

            Of course privilege is a very complex and multi-faceted concept. But I don’t see why that undermines or detracts from its usefulness and value? I mean…. you can’t just throw out every sociological concept that gets a bit messy and ambiguous every now and then. For example, race and gender are both VERY complicated, murky, ambiguous things with lots of grey areas and room for interpretation. But they’re useful in understanding our lives, each other, our societies, our culture, etc.

            Occasionally someone will say something silly like “you have male privilege therefore you can’t possibly understand what I’m talking about!”, or whatever, but that doesn’t have anything to do with the actual concept of privilege and its usefulness in understanding ourselves and our social status and standing in our still sadly stratified society. (yay alliteration!)

  3. I’m one of those folks who really doesn’t like the word ‘bitch’. Even if it’s intended in a fun, friendly manner, the word always comes across like a slap to my ears. “Hey, bitches” is not a pleasant greeting for me; my hackles go up immediately. (Hackles…haha… female dogs have hackles.) People may think I’m oversensitive, that I should ‘just get over it’, but it really bothers me. But those who use it regularly don’t seem to think about the impact it might have on their audience.

  4. I don’t get more offended if someone calls me a bitch than if they use any other word in the same spirit. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the anger and the intention to offend that offends me. They could call me a “frabloobla” in that same spirit and I’d be offended. Similarly, if I’m called a bitch by someone who means it jokingly or as a positive, I again take it in the spirit it was given.

    I’m surprised that no one’s mentioned the sexual connotations of the word “bitch” yet. It doesn’t just mean an assertive woman – it means an animal whose sole purpose is to breed. A bitch refers to a female breeding dog, like a queen is a female breeding cat. So it’s not just telling women to shut up and learn their place, it’s telling them that their place is making babies. So yes, I agree that there’s a whole lot of anti-woman baggage loaded onto the word, I just doubt that most people using it understand that – and this ignorance robs the word of much of its power.

  5. I’ve always considered the male equivalent to “bitch” to be “bastard”. It has the same general connotation, and while not specifically engendered, I have seldom heard it applied to a woman… usually, if you’d call a guy a bastard in a given situation, it seems most common to call a woman a bitch.

    1. You said pretty much was I was about to say, only better.

      But hey, if anyone has a reason “bitch” and “bastard” aren’t equivalent, I’m always glad to be proven wrong.

        1. I think at this point, both words have taken on meanings very different from their origin, when used as an insult.They have a sort of explosive sound,and charged impact,like a punch to the face.

      1. Bitch refers to gender and likens the woman to an animal fit only for breeding. Bastard is not gendered and puts into question only social status, not humanity. These aren’t equivalents.

        The trouble with the male gendered insults is that most of them compare the man to a woman – that’s the insult. Because being a woman is a bad thing. So even though these words are used to insult men, they do so by insinuating that there is something terrible about being female.

        So no, I really don’t think that there’s an equivalent word that can be used for men. The most potent one we have is jerk. But who’s ever been offended by being called a jerk?

        1. I find that “asshole” is fairly effective as a non-gendered insult. Everyone has one. It used to be exclusively used for men, but there’s no reason why it should be, and it’s not anymore.

        2. “The trouble with the male gendered insults is that most of them compare the man to a woman – that’s the insult. Because being a woman is a bad thing.”

          To note, I know women who would be horrified to be likened to a man in some aspects, if only it were to start applying to all aspects, so each gender could be proud and happy with what they are instead of the historical inequality that keeps churning us into it’s messy droppings.

          Words like bitch, nigger, bastard, cracker, towelhead can be used as a way to express your negative view of someone that falls into the correct category linked to said word, or if the person honestly doesn’t feel that way, but suspects that the audience will get hurt by the use of the word, simple used as a verbal slap in the face.
          The expression of your negative views of other people, be it prejudice or if you honestly think you’ve done your “research” and think there is a difference between your in-group and the audience you are talking to, then has some short cuts, instead of them having to express it with detailed explanation of why they think that person is less of a X or more of a Y, because of A, B and C.

          Fine, they have a shortcut in the form of a single word, it’s still them being the asshole showing they are intolerant and/or prejudicial.

          The part about wanting to use said word to hurt someone’s feelings, is wrapped up in how words have a history, in other words baggage.
          I know it’s not possible or at the very least very very hard to do, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could just drop the baggage and when someone calls us something like nigger, you wouldn’t get hurt, and just look at the poor racist sod and think him a lesser man for having revealed himself prejudicial.

          In doing so, the word would lose it’s power, and by going the other route, and saying that words 1,2 and 3 are bad and derogatory and have to be used very carefully and preferable not at all, is just empowering the words, loading it as a gun if you will and putting it on the table between people as an option to take a “shot” at the other person.

          I am white and male, so the word cracker might be used against me, I wouldn’t feel the least bit insulted by it, mostly because I’ve never owned slaves and don’t consider myself any more racist then we all are up to a point, but I’d understand the person using it against me was trying to make me feel bad, or thinks less of me for the sole reason of being white, in which case i pity him for being ignorant.

          But then, I’m not black so I’m in a privileged position, I don’t know what it’s like to be black and be called a nigger, if there are any black people here who would get offended, could you flesh out why that is?

        3. This is spot on. I think you’ve brought up a great point here.

          There’s a general tendency for our culture to use femininity, comparison to women, or lack of masculinity, as insults. Bitch, pussy, sissy, fag, etc. Insulting someone by calling them masculine… well, it does happen, but to nowhere NEAR the same extent (and in fact, saying of a woman something like “she’s just like one of the guys!”, is very often a compliment… “dude, stop being such a woman” on the other hand…)

          I think this is one little thing that is VERY telling about the degree to which our society still undervalues and disparages women and femininity. The hostility leveraged against a man perceived as acting feminine vastly exceeds that against a woman exhibiting stereotypically masculine behaviours.

          So… you know… If we compare the relatively neutral value of how we might call a woman a “tomboy” vs. the inherent negativity of calling a man a “sissy”… well… it’s pretty clear that we’re still privileging males, maleness and masculinity, and regarding them as “better”.

          Yeah, absolutely, a whole lot of insults directed at men are all about comparing them to women or calling them womanly. And that’s (obviously) pretty f-ing misogynistic!

      2. Bastard is also a slap at the mother’s character. It refers to the child of a woman who had sex without being married to the father. The only “legitimate” children come from within a marriage where a woman’s sexuality is controlled by her husband.

        1. This is exactly what I was about to say. They’re used equivalently, or at least they used to be a generation ago, but they don’t mean the same thing. If a woman is a bitch, it’s her fault for not keeping her place and keeping sweet. If a man is a bastard, it’s his mother’s fault because she’s a slut.

        2. I know the dictionary defines “bastard” as that as a child of an unwed mother, but I think we’d be hard pressed to find an example of someone using bastard as an insult and meaning it in that way.

          I’d rather think people use it because it’s in the “bad word” category and a less vulgar one then many others.

        3. When I was at army basic training a couple years back, one of my fellow recruits called another a son-of-a-bitch. The Drill Seargent made him write a letter of apology to the other recruits mother.

      3. Bastard works poorly as a verb.

        You can bitch about stuff, you can’t really bastard about it.

        I think we need some more creative terms of abuse. I like “cock-monkey” (which I find both descriptive and evocative) but that’s obviously male-specific.

        Bitch is tired and uncreative. I don’t have a good alternative, though, as it turns out that most of the people I usually feel compelled to shout abuse at are male.

        However, that leaves me without any apt words with which to describe Ann Coulter or Michelle Bachmann.

    2. words like “bastard” and “cracker” are not the equivalent to their female and black counterparts because they haven’t been used (along with countless other social, legal, and cultural tools) to systematically oppress me my entire life. Don’t be foolish.

  6. This was me.

    I’ve since talked this over with many people after this incident, and I’ve really changed the way I think about this word.

    When I used it I didn’t think of it as the engendered term it was/is. I was thinking that the woman I was insulting was being insensitive and not truly understanding what her actions and words were doing.

    I was angry, and did intend it to be an insult. I asked this question in a manner to specifically ask if the use of “bitch” was insulting to all women at every instance it is used. As in, when I call one woman a bitch, is that insulting to all women at the same time?

    After many conversations, I think I would conclude that it is. My actions were less than mature at best and downright wrong. As davew stated, it was an ad-hominem attack to the things she was saying. But to clarify, I wasn’t attempting to debate the issue, merely to state to some friends that I found her reasoning to be privileged (“don’t discriminate against me because I’m Christian and anti-gay marriage, boo-hoo”). This caused me to say “privileged bitch” to some friends. This was when one pointed out that bitch not only insulted the women I directed it to, but indirectly insulted all women.

    I won’t apologize for being angry and using and insult. At times when frustration occurs, it’s appropriate to express one’s opinion of another. I do however apologize for using the term “bitch” and plan on taking a closer look at my anger/frustration before I spout shit out.

    So to turn this into a more friendly conversation, what ways do you express your anger/frustration/opinions about another person? Is it always wrong to use an insult? Do we as skeptics always have to have the “civilized” facade up, or are we allowed to, among friends, express our feelings with gusto and appropriate language?


    1. I’m just one woman out of over 3billion, so take my response with that perspective in mind. But personally, I say that anything goes when we are among friends – or, rather, the rules governing etiquette within that social circle trump the wider social behaviour rules.

      I do, however, think that it’s good practice to use our words deliberately. Use the right word to express how you feel rather than simply the closest at hand. This gets easier (and quicker!) the more you do it.

      As for speaking publicly (this includes the internet), a good rule is to think about what you want to say, type, go have a sandwich or make yourself some tea, come back and read over what you wrote, and then decide if that’s really how you want to present yourself.

      That being said, I don’t follow my own advice.

      1. This is good advice. In this case it was a chat room on the internet, but it’s a fairly small group of people, and while it’s open to anyone to join, it’s rather “non-public” in the the sense it’s just obscure. If I were to respond via a blog post, or something more “public” I certainly would have never used “bitch” and would have explained why I felt she was acting as a privileged Christian.

        In this case the atmosphere was like that of a gathering of 20 or so friends who knew me fairly well. I don’t think the insult or the lack of explanation was out of place. I do however feel that the conversation about the word “bitch” afterward made me think a little more about how I use it, even in the company of people who understand how I meant it to be used. It’s a charged word that I need to be more careful with.


    2. These are the kinds of posts I like to see — it’s very encouraging to read that fellow skeptics can reason and change their minds and be willing to admit fault, especially surrounding a lot of really charged issues that have come up from this site lately.

    3. I don’t plan to change my wording.

      The context I usually use bitch in is to describe a woman who’s truly mean. Like mean/selfish ex-gf’s, the mean lady who yells at all the kids down the block, etc. However I don’t use it to describe women who I simply don’t get along with, female political figures I don’t care for, etc.

      But I agree that demonetization of women is ingrained in the vulgar slang of most indo-european languages (that I speak at least) and this is indicative of an entire societal attitude.

      Ask a lot of women or men about Hillary Clinton for instance and you’ll get “she didn’t win because she was bitchy”, “she got too emotional”, “she was too manly”, and other such tripe that faults her for being a woman. It’s so deeply ingrained that many women even exercise female discrimination.

      I think fighting this lies in spreading awareness of this inherent discrimination to younger people.

      That said, I don’t plan to change my usage of vulgur words since I don’t believe in being politically correct. I still plan to say stuff like “I had a bitch of a day” or “he’s a douchebag” or “my ex cheated on me, what a bitch” around appropriate crowds (i.e. friends and adult family).

  7. I once new a Deputy Sheriff who, as a female in a macho mans world had a very tough shell around her. She was arresting a local politician who called her a Bitch. She smiled and replied, “Your right, Babe In Total Control Of Herself!” The politician is no longer in office and she has moved on to a better and higher authority, last i heard she was with the Marshall’s service. Nice way to turn a hateful remark around!

  8. How about “asshole”? Everyone has one!

    Seriously, I never understand the need some people have to reserve the right to use words that other people object to. I think objecting to the word “bitch” can be a bit petty on occasion (“quit your bitching”) but really, I have other words I can use. I’ll be OK if I don’t get to call anyone a “bitch” or “cunt” ever again… and so will everyone else.

    As far as the privilege thing… yeah, I think it is getting to be overused as a general dismissive term. I mean, YAY that the concept is getting out there and all, but I think privilege is a bigger and more complex issue than people give credit for. Some folks treat it like rock-paper-scissors, or at best rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock. Add about twenty more things, and all the possible permutations, and you begin to approach the real complexity of privilege.

  9. It just occurs to me I do use the phrase quite a lot at work as in “Shut up, bitch. I don’t work for you.” Of course the people I say it to are men. And I do usually work for them.

  10. I prefer to call a woman who deserves it like Sarah Palin a bastard. Bitch and bastard are gender equivalents, yet women have to do a lot less to be considered a nasty person. Bastards kill their own mother and apparently bitches make videos asking people to be aware of their personal boundaries. What a bitch, how can people exist in the world like that :)

    I don’t think insults should casually describe other people unless your joking with a friend. I’m a guy so I don’t even use bitch or slut in that context either.

    1. To be a bastard in the derogatory sense, a person need only be triflingly unpleasant, not actively homicidal.

  11. Sexism and privilege can be subtle, so subtle that even the person doing it is completely oblivious.

    Check out the Q&A portion of Watsons CFI talk last April. http://www.youtube.com/user/centerforinquiry#p/a/C852E00ABA134E69/0/z-X62CBTv44 (Starts at about 53:30)

    He basically says “My father taught me to fix things, I went to college to become an engineer, if a woman asks me to fix her car, I can do that. But people tell me that women just want a shoulder to cry on they don’t really want it fixed, they just want an emotional outlet.”

    This man is not mean or evil. He’s genuinely trying to understand rough 50% of the humans on the planet. He’s probably never considered that his mechanical aptitude exists because he was a male growing up in a certain time and not because men are just better at that sort of thing. That aspect of privilege has always been there.

    It also doesn’t occur to him that saying “Bitches are crazy emotional, ammirite?” to a woman who has just demonstrated reason-based logic, is a bit insulting. Not only to her but to those women in the room who are there to learn more about critical thinking.

    He didn’t mean to belittle every woman in the room or try to negate everything that Watson had been discussing. His privilege (of course, I was given the opportunity to learn how to fix things.) and sexism (Teach me the ways of the female hivemind, oh woman!) did anyway.

  12. It’s roughly the train of thought in this email which meant I now use “asshole” as my strong epithet of choice. It’s gender neutral, it doesn’t belittle any particular group – we all have them – and yet it’s emotive enough to be useful.

  13. Insults are supposed to degrade people, that’s what they’re for. Since insults solve nothing I would rather remove myself from the situation. Theoretically though, if I were mad enough, I probably wouldn’t worry about using a gender-neutral insult.

    1. …Some drunk guy grabbed at my girlfriend’s hand and said “Hallo, darlin!” last week on the street, while two of his friends laughed behind. He wasn’t trying to be scary, but he was definitely crossing boundaries. I think my hissing “Back off, asshole” was entirely proportionate, and let him know how he was acting.

  14. As always, an enlightening discussion. I especially like mrpopularsentiment’s description an ad hominem attack.

    I’m reminded, though, of my wife when she used to play more World of Warcraft, trying to be more creative with her insults in battlegrounds. People are always calling each other ‘gay’ as an insult, and she started saying things like…

    “All your friends secretly dislike you”
    “That girl you like thinks you’re a creep”
    “That may be, but at least I’ve known the touch of a woman”

    That last one shut them down every time.

  15. I use the word. I agree it’s engendered but I fail to see how that makes a difference. Bitch is engendered much like dick is. If I see a man/women park across two parking spaces in a crowded parking lot I’d call him/her a dick/bitch. I see them like I see pronouns (yes I know they’re nouns); his/hers, he/she, dick/bitch. Bitch is demeaning, so is dick (at least I would feel demeaned) although that is the point of an insult; demeaning one’s character.

    I’m certainly not misogynistic as I agree with almost every other feminist view that comes up on this blog. This one I can’t get behind.

    Where am I going wrong?

    1. there doesn’t have to be a right and wrong, it’s a personal matter.

      I find the labeling of words as bad/inappropriate silly and counterproductive, since it gives the word more power.

      1. I agree with you Egillvs. I should have made it clear that it’s some commenters I disagree with on this and not SurlyAmy’s post.

    2. The gender opposite of dick is cow, both can be innocent but stupoid. Bitch is the gender opposite of bastard. but bitch is banded around for the tiniest offences. A bastard has to actually do something aggresive to qualify. Our subconscious relativity doesn’t treat the sexes equally. I think that’s where your going wrong.

      1. Isn’t determining the opposite based on common usage? And when is calling someone a dick, innocent? I gave an example of my usage of the words and how I use them equally for the same scenario; which I think is far more common than cow or bastard. You could also replace dick with asshole to help get the point across.

        1. I agree with your implicit point re common usage: I’ve disagreed with most of the “gender opposites” people have proposed here, but I do have my own which are equally non-universal.

      2. To me, the gender opposite of “dick” is “cunt”. I virtually never use “cunt”, but that is because women very rarely exhibit the kind of behavior that would be dickish in a man.

        I appreciate that in general usage “cunt” is considered extremely bad where “dick” is considered essentially normal behavior but annoying.

        I sometimes ues “dick” as a gender neutral term.

        1. “cunt” is not an equivalent to “dick.”

          When used as an insult, “cunt” is meant to demean the target for having female genitalia. It implies nothing about her behavior. She is a woman and is thus worthless.

          Conversely, “dick” used to refer to a person is not reductive. Its meaning is at considerable remove from the original definition, and accuses the target of being mean, cruel, obnoxious, annoying, or otherwise poorly behaved.

          That the two words originally refer to analogous structures does not make them equivalent.

  16. I find myself using “son-of-a-bitch” alot, but not against people. I use it when I’m wrestling with inanimate objects that aren’t co-operating with me.

    I don’t really know what that says about me.

    1. Me too. I also catch myself saying, “Oh My God” and I was raised without religion. Some sayings are just embedded in the cultural slang and are hard habits to shake off.

      1. at least that’s one “fun” thing religion has supplied society with, a plethora of cuss words :)

        1. You just reminded me of a couple drunks in ‘Paint your wagon’, after a traveling preacher’s yelled at them:

          What’s a fornicator?

          I don’t know. I ain’t religious.

  17. A question stemming out of this: do we need to consider the geographic and cultural differences in how such terms are used?

    For example, the word “cunt” is considered to be probably the least acceptable swearword in the US, but in England, it’s probably only up there with “dickhead” as far as offensiveness goes. In Scotland it’s practically a term of endearment. Certainly, the scottish people I know who use the term (which is most of the scottish people I know, male and female) mean something very different by it than the American people I know who use the term (which is probably about half of the American people I know, including my wife).

    If different uses of the term express different things, can we say that different uses of the term express the same privilege?

  18. As someone who lives in Scotland (and grew up in England), I can say that ‘cunt’ is used as a term of friendly insult among groups of friends in Scotland (although you still wouldn’t say it to a work colleague or your granny!)

    In England it is most definitely deeply offensive, and even saying it among friends would be considered brave! A few weeks ago a radio presenter in the UK mis-pronounced the culture secretary’s name as Jeremy Cunt (instead of Hunt). It caused a massive furore, and the presenter had to apologise a lot. All the news programmes bleeped out the offensive word, as its still considered very much a taboo. A TV drama also said the ‘C’ word (late at night, and the word itself was mostly obscured by background noise, I assume to soften the impact) and that also caused a massive furore and a lot of complaints.

    Also, I’ve never heard the term ‘cracker’ being an insult – how is it an insult and who’s it aimed at?

    1. at white people, the whip slave owners would make a snapping sound or a crack, when swung.

      so being called a cracker is akin to calling someone a racist asshole who would go so far as to own slaves, or something like that i guess.

      not sure how someone who actually is racist would take that as an insult though, i guess that person would be just as likely to reply with “hell yeah i’m a cracker”

      1. This is likely a false folk etymology.

        The term seems to have originated in colonial America as an early version of “white trash,” describing then-recent immigrants from England and Scotland who mainly lived in the South.

        I had always assumed (before looking it up) that the usage must result form the resemblance in color between the common Saltine and a member of the group so described, but the usage is too old for that to make sense.

        Tl;DR: The derivation seems to be from “corn-cracker,” not “whip-cracker.”

    2. I think it’s not considered as harshly in england as you’re saying, at least not always. Certainly, it’s offensive here, but it also gets a lot of play as a jokey insult. See, for example, the “Can I get any of you cunts a drink?” scene in Shaun Of The Dead.

  19. I was raised to never use the word “bitch” to describe a woman. Of course, as a teenager and young adult I took umbrage with my feminist upbringing and used it semi-regularly. Now, having considered WHY my mother raised me not to use the word and what its connotations are, I almost never use it and get a bit uncomfortable when others do.

    I don’t, however, hold the same standard for art. I listen to a lot of hip-hop music and, clearly, the word is used there. I am ok with this for a few reasons: 1) I think art has a responsibility to be offensive. It is the one place I think that we can indulge the uncomfortable, disgusting, or bizarre places our minds go. 2) Art depicts characters. People are flawed and flawed characters (protaganists or villians) are interesting, less so when they show their hand. 3) I think that this particular term has been made as non-gendered and generic as “fuck” in the context of hip hop. “Bad Bitches” is the current slang for awesome chicks but the word can mean anything from a clearly gendered insult to “the club that I am at”.

    As for these attempts at equivilency, I really don’t believe any white man who feigns offense at “cracker” “dick” or “bastard”. Those words have not been used to oppress you or dismiss your opinions throughout history. Sorry.

    As a literal bastard (unwed mother… where did this “kill your parents” stuff upthread come from?) I have never felt the word had any power. “Cracker” and “dick” are the same.

  20. I once referred to a leader in Concerned Women of America (an anti-feminist Religious Right group) as a “spokesbitch” for making statements attacking gays who raise children. Does that mean I am also anti-feminist? But I also don’t like it when people attack Ann Coulter for looking too mannish (calling her “Dann Coulter”) or saying she should be fuked, which is REALLY misogynous or hurtful to actual transgendered people. I think it’s a matter of perception. If someone finds your remarks offensive, it should be enough to say, “I’m sorry your feelings were hurt, but I had a reason for what I said that had nothing to deal with you directly. Can you suggest a better way of saying it?”

  21. I hate resurrecting an old thread (though this one is relatively recently deceased), but I only just got around to reading anything posted here in the last week today. Forgive me.

    On nuances surrounding a word and its uses, I have to note another way in which the word bitch is used positively. I know that Karen Stollznow mentioned some positive uses for the word, with some women having taken it back, but I was reminded that the word is also being taken back by gays by a poster far further up-thread who mentioned how bitch is used as an insult to emasculate men.

    As a gay man, I’ve been called a bitch as an insult many times. The reasons that it hurts as an insult are complex, of course, and too much so for discussion here. Anyhow, there are some gays who have taken the word bitch for themselves and use it to refer to their friends in a positive, affirmative way.

    I don’t use the word myself, or in reference to my friends, because I don’t fit into the particular gay sub-culture that makes use of the word in that way, but I’m always fascinated by, and happy to see, a word that is used to degrade, insult and oppress the marginalised striped of some of its power to do those things. I absolutely hate words that are used to oppress, so I view any reappropriation as a sign of things getting better. It’s one of the reasons I’m so proud to be able to call myself gay. I have a hope that people will check their privilege and consider their words carefully. They’re powerful tools when used well.

  22. I think that using the word bitch toward a woman as an insult, in a way that describes rude or mean behavior, has nothing to do with privilege or sexism. It is the equivalent of using the word “asshole” or “dick” toward a man to describe rude or mean behavior. Asshole and dick are terms that are not commonly used (as an insult to describe mean or rude behavior) against women, they are mainly insults directed toward men. However, I do agree that if a man calls another man a bitch, it has some sexist meaning. This is because the insult in that case is that you are describing the man as a woman, and the implication is that a woman is inferior to a man.

    I’m sure there are some people who have used the word bitch with a sexist meaning behind it, but I don’t think the common usage of the word necessarily has anything to do with sexism anymore than asshole or dick has to do with sexism towards men.

    I also wanted to comment on male privilege. I think the term male privilege is vastly overused in the United States, and has become even more so recently in the atheist community since “elevatorgate”. I disagree with some of the comments here that say that all men are privileged. It surprises me that people who claim to be skeptics would make such a broad generalization. The idea that all men have advantages in life simply because they are men necessarily implies that all men are sexist towards women. This is misandrist, insulting, and not true. It is an assumption that has not met its burden of proof, and as a skeptic, I disagree with it.

  23. little late to this, but I just saw an older interview with SNoop Dog (don’t ask I couldn’t find the remote). He said he always says “bEEEtch” so that MTV won’t bleep it out. Obviously Snoop (a man that brought a woman ON A LEASH to an award show once) has the final say in this. WIth an E it’s ok. Also do not forget your pimp cup.

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