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We Need to Stop Using Words That Degrade Women

This may not be a new trend, but social media seems to be making it worse.


Art Credit: Regina Leah

I am an enthusiast of cultural evolution in its many forms, be it technology, literature, music, art, or fashion. But I have always had a protective, almost conservative soft-spot for language.

Don’t get me wrong, my texts and emails are as flooded with OMGs and LOLs as the next girl’s. My reservations on evolving language are not about the inclusion of new words into the dictionary; I have no problem with adding “twerk” and “selfie” to the Oxford Dictionary (yes, those were added in 2013). And I'm not railing against swearing in general—a woman exclaiming "what the hell" hardly warrants notice.What concerns me is a different type of evolution. The kind where discriminating or degrading slurs are used in a casual, fun, or playful manners to describe human interactions, friendships, and depth of familiarity with a person or someone’s character.

I’m talking about the use of words “slut” and “bitch” seeping as they have into the mainstream and becoming socially accepted. These words are the hashtag decor of millions of posts and pictures on Twitter, Facebook, and other social platforms. A simple search for #totalslut or #outwithmybitches on Twitter brings up millions of post results ranging from girlfriends getting ready for a night out, to a pic of the puckered lips donning the latest MAC lipstick, even pictures of pets in various settings. Most disturbingly, there is a plethora of downright mean, judgmental posts about women’s dress style, character, or behavior.

Who’s posting, you might ask? By and large, other women.

We should be concerned about adorning posts with #[pickyoursexistslur]. This may not be a new trend, but it has been significantly amplified by the widespread use of social media, increased digital mobility, and around-the-clock connectivity. Catty comments that previously existed behind closed doors (not that obscurity legitimizes them), are now out for the world to see. Adjectives that offend and degrade are worn as digital badges of honor, displays of gutsiness, or giggle inducers.

Is our worth in the social space becoming so defined by the number of likes, comments, pins, and retweets we get that we need to resort to such negative terms to describe daily human interactions and one another? Has our vocabulary become so limited that, even within the confines of a 140-character limit, we are unable to express joy, celebrate friendship, and poke clever fun at our overfed, sprawled-out cat? More importantly, have we taken a moment to think of the implications of the systemic use of these terms?

There’s not much distance between accepting these terms in social contexts and fostering a culture of disrespect and misogynistic branding. They say Rome wasn’t built in a day but it was burned in a night. And it seems that we may be gathering the straw that might inadvertently start the fire. It might seem as innocent, harmless fun, but we may slowly be chipping away at the armor of women’s rights, one hashtag at a time.

We live in an amazing time and place. Women can vote, pursue a Ph.D., own, build, sell, and do whatever we wish with property—and much more. We must not forget that women’s dignity and rights were not always recognized. It is our duty and privilege to protect what our predecessors fought for us, not only out of gratitude to them but out of solidarity to those who continue to fight for equal pay, promotion of women in the workplace, or even tougher battles across the globe on sexual violence, genital mutilation, and child marriage. I doubt Susan B. Anthony envisioned future women calling each other sluts when she convinced the University of Rochester to admit women to their programs. And I am fairly certain the millions of #totalslut posts are not helping Malala Yousafzai’s fight for girls’ education in the wake of global terrorism.

Leader of the global “lean in” revolution, Sheryl Sandberg urges us to ban the word “bossy”—to to fight the subtle indoctrination of our daughters to bow their heads and follow rather than lead. Let us rise to the occasion and extend the ban to the other “B” and “S” words, so that we—our girlfriends, sisters, mothers, and colleagues—can be seen for what truly defines us as women. Let’s ban them in the digital world as well as in the physical one. Let us go #outwithmyengineers, take pride in being a #totalwriter, #totalmom, #totallyfun or #totallyquirky and erode the share of the Twitter space currently held by #totalslut.