As a young child, it was made very clear to me that cursing should not be a part of my vocabulary because there are better ways to express myself. And, for the first 12 years of my life, I wholeheartedly believed that. That is until I stubbed my toe eliciting a loud “SHIT”, followed by a “sorry mom I didn’t mean to” and copious amounts of laughter from the rest of my family.
It was around the age of 15 when I realized that swearing is powerful. It has an impact on our brains and bodies that no other words have. Swearing helps kill pain: research shows that if you swear while you’re plunging your hand in ice water, you can keep it there for about twice as long as you could if you were not swearing. Replace that profanity with “fudge” or “sugar,” and the painkilling effect vanishes. You do not get that resilience with a pretty word.
While there have been plenty of studies showing the benefits of cursing, our current culture still views cursing as taboo…. especially if you are a female.
A great example of this disparity happened on Twitter in 2017. Victoria Fierce, a developer, Tweeted at Vice President Mike Pence “Fuck you”. Almost immediately after, she received a notification. Twitter had detected “potentially abusive activity” on her account and put her in a temporary timeout as a result. For the next 12 hours, only followers could see her tweets, meaning she would not be able to lobby the Vice President.
And yet if you take the time to look at the mentions of almost any high-profile woman, you will see plenty of gendered slurs that do not seem to land their (male) writers in any kind of trouble.
This gendered divide in how swearing is perceived was observed in a study by Dr Robert O’Neill of Louisiana State University. 377 people were asked to rate examples of swearing for offensiveness. If Dr O’Neill told the volunteers that the speaker was a woman, they consistently rated the swearing as more offensive than when they were told that the speaker was a man. In fact, male swearers were considered more dynamic, and just as attractive as if they had not sworn at all.
Swearing has roots that go wide and deep in our brains in a way that no other language does. According to Dr Emma Byrne, an artificial intelligence researcher, even after a stroke that knocks out practically every structure that enables our brains to use language, swearing often prevails.
It is the language that comes when other words fail us, and it is the language that is most likely to last beyond the consequences of age. As a result, swearing has a rhetorical impact that no other words have. When I swear, I am talking straight to your emotions. And yet women are still disproportionately encouraged to clean up their vocabulary for fear of causing offense.
Swearing is a communicative tool, and we owe it to ourselves to use it. And that’s partially because double standards about female swearing will only change if we challenge them. The emotional effect of swearing is not innate, we learn what is and is not acceptable as we grow up by the reaction of those around us. Toxic attitudes to women’s swearing—and to women’s anger—will never change while “niceness” is the norm.
Now I do not claim to be an expert on women and I never will be, but all I’m trying to say is they deserve the same freedom of vocabulary that men are inherently born with. Women should not feel as though their word choice is policed because I know for a fact, a male certainly never does.
I would like to leave you all with a quote from my sister, “Sometimes the best help a man can give is to just shut the fuck up and listen.”