Reclaiming “Cunt,” “Bitch,” “Slut,” and more

In systems of oppression, it’s common to use words to degrade or breakdown members of the oppressed group. Working to dismantle these systems may involve efforts to reclaim a word. While this has happened time and again in a variety of outlets, it seems like there is never consensus on whether or not reclaiming words is appropriate. I thought I’d spend some time presenting a few of these words and a bit about their reclamation.

In the famed Vagina Monologues, one very popular monologue discusses an enthusiastic reclaiming of the word “cunt.” Like all of the monologues, each performance is a bit different, each performer adding her own unique twist on the monologue.


People have been using this word to shame or degrade women for-ev-er. Or at least it seems that way. In an act of edgy reclamation, Bitch Media named their publication something that a lot of feminists criticize them for. They defend the name, saying:

“When it’s being used as an insult, “bitch” is an epithet hurled at women who speak their minds, who have opinions and don’t shy away from expressing them, and who don’t sit by and smile uncomfortably if they’re bothered or offended. If being an outspoken woman means being a bitch, we’ll take that as a compliment.”

In 2011, a group of young feminists organized a march to protest victim-blaming statements made by a law enforcement official at a campus program. They decided to call their protest a Slut Walk, and their response made a global impact. In time, Slut Walks were taking place in major cities all over the world. There were also critical responses to these initiatives. The discussion grew, and ultimately the original organizers shared some thoughts about the Slut Walk journey and discourse in a plenary address at the 2012 National Sexual Assault Conference. A pretty neat outlet for something that started on a college campus in Toronto.
The idea that feminists can celebrate a word meant to degrade them gives new meaning to the “sticks and stones” rhyme of childhood. Whether right or wrong, I cannot say. I can say that what a word means to one person may be entirely different from what it means to someone else. Words traditionally used to oppress can still have that impact, even if it’s not meant to any longer.
While the three discussed here were discussed with feminist activism in mind, they’ve been claimed and reclaimed over and over again. Consider the popular use of words like “bitch” or “slut” as a term of endearment among friends. Many teens fell into this practice a few years ago, as adults in their lives cringed. One cool mom I know encouraged her teenage daughter to rethink these terms of endearment by considering what some of her friends might say to make her smile. From what I understand, she decided to replace “hey slut” with “hey beautiful” from there on out.
Tread carefully when reclaiming a word. Even more importantly, try to understand why you’re doing it. Make sure you choose your words for the right reasons. And after you choose, listen to the feedback and engage in the dialogue. You will always learn something.
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