The dirtiest word in the English language

My brother and I have an ongoing email dialogue that runs the gamut, from popular culture to geographical anomalies to educational reform. We both find ourselves at odds with other people a lot, so it's a nice reprieve. Kind of a conversational safe house.

Sample discussion: what's the most offensive word in the English language? Aaron used to say "bitch," although plenty of other hateful terms come to mind without thinking too hard. What makes it so horrible though, is that it's so often culled for the purpose of debasing a woman for expressing anger about something. Like every slur, its job is to discredit. But it's specifically aimed at women who fight back. Compliant women are never called a bitch.

I’ve always said I feel “date rape” is the most offensive term, because it implies that it’s not exactly rape if you knew him. Historically, the victims of rape have been further punished in courts with broken fingers and by being forced to marry their rapists, among other things. Even now a lot of such violent crimes linger to shame their victims forever afterward, in a variety of ways, not the least of which is via whatever public pronouncements are inappropriately made about the victim’s personal life not pertaining to the crime itself. And of course there are many ways to perpetrate insidious psychological abuse, which resembles this aftermath without leaving any of that messy physical evidence in the first place. But in a rape situation, no matter how or whether you knew the guy or what you were wearing or what your sexual habits are (invasive details that erroneously seem relevant to juries), the psychological violence is the true crime.

Why I bring this up: recently my neighbors Ian and Ashley went to an Andrew Vachss reading at Skylight Books and I tagged along. It was my introduction to Andrew Vachss, and an odd one, since he didn’t actually read any of his work but instead discussed current events with the audience. I left thinking this: an eccentric genius! I wonder what his writing’s like? And after going home and reading his lengthy and inspiring bio from start to finish, I think he’s my new hero.

His wife, Alice Vachss, is also a person of undeniably heroic proportions. I love this woman because she wrote an article for the New York Times entitled “All Rape is Real Rape” in which she declares people who downplay acquaintance rape "collaborators." It’s a great article, and it examines the damage done by creating the distinction of date (or acquaintance) rape. But she says something that distresses me:

“Those who cling most tenaciously to the myth of "real" rape dismiss the overwhelming statistics to the contrary as the ravings of lunatic feminists.”
... we’re doing great so far, here – an excellent point, since lots of feminist issues are dismissed thusly ...
Oh, but there she goes, continuing:
“It may well be that feminists have their own agenda, but rape is not a feminist issue—it is a women's issue, and a human one.” In other words, before you go and interpret that statement to mean she identifies with feminists (or, god forbid, is one) let her be clear that, generally speaking, she doesn't take them seriously either.

Like I said, lots of feminist issues are dismissed thusly, as if there was a roving clan of hysterical feminists, and as if every group of people must openly atone for the possibility that a few of them who aren’t to be taken seriously taint the whole group. Can you imagine? You go to the LAPD website and it says “serving the greater Los Angeles community, but please don’t think the cops who beat black people have anything to do with us – we’re loathe to even call ourselves cops. Law enforcement is a police issue, not a cop issue.” But this is what most people who use the word feminist, in conversation or in print, do. They say the equivalent of this: “I’m a woman. I care about things that affect women. But I’m not one of those crazy women.” This sort of apologetic behavior indicates that the speaker / writer has precisely the anti-female bias she’s allegedly trying to eradicate, just in a way so sublimated, she can’t articulate it properly. But it’s very common. Feminism is a dirty word.

So I hereby modify my opinion to this: the worst term in the English language is "feminist." It is simply something you cannot call yourself, without inviting most other people's castigation. The unfortunate truth is that so many people believe feminism to be inclusive of a hysterical, anti-male extreme (which I believe to be a thing of myth, but if it isn't, it no more relates to being feminist than male hatred of women, which is very real and much more acceptable, does) that it's disempowering to identify as a feminist. If you want people to hear you out on a feminist issue, you must first disavow feminists. This is conceptually sick, but I believe it to be the truth.

alright, well ... apartment pictures next time. no apologies for this post.
If you need it to end on a better note, read the Andrew Vachss bio.


  1. I think the context of *when* Alice Vachss was writing has to be taken into account. In the early 1990s, Andrea Dworkin, who self-styled as (and was recognized in the media as) a radical feminist, notoriously claimed that rape was the natural result of all male-female sexual relations, that marriage was nothing more than institutionalized rape, and that all true feminists had to recognize these as basic truths. As a person in college at the time, I recall that the term feminist became inextricably intertwined with these pronouncements. In that political context, it was really impossible to forward discussion on the crime of rape (ie sexual violence) without explicitly disavowing the "feminist" definition of rape first. In other words, I think that the writer was contemporaneously struggling to redefine "date rape" as rape (and properly so!) while avoiding having her argument discounted as politicized hype. Her success, of course, shows in the results. Nowadays no one even recalls the embarrassing co-optation of the feminist term.


  2. all this sounds vaguely familiar .. thanks for shedding light on things. I think (based solely on my interactions with lots of people with varying degrees of education) that the myth of the man-hating feminist (as an active and deliberate sect, although in actuality it may be a stereotype based on one person with disturbing ideas that made their way into the press) still prevails and pollutes a lot of dialogue - in any case, a lot of dialogue I've been in - about feminist topics. Whether or not anyone recalls Andrea Dworkin, there are still a lot of haters out there.

    I've never discussed this in a classroom setting, but nor have most people; what non-academics think about feminism is important because, in a sense, that's one of the things that defines it (in the way that "ain't" is a word because people use it).

    Anyway, thanks for reading & a great thought.

  3. If you enjoyed that Vachss event at Skylight, you'll probably want to know that Vachss is doing an online version of the event--answering everyone's questions, live on camera--on January 14, to support the release of the last Burke novel. More info at vachss dot com.


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