I had the idea for my next book in late December 2019. As with all my major projects, the title downloaded simultaneously into my consciousness before the concept was fully formed: Selfish Cunt.
I wanted to write about women not having kids, both in celebration of this alternative life path, and as a way to explore the broader implications for a womankind who have been staging a stealth withdrawal from reproductive duties for the best part of the past century. As I pondered the direction my writing might take, the title pulsed in my brain like a horny teenager.
I spent the following year working on a proposal and pitched it in November 2020. By this point, despite positive feedback for Selfish Cunt from those in my inner circle, I had changed the title to Women Without Kids.
It was catchy, unlikely to offend anybody, and, most importantly when it comes to book sales, Google-friendly. The proposal flopped. For three weeks, tumbleweed. I kicked myself for pitching it with both Mercury AND Mars in retrograde.
Then the rejections started rolling in. The idea lacked the “wow” factor of Sober Curious. Books on this subject not performed particularly well to-date. Publishers were not convinced I was the right person to write on this topic. I was disappointed but I tried to remain upbeat. I figured this was the universe nudging me to self-publish. At least then I could call it whatever I liked.
But then an editor from Sounds True asked to have a call, and she really got it. Could see the movement-making potential in a book that envisioned a legacy for womankind beyond motherhood (even for those who did have kids but who rejected the notion that being a mom was the pinnacle of a woman’s purpose).
Our conversation was buzzy and validating, and towards the end of the call I felt emboldened to share the original title idea. After a beat, she agreed that Selfish Cunt certainly had more of a vibe to it than Women Without Kids.
Whether it would be possible to get it past the sales reps—let alone how we’d address the stigma of the C-word in the marketplace—would be another question entirely. And I saw her point. I’d already spent the past year trying to come up with something less … salty. But the throb in my gut kept telling me this was it.
Reader, I sold them the book. It won’t be out for a good while yet, and in the meantime I’ll be writing more on this general subject matter here. I’m also recording a podcast series comprised of my research interviews for the book. Watch this space!
As for the title, we’ve agreed to keep Selfish Cunt as an option, but with the tacit understanding that NO WAY CAN WE PUBLISH A BOOK WITH CUNT IN THE TITLE. And I get it, I really do. But where there’s a taboo this intense, there is generally something we’re long overdue an honest, adult conversation about. And in this case, it’s a conversation that suddenly feels hyper-relevant.
I had not been consciously aware of it until I found myself questioning all of this, but I’ve always hated that the worst word you can call somebody is also a word for the most sacred, most violated, most politicized, and most policed part of the female body. Over the past year, in bolder moments I’ve found myself asking: Isn’t being “selfish” about what we do with our cunts at the heart of the entire movement for gender equality?
On the other hand, it took me until last month to say the working title of my book out loud to my parents. When people ask me what I’m working on, I shy away from it, reeling off the subhead instead. Not being able to physically say the word will definitely be a problem when it comes to selling books.
But then #metwo happened. The sexual harassment allegations against NY governor Andrew Cuomo; the abduction and murder of Sarah Everard by a policeman in the UK, sparking a national debate about women’s safety in the streets; the racially and sexually motivated femicides of six Asian-American women in Atlanta.
Over the past month, our collective fear and revilement of the word cunt has begun to take on a more political and sinister tone. What does our attitude to this word say about how we perceive women and women’s sexuality in general?
The most impactful attempt at reclaiming the word is a book titled, simply, Cunt, by queer feminist author Igna Muscio, in which she addresses this question directly. “I assert that the context in which cunt is presently perceived does not serve women and should therefore be thoroughly reexamined,” she writes.
“The fact that women learn to dislike an actual, undeniable, unavoidable physical region of ourselves, results in a crappy Sisyphean situation, warranting an intense focus of attention.” (Let alone this referring to the physical region of ourselves that is also the nucleus of our capacity for physical pleasure and our creative potential.)
What she means is, as long as the word cunt is perceived as being the most offensive and degrading word in the English language, our cunts will continue to be degraded. Seen as offensive.
Women will continue to be seen as second-class citizens in general; mothering and other “women’s work” will continue to be devalued in the marketplace; sexual harassment and casual misogyny will continue to be normalized; and our cunts will continue to be objectified, abased, groped, and raped.
First published in 1998, in the 2018 20th anniversary edition, Muscio includes an updated section that addresses the inclusion of trans women in this narrative. Extremely important as trans women (especially trans women of color) experience disproportionately high rates of homelessness, poverty, violent assault, and murder.
In other words, electing to identify as a person with a cunt (even if only metaphorically) takes all the fucked-up stuff that happens to those born with cunts and multiplies it by ten.
Which has got to stop. ALL OF THIS HAS GOT TO STOP!
As if this hasn’t been the work of generations of feminist activists. But whatever progress has been made, when it comes to violence against women—especially sexual violence—it’s like we’re locked in a labyrinth, forever finding ourselves back at the same dead-end. Confronted with the same awful conclusion: some men must just hate women. Worse: And this is just the way it is.
We can get angry about this. Grieve the pain and trauma it has caused. We can march and protest and wring our hands. But language has power, and I am with Inga Muscio. As long as the word cunt is not okay to say, we are all in a way complicit.
Cut to an afternoon on Venice beach with my friend Alexandra a couple of years ago. That morning, we’d been discussing the various traumas done to people and planet as a result of sexual repression. The violence, the oppression of others, the raping and pillaging of the Earth.
We theorized thus: Recreational sex (vs. procreational sex) having been made “a sin” by the majority of organized religions, there was nowhere for people’s desire to go. In some people (often men), this disavowed urge, the frustration of suppressing it, and the shame of inevitably succumbing to it, was often then acted out in bids for dominance and power.
In others (often women), it was turned inwards where it festered as latent self-hatred. Unconscious shame about “tempting” men with our sexuality, of being the “cause” of so much destruction.
It was a typical breakfast conversation for us.
Later, on the beach, we were laid out on our towels when we noticed some dude looking over his shoulder at us. His gaze was furtive. The breeze off the ocean began to bite at our naked skin as we felt increasingly exposed, sitting up, and hugging our knees in tight. When he turned to face us: Oh Jesus, he was jacking off.
We gathered up our stuff and speed-walked off down the beach, my heart a trapped bird in my chest. I could feel Alexandra’s nervous system vibrating at high alert. In the moment, our trauma response was to attempt to shrug it off. She even acknowledged, “you know, he can’t really help it. He’s been conditioned to look at our bodies like that.”
It was two weeks before we discussed the incident further. During which time I found myself re-playing the other times this had happened to me. Once when I was 12 or 13, alone on the top of a double-decker bus; at age 20, while walking to work; and again at age 32, on another beach in Ibiza (the last time I ever sunbathed topless).
It goes without saying that I didn’t report any of these incidents. That it didn’t even cross my mind to report them. This was just a thing that some men did; my job was to be vigilant and stay safe. The really, really sick part?
Part of me, the part that has been conditioned to expect men to look at my body like that, saw it as a horrifying rite of passage: being wanted by these men must mean I was a real woman.
Reflecting on this, I noticed for the first time how part of my feminine identity is connected to the physical sensation of terror that comes alive whenever I find myself walking in an empty street. In a park after dark. Getting in a cab on my own. Planning a solo trip.
I cried often as I felt the hooks of this cancer in my system.
THIS HAS GOT TO STOP.
When Alexandra and I next spoke, she apologized for her throwaway comments, acknowledging that she’d only made them to minimize her own fear. She shared that she was exhausted from this shit happening all the fucking time. That she she’d trained herself not to react so that fear of being attacked didn’t end up ruling her life. As she wrote about in her book, F*ck Like a Goddess, she’s experienced far worse acts of sexual violation than me.
And as Igna Muscio writes in Cunt: “it saddened me to feel ‘lucky’ that rape remained a threat, but not an actual occurrence, in my personal life.” How was it only now, aged 42, that I found myself realizing this too?
A lot of the post-#metoo and current #metwo discussion centers around all men being held accountable for violence, especially sexual violence, towards women. This is very important.
In the same way that all white people are being asked to DO THE WORK of dismantling systemic racism—by looking at our own unconscious bias, speaking out against racial injustice, and having uncomfortable conversations with our families and friends—men are tasked with taking a pro-active stance and going public with their position on whether or not they think sexual harassment and assault is okay.
In the UK, new policies are also being trialed to make misogyny a hate-crime; women are being called to report cat-calling in the street, and sexually motivated attacks on women will carry much higher sentences. But this doesn’t get to the heart of the issue.
If anything, when I feel into how these measures may land among the kinds of men who commit these acts (just picture it), it actually seems that them being punished for something society has led them to assume as their birthright—sexual dominance over women—is only likely to result in more violent outbursts.
What we really need is to go right back to the beginning. To quit having any more kids until every adult human has had time to heal their wounds around sexuality, gender, race, violence, bodily autonomy, power, and spirituality. Start with civilization all over again. Haha, just kidding! (Um, not?)
But new calls for reform when it comes to sex ed. are a step in the right direction. Like, actually teaching about sexual pleasure, versus the focus for girls being on how to avoid getting pregnant (in a society where motherhood is held up as the ultimate ideal). The unspoken yet ever-present implication for boys that “men only want one thing” (a thing which harms women). The fear (universally) of contracting an STD.
Quoted in a story on this in the UK Times, Flo Perry, author of How To Have Feminist Sex, notes: “If we are teaching young people that ‘good sex’ means not getting pregnant, not getting an STI and not being raped, then the bar is pretty low. If we set the bar higher — that it should be about mutual enjoyment — then we are more able to recognize anything that falls short.”
In other words, we are able to have a real conversation about another important C-word: consent. Meaning, what is a “yes,” what is a “NO,” and who is responsible for determining this.
The same article also questions whether orgasms should be taught in school. Which was a question I asked myself—literally—aged 11, when sex ed. was on the agenda for me. In the days leading up to the first lesson (cue feverish anticipation among my classmates), we were invited to submit any questions anonymously.
When I wrote mine out: What does an orgasm feel like? I knew it was edgy. I got the feeling we were supposed to stick to the mechanics of the physical act. But I’d already been enjoying what I thought were probably orgasms for a couple of years by that point, and I wanted confirmation. I folded my paper carefully and poked it through the slot of the wooden Pandora’s box sat on the teacher’s desk.
The day of class, I waited for my question to be read out with butterflies in my stomach. When the moment came, the teacher visibly reddened before responding: “It feels a bit like being tickled,” and swiftly moving on. Needless to say, it was not the answer I was looking for, or the one that I needed.
What we all needed to hear, in that moment, was that orgasms are a normal and natural function of the human body, and that sex is supposed to feel good for all parties involved. That sex has many important functions for human beings beyond making babies.
But instead, I left class that day with the distinct impression that orgasms were a source of shame, and feeling like a “bad girl” for even having asked. I didn’t confess to any of my friends that it was me who had.
As Laurie Nunn, creator of Netflix show Sex Education, notes in the Times piece: “Good sex education should be about tackling shame … In the writers’ room everyone shares their personal experiences and every story always comes back to shame. It affects the way people feel about themselves, their bodies, identity, and sexuality, for a very long time. We can carry shame for a lifetime.”
There is, of course, a whole other book on the ways in which this early shaming of my sexuality has impacted my adult life. So often impacts our lives as consensual (or not) sexual adults. Some of which may well find its way into Selfish Cunt.
Which brings me back to why the C-word is the hardest thing to say.
“Fuck.” “Shit.” “Wanker.” “Whore.” It’s not exactly news that the worst words are reserved for the things we feel the most shame about.
The fact it secretly feels so good to say them (to the extent that studies show swearing can help us withstand pain and lift heavier weights) is an indicator of how done we are with feeling bad about having bodies that crave pleasure and excrete disgusting substances. For being human!
Some of them, that is. The proliferation of recent books with fuck in the title (including Alexandra’s, which tackles the subject of sexual shame head on) suggests we are well on the way to fully reclaiming the f-word, and therefore being able to talk more openly about the physical act. Masturbation and sex work—being linked to recreational vs. procreational sex—not so much.
And as for cunt? The first recorded use of the word in the English language is in a street-name found in various towns in Medieval Britain: Gropecunt Lane. Thought to have been haunts for prostitutes, the fact that all cunts are still seen as fair game for groping, and worse, shows we’re stuck in the dark ages with this one.
Except the trans community, that is. In the NYC ballroom scene (please have your heart and your eyes opened watching Paris is Burning and Pose) calling a person “cunty” is the highest compliment of all. It means she passes as a real woman.
Reclaiming the C-word is part of creating a world where being cunty does not mean seeing sexual harassment as a rite of passage; where moving through the world is not laced with an invisible undercurrent of terror; and where all women, femmes, and female identifying individuals are free to claim full ownership of their sexuality.
Whether or not it winds up in the title of my book remains to be seen. Probably NOT, tbh—I’m not sure I’ve got the guts to take this one on beyond this inner circle. But I’m ready to reclaim it for my personal use at least. And I’ll be encouraging the women in my life to do the same.
This essay originally appeared in my newsletter, Like Nobody’s Watching. Subscribe HERE.
*If you have experienced sexual harassment or assault and you would like to talk to somebody about it, contact Rainn, the national sexual assault hotline, on 800.565.4673, or access their confidential live chat HERE. Readers in the UK and Canada can find support HERE.