Do you swear a lot? I do. Already today I’ve used a four-letter word to describe a key figure in the junior doctors row, and I used another word when talking about the Tory ministers who voted against the Dubs amendment.
While it’s something I try to regulate, it’s also something I take quite a lot of pleasure in – if I’m angry or frustrated or outraged, certain words are more satisfying to spit out than others. I like how, when used correctly, certain words can offset, unnerve, shock or drive a sentiment home. I like how we have a group of words in reserves for when our civil language just won’t cut it – our own linguistic arsenal that never fails to do the job we ask of it. Words are powerful, manipulative weapons that we employ daily. Swearing is part of that armour.
But, apparently, I’m in the minority and women swear less – and approve of it less – than men. According to research in The Washington Post, 27 per cent of men say it’s OK to swear in public, compared with 19 per cent of women. Twenty-nine per cent of men think the F-word is acceptable in conversation, compared with 21 per cent of women and – here’s the big difference – nearly 50 per cent fewer women say the F-word daily than men. (The study also revealed that men were more likely to joke about race or gender than women.)
Our reluctance to be seen as angry or aggressive or swear, even, is a mini Hillary Clinton moment daily. We’re contesting what is expected of us
I’m well aware that, as much as swear words are my weapons, they are things that can be used against me and are unpleasant and hurtful when they are. I know that they can also be aggressive and belittling and nasty. Words are malleable; we invest the meaning in them we want.
But I can’t help but think women swearing less, and approving of swearing less, partly comes from a deeply ingrained sense of how women should behave and what they should or shouldn’t say, mined from the notion that women shouldn’t offend or shock or surprise or talk how men have been allowed to talk.
The Washington Post points to a 2015 experiment that found when men were aggressive and spoke in angry tones in the workplace, they were “credible” and “persuasive”, but when women did the same, they were “emotional” and “untrustworthy”. Similarly, new research from the Harvard Business Review finds that women leaders are given a harder time for the bad calls they make, compared with their male counterparts. In short, when women behave like women are typically perceived to, they are punished for it terms of barriers to career progression and equality – they don’t negotiate enough, they don’t ask for pay rises, they don’t make as much money. But when women behave in traditionally “male” ways –being leaders, being aggressive, or even swearing – they are also punished for it. The fact that women choose to swear less, I believe, comes from a knowledge that society doesn’t respond well to sweary, aggressive, angry women.
All sexist roads to Hillary Clinton and nobody embodies this predicament more – by simply taking up a masculine space, ie running for President. Hillary has been crucified by the male-run establishment of the media, as she has since her husband first went into politics in the 1970s. Hillary has always been outspoken, defiant, hard-working and fearless – all male traits. And she’s been paying for it for over 40 years. Our reluctance to be seen as angry or aggressive or swear, even, is a mini Hillary Clinton moment daily. We’re contesting what is expected of us. And whatever we choose to do, we lose. Swear? You’re overbearing and unpleasant. Don’t swear? You’re either censoring yourself or will be perceived as feminine – a trait that will lead you to be undermined eventually.
There are some obvious truths: don’t swear in front of children, don’t swear at your boss/gran and, if you swear too much, the sting of the word loses all its venom and fades into predicability and meaninglessness. But, if you want to swear, because no other four-letter word will do, go ahead. It might not be ladylike, but we mustn’t be afraid to employ the language of men.
So, in the words of the late, great Amy Winehouse, “What kind of fuckery is this?"