Otters May Dance, but They Still Have Teeth

Words are extremely powerful things, and I know this as a writer, an anthropology student, an academic, and most especially as a poet. Words means things, they create images, and they define. Words set boundaries and they contain. Redefining words can be a messy business, inherently neither bad nor good, but often filled with pain and anger.

I don’t know how I feel about the reclaiming of words like “bitch” or “slut.” Arguably, with songs like Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch” and Bitch magazine, the waters a bit muddier with that word. It doesn’t make it sting less, or change the intent of the speaker, when some jerk yells out his car window, “bitch!” as I’m cycling by. Admittedly, hate it though I do in its negative context, I can also see how the playing field is rotating and changing around this word. The word “slut” is another word like that, and one with which my personal relationship is much more rocky. Although I love the book The Ethical Slut, its title makes me cringe. I recognize the attempt to reclaim the word from the jaws of sex-negativity, but it hurts as a word. I try very hard to have mutually satisfying sex with one of my partners, who is a sub. Even though he wants to hear it badly, and it gives him sexual pleasure, I have a very hard time calling him a “slut.” These two words are powerful, charged with violence, misogyny, and also hope in some cases. They can hurt, they can wound.

What enrages me most, what infuriates me, what pushes me over the edge, is when people tell me how I “have” to relate to these words. I will not glow rosily, talking about how wonderful these words are now. I don’t think they are wonderful words, I don’t think the “reclaiming” of a word is any excuse to forget where it came from and what it can still mean. To call someone a “bitch” is still to take away their humanity, and I don’t know that the reclaimation endeavor helps or hurts. My jury’s out, but hearing “all those words are good for is insults!” doesn’t make the situation any damned easier, especially when my personal relationship with the word “bitch” helps me own my anger at times. All I know is words are powerful, to be used carefully, and people dictating to me how these words “must” be seen takes away my agency just as surely as an admonition directed at a child. These words are fire, and I already know that’s something not to play with lightly.

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