It's Time To Reclaim The Word "Pussy" — And Our Vote

"Did you see the news? Trump's done! Finished!" My partner's dad was grinning from ear-to-ear like it was Liberal Christmas Morning. Though we were on vacation together for the week in Italy, a Wi-Fi connection and mutual father/son addiction to the news ensured that I still couldn't avoid thinking about the election — no matter how much I wanted to. "They found a video of him saying 'just grab them by the pussy!' Like, saying that you can go up to women and do that! This is going to be the end of him — it's great!" I was skeptical that anything could be the definitive end of him— this was last week, before two more women would come forward on Wednesday to allege that they were touched inappropriately by Trump, claims he has since vehemently denied.

Feeling skeptical, a few thoughts immediately ran through my mind: Why would that be a bigger deal than any of the other awful things he's said about women? Maybe it's the implication of sexual assault? I bet it's the word pussy itself. It wasn't until much later that day, as we were driving through the picturesque Tuscan hills, that I had a third thought: Oh, that's right. Someone once did that to me.

I was 19, studying in Costa Rica for the summer, out at a local club. I was refusing a second dance with a man who was getting too handsy. When I said no, he swiftly reached up my dress and grabbed my pussy in his palm, angrily and hard. "Puta!" he spit in my face, calling me a prostitute. I was stunned — all I had done was politely refuse another dance. I had never experienced something like this before, and my suddenly-frozen body told me so. This was angry, unwanted touch — a retaliation, straight to my pussy. It was as if his hand was saying, "You think you own this? Fuck you. I can take this anytime I want, whore."

My first instinct was not to kick him in the balls but instead to stand there, stunned. When I came out of shock, I immediately went to find the guy friend I was there with. He angrily towered over my assaulter, making him leave the club. Watching the two men — one my assaulter, one my newfound protector — I remember feeling a part of something very old, though I couldn't quite name it yet.

Unwanted touch is so normalized that I didn't even think I "deserved" to label my experience as assault, for fear of lessening the impact of the phrase for women who have been raped. Words matter, and I didn't want to use the wrong one. Which brings me to the word pussy.

Though I've thought of the incident often over the years and can remember exactly what his hand grabbing my pussy felt like, I never felt I could say it left a damaging stain on my life, or that it had traumatized me to the degree that I was willing to define the incident as sexual assault. I called it "that one time I was groped/harassed/grabbed" and mostly put it out of my mind — so far out of my mind, it seems, that even when Trump was caught on a hot mic seemingly advocating the exact same thing that happened to me, I didn't even instantly make the connection.

"Let's be clear: 'Sexual assault' is absolutely the right way to describe what Trump says on those tapes," Emily Crockett wrote on Vox Monday, and it is the right way to describe Wednesday's revelations of his alleged groping and kissing women without their consent. "When Trump claims he 'can do anything' to women because he's a star, including 'grab 'em by the pussy,' he is describing sexual assault. That is what you call it when someone grabs a woman and touches her genitals without her consent." By that definition, I have been sexually assaulted — and unfortunately, I'd wager that, by this definition, so have a huge percentage of women.

But unwanted touch is so normalized that I didn't even think I "deserved" to label my experience as assault, for fear of lessening the impact of the phrase for women who have been raped. Words matter, and I didn't want to use the wrong one. Which brings me back to the word pussy.

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As I considered the news from Italy, I wondered why this, rather than, say, Trump's comments about flat-chested women, or Megyn Kelly "bleeding out of her wherever," should be the comment to potentially finish him. Sure, there's the fact that it seems like a direct endorsement of sexual assault — but he's made comments that seem to defy consent before. I would wager that the real clincher here lies in one powerful word: "pussy."

We've actually already heard Trump make news for using the word "pussy" before, though it was used as a derogatory way to indirectly describe Ted Cruz at a rally in February, rather than as a name for a woman's vagina. He received plenty of backlash from the media that time too, with Annie Lowrey of New York Magazine writing, "Perhaps no other event ... has so perfectly encapsulated Trump's magnetism and psychosis, his appeal and his incoherence, his brilliance and his terribleness. In it lies the key to his success, in New Hampshire and beyond. And in it lies the key to his likely failure as a politician." Eerily accurate, right? Of course, many offensive things Trump has said have made the news, but when the bar is set impossibly low, it seems that a politician using the word pussy is one of the few things guaranteed to cross the line and be widely condemned.

My perspective as an editor informs my theory that the word pussy is what people find most provocative about this Trump story. It makes me think of Emma Kaywin, who writes Bustle's sexual health column, and who is all about using the word pussy. One time, she went a bit hog-wild with the pussies in a column, and I didn't edit as many of the references out as I normally might have, in large part because working with her writing has made me more comfortable with the word. As a result, there was an actual Facebook commenting backlash when her article was posted, with women questioning why she had to use the word at all.

The issue was an interesting editorial consideration for me — I believe in reclaiming traditionally demeaning or pornographic words in a feminist context, and my approach to Kaywin's column is to provide women with sexual health information in both a colloquial and informed way. Didn't this backlash simply prove the point that using the word pussy in a positive way is a radical feminist act? Still, I couldn't deny that the commenters also had a point: perhaps using the word in excess (however you might define that) was distracting from the scientific legitimacy of the article — something I certainly didn't want. And there was another thing to consider: for many women, the word is also triggering, no matter the positive context.

For her part, Kaywin responded to the pussy controversy by compiling a crowd-sourced article asking people what they like to call their vaginas.

"[I like calling my vagina] cunt & pussy (particularly in dirty talk), twat, snatch, netherbits," one responder wrote. "My personal feeling on it all is that they are empowering words. I love them, I have chosen to take control of them. To me, once you take control over language (that is about you) then you demystify it as well as the power of others to use it as tools of power."

I feel like a feminist angel loses its wings every time I delete the word pussy ... But I've also realized the word is loaded one for women, and as a feminist editor, I should probably do my best to walk the line between respecting and challenging that.

Indeed, the backlash to Trump's comments has largely centered around re-appropriating the word, with musician Kim Boekbinder's viral video "Pussy Grabs Back" saying, "We've been saying it for years/But you've been blocking up your ears/And now a man said it/And you're all shocked."

Kim Boekbinder on YouTube

Checking my Instagram feed in Italy, I saw that my friends were at it as well.

Calling a vagina a pussy can be positive, but calling someone a pussy is still always an insult, which is a problem in and of itself. But even in positive sexual or feminist contexts, it can still call to mind past experiences that make some of us feel uncomfortable. Most of us have experienced some kind of unwanted touch in our lives, but nearly all of us have experienced some aggressive or unwanted use of the word pussy. In this way, this last week must have been triggering for many women, whether or not they've experienced sexual assault. We are all affected by porn and misogynist culture, and we have all heard a man use the word pussy in a way we didn't want him to.

As an editor, I've decided to make an uncomfortable compromise on the word; now, I leave only some of the "pussies" in Kaywin's columns and in effect censor others, replacing the word with the more clinical "vagina" when she's explaining something technical, and reserving the word pussy for more playful or sexual references. I'm not sure if this is the right approach, and to be honest, I feel like a feminist angel loses its wings every time I delete the word pussy, when it is a woman who has chosen that word to describe a vagina. But I've also realized the word is loaded one for women, and as a feminist editor, I should probably do my best to walk the line between respecting and challenging that.

Trump certainly wasn't trying to empower women when he used the word pussy in the context of describing sexual assault — and hopefully, it will be his very undoing. The new Trump supporter social media "campaign" #RepealThe19th — a response to Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight's recent findings that Donald Trump would win if only men could vote — is a reminder that the 19th amendment and women are all that stands between us and a misogynist for president. He can't grab our vote without our consent any more than he can our pussies. They are ours, and our power alone, to wield.

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