My Words

I’ve started wondering lately if the words bitch and pussy shouldn’t belong to women. You know, the way the N-word belongs to black communities and the F-word belongs to queer communities. (Not that F-word, the other one.)

Out of what seemed like nowhere, when I started hearing those words — bitch and pussy — coming out of men’s mouths… it sounded wrong. I’m not sure entirely why — I’ve heard them for years and it never struck me as problematic. But perhaps because certain movements in our culture have encouraged me to reevaluate the way my womanhood exists in the world, I’ve begun to suggest to the men in my life (kindly, non-judgmentally) that they could stop using those words.

Interestingly, all of the men I’ve spoken with have agreed. It was a new thought to each of them, and our conversations have often gone like this:

Him: …but he was being such a pussy about it all that I had to call him out for being a little bitch.

Me: Um. What do you think about those words being my words — not your words?

Him: Which words?

Me: Bitch. Pussy.

Him: [loooooong silence, partly furrowed brow, eyes searching first the sky for some sense of what’s going on, then my face for a sign that I’m offended or angry. I keep my face really friendly at this point.]

Me: I mean, I feel like you don’t need to articulate male weakness using my body? [I pose this as a question so the guy doesn’t feel attacked. I find men think more clearly this way.]

Most of the guys at this point have kept thinking and eventually come back with a version of: damn, I never thought of that. I mean…sure. Yeah ok — your words.

One responded: a bitch is just a female dog, though.

He’s right, according to the dictionary. Of course, according to the dictionary, a faggot is a bundle of sticks. And calling someone niggardly — according to the dictionary — is to accuse them of being stingy. But it doesn’t feel right, does it? If you noticed RuPaul carrying a small bundle of sticks, would you point out that it was a niggardly faggot? I kind of feel like you wouldn’t. Because you could just as easily say: hey, what a stingy bundle of sticks.

I said most of this to my friend, who was black as well as male, and we agreed that bitch and pussy could be words he wouldn’t use any more.

Now, whether women could or should use them is up to us. I’m sure there’ll be opinions and I’m happy for all of them — but the conversation gets to be among women about the relative merits of using words that describe our bodies.

(A note here for my friends who are reading this using Google translate. I have no idea what you’re reading or how this is being translated into your language. It may not make any sense at all? Let me clarify: the word bitch in English refers technically to a female dog, but it’s used as an unkind term for a woman. It’s got lots of uses, but it often means a woman is being unkind, unreasonable, or — in some musical references — just a woman. It’s not something you’d call your mother — put it that way. The word pussy is a slang term for a vagina. It’s used to describe weakness, although I wonder why. Watch a baby being born and you’ll see what I mean. Point is, to my non-English speaking friends, if this has devolved into some translation horror show, I apologize for not speaking your language and being able to help.)

What’s interesting to me is how long it took me to notice that these words may have been in the wrong mouths. My mother is a feminist literary critic who taught at a university for nearly forty years. I have an Ivy League degree in women’s studies. Most of my woman friends are smarter, better educated, more widely read, and more interesting than I am. And none of us have ever questioned, in my memory, the way those words get used by men. (Although my mom pointed out she doesn’t use those words.)

Isn’t that weird? Is it a sign of the ways in which we’ve so internalized the idea that our bodies don’t belong to us, that we don’t claim ownership of words that describe them? Is it that we’re so used to men being in control of things that we don’t question their control of language? I don’t know. I’m thinking about it.

But one beautiful thing has come from this: I’m finding that the men I bring this to — some of them quite tough and not-so-progressive — have been really wonderful about it. They think it over, give me the benefit of the doubt, and decide that using language that isn’t respectful of my body doesn’t reflect the men they want to be.

I’ll admit, some of these conversations I expected to be rough — even for men to lash out at me, laugh at me, call me ridiculous for asking and refuse to stop using those words. But not one guy has, and I’m so grateful for the allies these men have decided to be.

And here’s to that, bitches.


I’m hearing a lot about ‘a return to civility and decency’ in our discourse lately. I’m having mixed reactions. On the one hand, elected officials behaving better than my seven-year-old after double-fisting cupcakes at a birthday party sounds like a relief — low bar that it is. On the other hand, it has me reflecting on those words: civility and decency.

Our conventions of communication were established by people of privilege, right? The folks in power make the rules. And the general understanding is that rage is not the way to communicate if we want to be taken seriously —…


My hair smells like curry and there are shallots under my nails. I have an oil burn on my hand and I spent all day in Dallas public housing with no air conditioning. I just got sick to my stomach because I told them I couldn’t eat fish and then we forgot about the fish sauce, fish paste and fish flakes in the soup. I kind of knew it going down. Ate it anyway. Because the fellowship, the sorority, meant so much and I didn’t want to be rude.

I’ve spent eight years talking with refugees. In the Middle East…


International Rescue Committee partner organizations in Serbia are providing food, warm clothing, WiFi and translation assistance to refugees who are seeking safety in Europe after fleeing Syria, Afghanistan and other countries gripped by violence. Photo: Monique Jaques/IRC

A week ago, things were looking up. I was returning from a trip to Serbia with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) having followed the refugee route from Macedonia to the Croatian border. We spent time in train and bus stations, at parks where refugees camp, and with partner NGOs who are servicing the desperate population. I met with aid workers and refugees alike — conversations and questions and tears and hope. On the plane home, I was looking forward to writing a piece about how the international aid community is doing a really marvelous job of keeping this vulnerable and…

Sarah Wayne Callies

Actor. Writer. Humanitarian. Doing my best.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store