If there is one thing that the #MeToo movement has uncovered, it’s that there are definite disparities in power dynamics between genders in relationships.
Although we have perceived equality, men are typically the people in power. Women are the subordinates. And because of this, women have historically been exploited to the point that we need a hashtag to describe our shared experiences.
Uncovering these skewed dynamics has, of course, gotten women thinking critically about all the ways in which they’ve been gaslighted into accepting and perpetuating this behavior through internalized misogyny and how we can move on from this.
But there’s an aspect of this whole conversation that is a lot harder to untangle than we think: In the English language, the way we talk about men and women, and their relationships to sex, is inherently gendered and sexist.
When we think about gendered language, we tend to think about languages where certain words are either male, female, or neutral. But there’s a difference between grammatical gender and societal gender.
So while in French, books are male (un livre) and chairs are female (une chaise), English is generally gender-neutral when it comes to grammar (the book, the chair).
Samantha Fox, a professor in the department of society, culture and languages at the University of New England, explains that the way gender affects English really started to solidify around the 18th century, when we as a society moved from an economy of feudalism to one of capitalism.
In this new world order, men’s positions and work were valued more than that of women. Because of that, Fox explains, the language we developed to describe male and female work splintered off and became gendered.
And while humans definitely influence language, language has the power to influence humans and their behavior.
Take for example, the stereotypical nagging harpy wife. “We don’t really have an equivalent cultural archetype for a man,” says Andrea Bonior, a psychologist and author.
“Women, on the other hand, are so fearful of falling into that stereotypical role that they might quiet themselves in situations when they should speak up,” she says.
It goes the other way, too, in that language affects the way we’re meant to act — not just what we want to avoid.
“Typically, with women you get this gendered language that is a lot more expressive,” Fox says. “Women are socialized through language to be nice, to be nurturing, to be sensitive to other people’s needs. Men, on the other hand, are socialized through language to be less expressive. They are independent and dominating.”
Fox recalled a situation in her class when, talking about an assignment, the men in her class used words like “I dominated” or “I owned it.”
Women rarely use these types of descriptors, she says. “So men are socialized to be dominating, while women are socialized to be nice,” Fox says.
Since language is so gendered on a basic level, it should stand to reason that the same words can mean different thing when talking about men or women. “Just think about the word b---h,” Bonior says.
“When you call a woman a b---h, it means one thing. But call a man a b---h, and the word takes on a completely different meaning.”
And out of that grew gender-specific roles.
Another example: slut. It’s a derogatory term to describe women, based on a nonspecific number of sexual partners she is perceived to have. But because of decades of gendered use, the term is inherently female. So when referring to a man who has a perceived number of sex partners, we slap the term “man” in front of slut to get “manslut,” a term that doesn’t exactly pack the same kind of punch as “slut.”
If there isn’t a gender-equivalent term for certain negative words, then the behavior of the opposite gender tends to fly under the radar.
The word mistress, for example, has no male-equivalent. There’s no opposite to “the other woman.” And that influences behavior. People are more likely to blame “the other woman” when their husbands cheat. But when a wife cheats, there’s no collective blaming of “the other man.”
“Since there is no label for a male mistress, that behavior doesn’t define the man in the same way it would the woman,” Bonior says.
In order to decolonize this language and move closer to gender equality, we have to move away from binary ways of thinking, according to Fox. In discussions of sex, gender, and sexuality, these terms are incredibly detrimental, and will always create division.
“We have binaries, and they create these neat little boxes, and they define how we view the world,” Fox says. “But the problem with binaries is that it allows us to define out of existence anything that doesn’t fit into those neat little boxes.”
We can see this especially in queer marriages, when heterosexual people will ask queer couples “who is the husband, and who is the wife?” Not only does that question assume and reaffirm traditional gender roles, it ignores the fact that all couples, including queer couples, should have the freedom to form their own dynamics in relationships.
The road out of this binaried world is tricky. The first step is one that we’re already seeing — awareness. “If in our day to day movement through society, we can stop and be mindful about these words and their meanings, that’s a good first step,” Bonior says.
Fox echoes that sentiment, but takes it a step further. “We need to be aware of these binaries, but also interrogate our privileges when it comes to their usage,” she explains.
White women, for example, have been able to reappropriate the word “slut” in ways that women of color are unable to because of their differing histories with the word.
This shift requires the people in dominant positions to recognize and validate the people in subordinate positions. And in a lot of ways, men still decide the parameters because, historically, they’ve been in those positions of power. That influence still affects us through internalized misogyny, which guides how the rest of us move through space.
But it’s an important one to attempt, because if we continue to have these gendered, binary ways of talking about relationships, we’ll never be able to accomplish true equality. And if this moment in history has taught us anything, it’s that equality is something we sorely need.