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A wonderful cornucopia of deviance and desire
The Times 'Books of the Year'

A Curious History of Sex

Kate Lister
Status: published
Publication Date: 06.02.2020
  • Paperback
  • Ebook£8.99
  • Hardback£25.00
A wonderful cornucopia of deviance and desire
The Times 'Books of the Year'

The act of sex has not changed since people first worked out what went where, but the ways in which society dictates how sex is culturally understood and performed have varied significantly through the ages. Humans are the only creatures that stigmatise particular sexual practices, and sex remains a deeply divisive issue around the world. Attitudes will change and grow – hopefully for the better – but sex will never be free of stigma or shame unless we acknowledge where it has come from.

Based on the popular research project Whores of Yore, and written with her distinctive humour and wit, A Curious History of Sex draws upon Dr Kate Lister’s extensive knowledge of sex history. From medieval impotence tests to twentieth-century testicle thefts, from the erotic frescoes of Pompeii, to modern-day sex doll brothels, Kate unashamedly roots around in the pants of history, debunking myths, challenging stereotypes and generally getting her hands dirty.

This fascinating book is peppered with surprising and informative historical slang, and illustrated with eye-opening, toe-curling and meticulously sourced images from the past.

You will laugh, you will wince and you will wonder just how much has actually changed.

'An anecdote-rich chronicle that uncovers layer on layer of oppression . . . vivid and playful' Guardian 

Please be warned; as far as offensive words go, you are entering a hardhat area. (All slang euphemisms for cunt are followed by the date that word is first recorded.)

‘A Nasty Name for a Nasty Thing’: A History of Cunt

L'Origine du monde (‘The Origin of the World’) is an oil-on-canvas painted by French artist Gustave Courbet in 1866.

I love the word cunt. I love everything about it. Not just the signified vulva, vagina and pudendum (which are all kinds of cunty goodness and will be returned to shortly), but the actual oral and visual signalled sign of cunt. I love its simple monosyllabic form. I adore that the first three letters (c u n) are basically all the same chalice shape rolling though the word until they are stopped in their ramble by the plosive T at the end. I love the forceful grunt of the C and the T sandwiching the softer UN sounds, enabling one to spit the word out like a bullet, or extend the un and roll it around your mouth for dramatic effect; cuuuuuuuuuuuunt! I love it because its deliciously dirty, endlessly funny and, like an auditory exclamation mark, is capable of stopping a conversation in its tracks. Walter Kirn called cunt ‘the A-bomb of the English language’, and he’s absolutely right (Kirn, 2005). I love its versatility. In America, it is spectacularly offensive, whilst in Glasgow it can be a term of endearment; ‘I love ya, ya wee cunt’ is an expression heard throughout Glaswegian nurseries. That’s not true, but Scottish folk do possess a dazzling linguistic dexterity with cunt. Irvine Welsh's 1993 novel, Trainspotting, contains 731 cunts, (though only 19 made it into the film.)

Thomas Rowlandson - The Assembly (18th Century)

But, more than anything else, I love the sheer power of the word. I am fascinated by cunt’s hallowed status as, to quote Hugh Rawson, ‘The most heavily tabooed of all English words’ (Rawson, 1989). There have been significant shifts in social attitudes since 1989 and there are now other contenders for the most offensive word in the English language; the n-word and other racial slurs are obvious heavyweights. The n-word is a deeply offensive word because of its historical context. It is not just a descriptive word, it is a word that was used to dehumanise black people and justify some of the worst atrocities in human history. It is a word that requires its own study and you can read the deeply troubling and complex history of the N-Word here. We can understand why racial slurs are hideously offensive, but cunt? Does it not strike anyone else as odd that the most offensive word in English is a word for vulva? Or that this word could even be considered in the same league of offence as the n-word; a word spawned from the darkest and most rank of human atrocities? As far as I am aware, cunt is comparatively free of racial genocide, so then we have to ask, how did cunt get to be so offensive? What did cunt do wrong?

Let’s turn to the etymology first. Cunt is old. It’s so old that its exact origins are lost in the folds of time and etymologists continue to debate where in the cunt cunt comes from. It’s several thousand years old at least, and can be traced to the old Norse ‘kunta’ and Proto-Germanic ‘kuntō’; but before that cunt proves quite elusive. There are medieval cunty cognates in most Germanic languages; kutte, kotze and kott all appear in German. The Swedish have kunta; the Dutch have conte, kut and kont, and the English once has Cot (which I quite like and think is due a revival). Here’s where the debate comes in; no one is quite sure what it actually means. Some etymologists have argued cunt has a root in the Proto-Indo-European sound ‘gen/gon’, which means to ‘create, become’. You can see ‘gen’ in modern words gonads, genital, genetics, and gene. Others have theorised cunt descends from the root ‘gune’, which means ‘woman’ and crops up in ‘gynaecology’ (Hunt, 2017). The root sound that most fascinates etymologists is 'cu'. 'Cu' is associate with the female, and forms the basis of 'cow', and 'queen'. ‘Cu’ is linked to the Latin cunnus (‘vulva’), which sounds tantalisingly like cunt (but is probably unrelated), and has spawned the French con, and Spanish coño, the Portuguese cona, and the Persian kun (کون) (Hunt, 2017). My favourite cunt theory is that the ‘cu’ also means to have knowledge: 'can' and 'ken' become prefixes to 'cognition' and other derivatives. R. F. Rattray argued that knowledge and cunt are etymologically linked: ‘The root cu appears in countless words from cowrie, Cypris, down to cow; the root cun has two lines of descent, the one emphasising the mother and the other knowledge… cunt, on the one hand, and cunning, on the other’ (1961). Certainly, in the middle ages 'quaint' meant both knowledge and cunt (but, more of that later). The debate will rage on, but the bottom line is cunt is something of a mystery.

But, here is what we do know; it is the oldest word for female genitals in the English language (possibly the oldest in Europe). Its only rival for oldest term for the boy in the boat (1930) would be Yoni (meaning vulva, source or womb). The English language borrowed yoni from ancient Sanskrit around 1800 and today it has been appropriated by various neo-spiritual groups who hope that by calling their duff (1880) a yoni they can avoid the horror of cunt and tap into some ancient veneration of the flapdoodle (1653). Of course, the irony is cunt and yoni may even have sprung from the same Proto-Indo-European root. Furthermore, cunt is far more feminist than vagina or vulva could ever dream to be.

Vagina turns up in the seventeenth century medical texts and comes from the Latin vagina, which means a sheath or a scabbard. A vagina is something a sword goes in to; that’s its entire etymological function – to be the holder of a sword (penis). It relies on the penis for its meaning and function (Daniel, 2008). We may as well still be calling the poor thing 'cock alley’ (1785)’ or the ‘pudding bag’ (1653). There are many cunning linguists who get their proverbials in a twist when you confuse vagina with vulva; to be clear, the vagina is the muscular canal that connects the uterus to the vulva - and the vulva is the external equipment ('comprising the mons pubis, labia majors, labia minora, clitoris, vestibule of the vagina, bulb of the vestibule, and the Bartholin's glands' (Websters Medical Dictionary, 2016.) Vulva dates to the late fourteenth century and from Latin vulva, meaning ‘womb’ – some have suggested it comes from ‘volvere’, or wrapper. In his 1538 Latin dictionary, Thomas Elyot defined a vulva as ‘the womb or mother of any female animal, also a meat used of the Romans made of the belly of a sow, either that hath farrowed or is with farrow’ (Elyot, 1538). So, yet again, the meaning of vulva is dependent on being the container for a penis - or a questionable cut of a pregnant Roman pig.

Cunt, however, predates both these terms and derives from a Proto-Indo-European root word meaning either woman, knowledge, creator or queen, which is far more empowering than a word that means ‘I hold cock’. Plus, cunt is the whole damn shebang, inside and out. There’s no need to split pubic hairs when it comes to cunt. Words like ‘vulva’ and ‘vagina’ are linguistic efforts to offer sanitised, medicalised alternatives to cunt. And if that wasn’t enough to sway you over to team cunt, in 1500 Wynkyn de Worde defined ‘vulva’ as ‘in English, a cunt’ (Ortus vocabulorum, 1500).

Cunt is not slang; cunt is the original. So, cunt is the godmother of all words for ‘the monosyllable’ (1780) – but, has cunt always been such an offensive word?

1605 Map of Oxford with Gropecuntelane in blue.

The simple answer to that is no. To the medieval mind, cunt is simply a descriptive word; a little bawdy perhaps (as cunts tend to be), but certainly not offensive. The fact that cunt would make into de Worde’s dictionary and medical texts shows how every day the word was. Lanfranc of Milan is not cunt shy in his fifteenth-century medical text Chirurgia Parua Lanfranci, when he describes 'in wymmen neck of the bladder is schort, is made fast to the cunte' (Lanfranco. and Hall, 1565). The earliest cunt citation in the Oxford English Dictionary dates to 1230, and is a London street in the red light district of Southwark; the beautifully named ‘Gropecuntelane’. And it did exactly what it said on the tin: it was a lane for groping cunts. There were Gropecuntelanes (or variations of Grapcunt, Groppecuntelane, Gropcunt Lane) found throughout the cities of medieval Britain. Keith Briggs (2009) locates Gropecuntlanes in Oxford, York, Bristol, Northampton, Wells, Great Yarmouth, Norwich, Windsor, Stebbing, Reading, Cambridgeshire, Shareshill, Grimsby, Newcastle, and Banbury. Sadly, all of these streets have now been renamed, usually as ‘Grape Lane’ or ‘Grove Lane’.

Whilst Scottish folk may be calling their friends cunts, medieval people seem to have been calling their children cunts. Cunt actually turns up in a number of medieval surnames (though they are quite possibly aliases); Godwin Clawecunte (1066), Gunoka Cuntles (1219), John Fillecunt (1246) and Robert Clevecunt (1302) have all been recorded (Reaney, 1984; Jönsjö, 1979; Hunt, 2017). And if the possibility of meeting Miss Gunoka Cuntles on Gropecuntelane was not an exciting enough prospect (and it should be) a Miss Bele Wydecunthe appears in a Norfolk Subsidy Roll of 1328. And, just whilst we are on the subject of cunt monikers, in his study of humorous names, Russell Ash found a whole family of Cunts living England in the nineteenth century; Fanny Cunt (born 1839), also her son, Richard '‘Dick'’ Cunt; and her daughters, Ella Cunt and Violet Cunt (Ash, 2008).

Medieval literature is similarly awash with cunts with no hint of bashfulness. The Proverbs of Hendyng (c.1325) contains this advice to young women; ‘Give your cunt cunningly and make (your) demands after the wedding’ (ʒeve þi cunte to cunni[n]g, And craue affetir wedding). Fifteenth-century Welsh poet, Gwerful Mechain, advised fellow poets to celebrate the ‘curtain on a fine bright cunt’ that ‘flaps in a place of greeting’ (Gwerful Mechain and Howells, 2001). Medieval society was far more sexually liberated than we give them credit for, and one reason cunt wasn’t considered offensive is because sex wasn’t that offensive to them. Sex was a source of great humour, eroticism and absolutely central to married life, but finding sex offensive is something that came into its own during the early modern era.

Historically, the most heavily tabooed language has shifted from the blasphemous to bodily functions, and is now in a process of moving to race. Swear words that would get you into serious trouble in the middle ages were blasphemous ones. If you caught your soft areas in a zipper in the thirteenth century, you might cry out something like ‘God's teeth’, ‘God’s wounds’ (Z'wounds) or ‘God’s eyes’. Cunt, by comparison, was descriptive word; suitable for all occasions. It was not euphemistically twee, overly medicalised, or a humorously grotesque – cunt was cunt.

One medieval author who dropped the C-bomb with the precision of a military drone is Geoffrey Chaucer (1343–1400). The word that Chaucer uses in The Canterbury Tales and House of Fame is not ‘cunt,’ but ‘queynte.’ However, the reader is left in little doubt as to what a queynte is, the Wife of Bath is quite clear;

'What eyleth yow to grucche thus and grone?
Is it for ye wolde have my queynte allone?’
(What ails you that you grumble thus and groan?
Is it because you'd have my cunt alone?)

Chaucer's most famous cunt joke is in 'The Miller's Tale', where 'queynte' means both knowledge and cunt (remember the root to both cunning and cunt?)

As clerkes ben ful subtile and ful queynte,
And prively he caughte hire by the queynte,
And seyde, ‘Ywis, but if ich have my wille,
For deerne love of thee, lemman, I spille.’

(The clerk had been subtle and cunning,
and quickly he caught her by the cunt,
and said, if I cannot have my will,
for love of thee, darling, I will spill.)
(Chaucer, Allen and Fisher, 2012)

The use of ‘quaint’ as a synonym for cunt is seen in a variety of other works. In his 1598 Italian / English dictionary, John Florio uses ‘quaint’ as a synonym for cunt and defines ‘potta’ as ‘a cunt, a quaint’, and a ‘pottuta’ as ‘that hath a cunt, cunted, quainted’ (Florio et al., 1598). The playful double meaning of ‘quaint’ turns up again in Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress (1653).

‘Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song: the worms shall try
That long preserved virginity:
And your quaint honour turn to dust;
And into ashes all my lust’.
(Marvell, 2008)

It has also been suggested that William Shakespeare's ‘acquaint’ in his Sonnet XX (1609 is a play on 'quaint' and 'cunt'. And if any man knew the comedic power of a well-placed cunt it was Shakespeare. In Act III, Scene 2, of Hamlet, the eponymous hero asks Ophelia, ‘Lady, shall I lie in your lap?’ Ophelia replies, ‘No, my lord.’ Hamlet, then asks her, ‘Do you think I meant country matters?’ (Shakespeare, 2009) When David Tennant played Hamlet, he paused on the first syllable to emphasis this; 'Cunt-ry matters'. In Twelfth Night (Act II, Scene V) Malvolio describes his employer’s handwriting; ‘There be her very Cs, her Us, and her Ts: and thus makes she her great Ps’ – making for a simultaneous pun on ‘cunt’ and ‘piss’ (Greenhill and Wignall, 1997). You can read more Shakespearean blue here. The immortal bard’s status as a smut peddler has been discreetly swept under the cultural rug, but his work is full of innuendo and nob gags. In 1807, a shocked Thomas Bowdler edited out all the rude jokes so women and children could safely read it, and published The Family Shakespeare (which was completely cunt free). This led to the addition of the word 'bowdlerise' to the English language, which means to remove passages of a text that are considered objectionable (Daniels, 2008).

Extract from 'School of Venus' (1680)

Cunt was used freely in the bawdy ballads of Shakespeare’s contemporaries who felt no such compulsion to veil their cunts in double-entendres. Ragionamenti della Nanna e della Antonia (1534–36) by Pietro Aretino tells readers to shun flowery euphemisms and just say cunt; ‘Speak plainly, and say fuck, cunt and cock; otherwise thou wilt be understood by nobody’ (Arétin and Bonneau, 2008). The Scottish play Philotus (1603) contained the lines ‘doun thy hand and graip hir cunt’ (Philotus, 1603). And John Crouch’s Mercurius Fumigosus (1654) celebrates ‘cunt and good company’ (Newspaperarchive.com, 2017). But, the fact that big name writers (such as Shakespeare and Marvell) used cunt as a saucy punchline and camouflaged it in puns and cheeky hints suggests that, by Shakespeare’s time, cunt was being censored.

It is no coincidence that it was around this time that the first laws banning sexually obscene material came into force. In Britain, the first parliamentary bill to restrain ‘books, pamphlets, ditties, songs, and other works that promote lascivious ungodly love’ was drafted by William Lambarde in 1580. The 1662 licencing act banned the publication of any 'heretical, seditious, schismatic or offensive books, or pamphlets wherein any doctrine of opinion shall asserted or maintained which is contrary to Christian faith' (British-history.ac.uk, 2017). Language is a powerful tool of social control; as sex became repressed, words linking to the body became taboo. After all, how can we enjoy the sexuality of our bodies, shame free, when the very words we use to talk about them, think about them, or write about them are considered obscene? Ellis Cashmore argued cunt’s banishment to the naughty step is a result of mass sexual censor and the rise of ‘modesty’: ‘with rules came manners, and with manners came courtesy, and with courtesy came modesty, and the word 'cunt' [was] referring to parts of the body that were enclosed, they were secreted away’ (The C Word: How We Came To Swear By It, 2017). Women’s sexuality came in for particular censor and punishment, and cunt was an obvious symbol of all puritan rule sought to repress.

By the seventeenth century cunt had acquired a shock factor, and one author who revelled in the deliciously deviate embrace of cunt was John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1647-1680).

John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647 –1680)

Rochester was an English poet and courtier of King Charles II. He was the poster boy of debauchery, sexual excess and simply dripped with ‘fuck you’. If Cromwell’s parliament had attempted to dam up sexuality, Rochester surfed to notoriety on the tidal wave of sexual repression that was unleashed when the plug was pulled on Puritan rule. Geoffrey Hughes once described Rochester as revelling ‘a world seen from crotch level’ (Hughes, 1998).

Wilmot's poem Advice To A Cuntmonger begins as follows:

‘Fucksters you that would bee happy
Have a care of Cunts that Clapp yee,
Scape disease of evill Tarsehole,
Gout and Fistula in Arsehole’.

He described his attraction to a lover as ‘A touch from any part of her had done 't, / Her hand, her foot, her very look's a Cunt’ (1680). In his 1684 play Sodom features characters such as 'Queen Cuntigratia' and her maid 'Cunticula'. His A Ramble through St James Park (1672) contains eight cunts as he grows increasingly jealous of his mistress’s other lovers.

When your lewd cunt came spewing home
Drenched with the seed of half the town,
My dram of sperm was supped up after
For the digestive surfeit water.
Full gorged at another time
With a vast meal of slime
Which your devouring cunt had drawn
From porters' backs and footmen's brawn.
(Wilmot, 1672)

Image from 'School of Venus' (1680)

It’s tempting to read Rochester’s work as a celebration of sexuality, but he directs considerable anger and hatred towards cunts and their owners. In Sodom he defines cunt as ‘Love’s common nasty sink’ and claims ‘she that hath a cunt will be a whore’. His verse is full of degrading, grotesque descriptions of diseased, balding, biting, feral cunts. In Ramble in St James Park, his hatred towards the women (and genitals) he desires is projected onto the other men, whom he spurns as 'obsequious' 'curs' in their hunt for cunt.

So a proud bitch does lead about
Of humble curs the amorous rout,
Who most obsequiously do hunt
The savory scent of salt-swoln cunt.
(Rochester, 1672)

Rochester also frequently employs cunt to mean sex, as does R. Thompson in his 1680 Unfit for Modest Ears; ‘Cunt was the Star that rul'd thy Fate, Cunt the sole business and Affair of State’ (Thompson, 1680). By the seventeenth century, cunt was also being used as a derogatory synecdoche for women, especially a sexual woman - in much the same way as women can be charmingly referred to as ‘pussy’ (1699) or ‘clunge’ today. In 1665, Samuel Pepys writes about a powder that should ‘make all the cunts in town run after him’ (Pepys, Latham and Matthews, 2000); and E.J Burford warns his readers against ‘citty cunts’ in 1675 (Burford, 1675).

Eighteenth-century illustration of 'Fanny Hill’

By the eighteenth century, cunt was regarded as an obscene and ugly word. In his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785), Francis Grose defines cunt as ‘a nasty name for a nasty thing’, instead employs the euphemism ‘the monosyllable’. Such modesty from a man who lists ‘Mrs Fubb’s Parlour’, ‘Buckinger’s Boot’, ‘Scut’ and a ‘Lobster Pot’ as common synonyms for ‘a woman’s commodity’ (Grose, 1785). ‘Cunny’, a derivative of cunt, and ‘quim’ come into common usage in the eighteenth century. John Cleland’s 1748 bonk-buster Fanny Hill was a cunt free affair, and Cleland boasted he had written it without one rude word. The annual almanac on London sex workers Harris’s List (1757 to 1795) also shies away from cunt, preferring instead to use ‘mossy grot’ and ‘venus mound’.

But one eighteenth-century author who uses cunt precisely for its shock factor is the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814). There are ‘little cunts’, ‘frigged’ cunts, ‘open cunts’, ‘pretty cunts’, ‘infamous’ cunts, ‘bloodied’ cunts, ‘fucked’, ‘licked’ and ‘rascal’ cunts (Sade, 2006) If you shake any book by Sade, a cunt will fall out; Sade is a cunt piñata. But Sade delighted in writing the most extreme, deviant pornography and his repeated use of cunt, rather than twee euphemisms seen in Fanny Hill, is testament to the cunt’s ascension to the most offensive word in the English language.

Despite their reputation for being sexually repressed, pornography flowed beneath the upper crust of Victorian prudery like the river of slime in Ghostbusters II. There is no doubt that cunt was a thoroughly obscene word. But, precisely because of this, Victorian erotica is simply groaning under the weight of cunts. Erotic novels such as The Lustful Turk (1828), The Romance of Lust (1873), Early Experiences of A Young Flagellant (1876) by Rosa Coote, Miss Bellasis Birched for Thieving (1882) by Etonensis, The Autobiography of a Flea (1887) and Venus in India (1889) by 'Captain Charles Devereaux' are a veritable blitzkrieg of C-Bombs. And it is in the nineteenth century that cunt takes on a new meaning as an insult; a vile person. M. E. Neely’s 1860 Abraham Lincoln Encyclopaedia is the first recorded use of cunt as an insult to a man; ‘And when they got to Charleston, they had to, as is wont Look around to find a chairman, and so they took a Cunt’ (Neely, 1982; Hunt, 2017).

There was a young man of Bombay,
Who fashioned a cunt out of clay;
But the heat of his prick
Turned it into a brick,
And chafed all his foreskin away.

From 'The Pearl' (1879)

There was a young lady of Hitchin,
Who was skrotching her cunt in the kitchen;
Her father said “Rose,
It’s the crabs, I suppose.”
“You’re right, pa, the buggers are itching.”

From 'The Pearl' (1879)

Perhaps one of the most significant cunt moments in the twentieth century was the banning and subsequent obscenity trial of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), which contains fourteen cunts (and forty fucks). When Gerald Gould reviewed an edited version in 1932, he noted that ‘passages are necessarily omitted to which the author undoubtedly attached supreme psychological importance – importance so great, that he was willing to face obloquy and misunderstanding and censorship because of them’ (Gould, 1932). In a 1929 foreword to the book, Lawrence explained how he wanted to rescue ‘cunt’, along with ‘fuck’, from the lexicon of dirty words and ‘make them stand for a healthy respect for sex’. The book caused a sensation not only because of its graphic descriptions of sex, and women’s sexual pleasure but because it uses sex to smash down class boundaries. Sex is one of the supreme levellers and for all her titles, money and privilege, Lady Constance Chatterley has a cunt; she is a sexual being. Sexual desire and pleasure have no understanding of the class system. Lawrence uses the word cunt throughout because it is the only word that can express the yearning, primal sexuality of Constance and subvert the pretensions of a society that viewed women as sexless wives and mothers. Lawrence’s use of cunt is shocking, but also incredibly tender and passionate; for Lawrence, cunt is a truly wonderful thing. One of the pivotal scenes in the novel is where Mellors teaches Constance the difference between cunt and fuck.

‘Th'art good cunt, though, aren't ter? Best bit o' cunt left on earth. When ter likes! When tha'rt willin'!’
‘What is cunt?’ she said.
‘An' doesn't ter know? Cunt! It's thee down theer; an' what I get when I'm i'side thee, and what tha gets when I'm i'side thee; it's a` as it is, all on't.’
‘All on't,'‘she teased. ‘Cunt! It's like fuck then.’
‘Nay nay! Fuck's only what you do. animals fuck. But cunt's a lot more than that. It's thee, dost see: an' tha'rt a lot besides an animal, aren't ter? --- even ter fuck? Cunt! Eh, that's the beauty o' thee, lass!’
(Lawrence, 2017)

Cunt: ‘that’s the beauty of thee, lass’ – I don’t think I have heard a more marvellous definition of cunt. Sadly, despite Lawrence’s best efforts and a jury that agreed a work stuffed with cunts does have artistic merit, cunt has yet to be welcomed back to polite society. James Joyce uses one cunt in 'Ulysses' and calls the Holy Land 'the grey sunken cunt of the world' (1918). (Though he freely uses cunt in his private erotic letters to his wife, Nora, whom he delightfully calls 'fuck bird'.) The American beat poets like the shock of the cunt. In 'Howl' (1955) Ginsberg writes about a 'vision of the ultimate cunt'. But, cunt is there to shock. Cunt didn't make it into mainstream cinema until 1971, in ‘Carnal Knowledge, starring Jack Nicholson and Ann-Margret (Hunt, 2017). Nicholson's character (Jonathan Fuerster) screams at Bobbie (Ann-Margret) 'Is this an ultimatum? Answer me, you ball-busting, castrating, son of a cunt bitch!' 'The Exorcist' (1973) has two cunts in it ('Do you know what she did, your cunting daughter', and 'cunting hun'.) There is a third cunt that was cut from the final edit and is only seen in the Director's Cut. As a Doctor treats the troubled Regan, he tells her mother she has told him to ‘keep my goddamn fingers away from her cunt.’' Notice that the only cunt that was cut was the one that actually means Vulva? This has been true of most cinematic uses of cunt - it is far more often used as an insult than it is to mean the genitals. As the twentieth century wore on, cunt settled into its role as a powerful insult.

The Oxford English Dictionary did not admit cunt until the seventies (Daniels, 2008). But, in 2014 the OED added 'cunty, cuntish, cunted, and cunting' to the entry under cunt; 'cunty’ is defined as 'highly objectionable or unpleasant'; 'cuntish’ means an 'objectionable person or behaviour.’; 'cunted' means to be drunk and 'cunting' is an intensifier that means 'very much'. There is no doubt that cunt is a very versatile word (noun, adjective, verb), but it still shocks. Last year, Ofcom (the regulator for UK communications) ranked swear words in order of offensive, and cunt came out on top. The British Board of Film Classification’s guidelines state that the word cunt can only be used frequently in films that are rated 18+. Cunt maintains an uneasy relationship with feminists who are undecided if the word is empowering or demeaning. Various feminist movements have tried to reclaim cunt. Judy Chicago led the 'Cunt art' movement of the 1970s and created works of art that aggressively displayed used ‘cunt’ to cut through prudish attitudes around female sexuality. Inga Muscio’s 1998 Cunt: A Declaration of Independence inspired a movement called 'Cuntfest' - 'a celebration of women'.

In 1996, Eva Ensler premiered a new play called The Vagina Monologues at the Here Arts Centre. The play features different characters talking about their sense of self, their sexuality and how they feel about their vaginas. One monologue is entitled ‘Reclaiming Cunt’ and is a tour de force of cunt.

‘I love that word
I cant say it enough
I can't stop saying it
Feeling a little irritated at the airport?
Just say CUNT and everything changes
'What did you say?'
I said CUNT, that's right, SAID, CUNT, CUNT, CUNT, CUNT.’
It feels so good.
Try it. Go ahead. Go ahead.
(Ensler, 1996)

The audience are encouraged to shout CUNT in unison and to feel the explosive power of the word as one. The Vagina Monologues were a landmark production in feminist theatre. Although I am very much in agreement with Ensler and also consider shouting cunt at Ryanaire baggage reclaim services to be highly therapeutic, Ensler's work hasn't forced the mass renegotiation with cunt we may have hoped for. Perhaps cunt is beyond reclaiming now. But it remains a deeply powerful and special word.

Cunt may be classed as an offensive word, but it’s an ancient and honest one. It’s also the original word; everything else came after. Words for women’s genitals tend to be clinical (vagina, vulva, pudendum, etc.), childlike (tuppence, foof, fairy, minky, Mary, twinkle, etc.), detached (down there, bits, special area, etc.), highly sexual (pussy, fuck hole, etc.), violent (axe wound, penis flytrap, gash, growler, etc.), or refer to unpleasant smells, tastes and appearance (fish taco, bacon sandwich, badly stuffed kebab, bearded clam). Cunt doesn’t convey any of these. Cunt is cunt. Words for the vulva seem to be in a constant state of trying to deny the very thing being described - your genitals aren't a 'twinkle' or 'fur pie'. Sadly, just as cunt the word has been censored, cunts themselves have been culturally censored to the point where the only cunts that we feel are acceptable are plucked, waxed, surgically trimmed, buffed, douched with perfumed cleaning products and served up covered in glitter. The vaginaplasty business is booming and you can have your labia cut off, your hymen rebuilt and a car air freshener installed (I joke). Is it any wonder we can't cope with cunt and resort to ‘down there’? Cunt may never be allowed off the naughty step, but it is surely far less offensive than many synonyms on offer? And whilst people insist on calling cunt a Vagina or a Vulva so not to cause offence, it's worth remembering that we are actually calling cunt a scabbard - a cock holder, a sausage pocket.

Isn’t it ironic that the oldest, most enduring, direct and honest word for a woman’s genitals is also considered to be the most offensive in the English language?

Welcome to #TeamCunt

Addendum: Cunt does not make a woman. Some women have cunts and some women do not. This article has discussed historical understanding of cunt, and historical attitudes that understood gender as binary and violently policed gender constructs as they saw them. Our ancestors had little understanding of gender fluidity and understood cunt as being female. Understanding historical attitudes to gender identity and sexual morphology is essential if we are to fully appreciate how heteronormativity and constructs of the binary of masculine and feminine came to dominate cultural narratives.


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