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Sexist swearing and slurs
Responses to gender-directed insults
L.V. (Lena) Kremin
Center for Language Science, Penn State University, University Park, PA, USA.
Manuscript written during their RMA Linguistics, Utrecht University, Utrecht, Netherlands.
Swearing is a part of everyday life for many, but its functions, and the reasons
why certain words are deemed “taboo”, may not be immediately apparent. In
particular, the use of slurs serves the functions of policing socially undesirable
behaviors, and bringing groups of people together. A subset of swear words can
be described as being directed speciﬁcally towards one gender, and are mainly
used to police behaviors that do not conform to a society's ideas of masculinity
or femininity. Slurs directed towards, and judged most ofensive by women
comment on sexual, or aggressive behavior, whereas slurs directed towards, and
judged most ofensive by men imply that they are being too sot or “womanly”.
These categories follow patriarchal views on gender roles. The perception
of gender-directed swear words can be described by the Afective Language
Communication Model (Van Berkum, in prep), which incorporates a speaker's
stance and intention into the listener's interpretation and response. In order to
assess if the degree of ofensiveness is internalized by a listener, an EEG study
is proposed. It is hypothesized that gender-congruent slurs will elicit larger
responses than gender-incongruent slurs, and that one's level of acceptance of
society's gender expectations could afect perceived ofensiveness.
Swearing, frequently used with the intent to insult or injure the recipient, is a common
part of cultures across the globe (Jay, 2009; Van Oudenhoven et al., 2008). Receiving an
insult is not only psychologically painful, but its meaning is oten internalized, and ex-
pressed through physiological changes (Struiksma, De Mulder, Spotorno, Basnakova &
van Berkum, 2014). However, not all swear words or insults are judged equally ofensive,
and elicit the same degree of response (Saucier, Till, Miller, O'Dea & Andres, 2015). Addi-
tionally, particular slurs may ofend certain groups (e.g. groups deﬁned by race or sexua-
lity) or individuals more than others, and therefore elicit diferent reactions in diferent
people. This paper focuses on the diferences in swear words and slurs with respect to the
recipient's gender, and asks the following questions: Are there slurs that one gender ﬁnds
more ofensive than the other, and what are they? If so, why is this the case? Are there
physiological markers that relect such a diference in ofensiveness rating? To answer
these questions, the function and perception of swear words and slurs is introduced, fol-
lowed by a discussion on the inluence of culture on taboo categories and swear words.
Then, the question of which slurs men and women ﬁnd most ofensive is examined, and
incorporated into a model of communication. Lastly, hypotheses are formed and a study
to further discover the nature of gender-directed slurs is proposed.
1. Function and Perception of Swear Words
Most would agree that the main function of using swear words is to express emotions
(Jay & Janschewitz, 2008; Vingerhoets, Bylsma & de Vlam, 2013). However, it might not
be readily apparent that swearing has more than this one intrapersonal function. Other
intrapersonal functions of swearing include reducing the perception of pain, increasing
conﬁdence, and eliciting humor; swearing can also serve interpersonal functions, such as
bringing groups of people together, and policing culturally undesirable behaviors (Jay &
Janschewitz, 2008). With these multiple functions, it is unsurprising that every language
and culture has a set of taboo words (Van Oudenhoven et al., 2008). The question that
then needs to be addressed for the purposes of this research is what function gender-di-
rected insults may serve within a speciﬁc culture.
Because a reaction from listeners is a prerequisite to a swear word serving its function, one
must also look at the perception of the use of taboo words. Across cultures, swear words
difer, not only in phonological form, but also in topic; thus, any reaction to swear words
is dependent on experience with a particular language and culture (Jay & Janschewitz,
2008). The responses by those familiar with a language to the use of swear words teach
language learners what words are taboo in their culture (Jay, 2009). Over time, the taboo
nature of particular words becomes internalized for the learner; swear words may even
have direct access to the emotional part of the brain. This can be seen through physio-
logical responses (Struiksma et al., 2014), similar to those exhibited when experiencing a
strong emotion. These autonomic responses difer for taboo words as compared to neu-
tral stimuli, and even euphemisms, due to the conditioned response to swear words (Bow-
ers & Pleydell-Pearce, 2011).
The use of swear words not only results in physiological changes, but also in interpersonal
consequences (Vingerhoets, Bylsma & de Vlam, 2013). While the reception of swearing
depends on many contextual factors, such as the relationship between interlocutors or
the location of the conversation (Henry, Butler & Brandt, 2014; Jay & Janschewitz, 2008),
in the speciﬁc case of insulting another person, the use of taboo words is not well received
(Van Oudenhoven et al., 2008). Previous research has concluded that the use of swear
words in a second person context, accompanied by the use of a taboo noun (e.g. You (are
a) bitch!), elicit the strongest response in the recipient (Vingerhoets, Bylsma & de Vlam,
2013). This efect occurs for two reasons: ﬁrst, there is a heightened response, not only be-
cause it makes use of a swear word, but it directly insults another, and second, the use of a
noun makes the insult an inherent trait of the other, as opposed to the use of an adjective,
which could be describing a temporary state (e.g. She’s bitchy today.). From these ﬁndings,
it is important to ask whether a speciﬁc swear word, or set of slurs, compared to other
insults, can elicit a stronger response in one gender over the other when used in this most
aggressive context, and particularly if diferent swear words are considered to be more
ofensive to one gender as compared to the other.
2. Importance and Influence of Culture
As briely mentioned above, the use of swear words is found in every culture and language
across the globe, but the topics that are considered taboo, and thus are accompanied by
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a speciﬁc vocabulary, vary between cultures (Vingerhoets, Bylsma & de Vlam, 2013). For
example, in Norwegian culture, many insults can be categorized as relating to the devil.
This category appears to be unique to this particular culture, as no other culture, out of
the eleven studied, displayed such a proliﬁc use of devil-related terms as an insult (van
Oudenhoven et al., 2008). The authors of this study put forth the theory that this category
of insults around the devil developed through the country's pre-Christian aversion to the
“little devils who resided in forests” (p. 183) and the relative isolation and homogeny ater
conversion to Protestantism. Despite the diferences in culture, however, sexuality, and
lack of intelligence are two categories that appear to have corresponding slurs in every
language (Van Oudenhoven et al., 2008). This suggests that while variation occurs across
cultures, there will be at least two topics that provide insults, which is further expanded
by categories of insults that have been shaped by the culture's history and set of values.
One component of a culture's history that proves to be speciﬁcally relevant to research fo-
cused on gender-directed insults is the stereotypical gender roles that all men and women
are expected to follow (Harris, 1993). Most of the societies in the world, even to this day,
can be considered patriarchal, meaning men are believed to be the better, stronger, and
more competent sex, whereas women are perceived to be less intelligent, very socially
and interpersonally oriented, and weak. These expectations appear to be accepted and
adhered to, as previous research has demonstrated than men and women ﬁnd situations
where another is acting in a manner incongruent to gender roles to be anger-provoking
(Harris, 1993). This means that men were angered when a woman was displaying physical
aggression, because women are not supposed to be physically violent, or when a man was
hurting another, because men are supposed to be the protectors; women were angered
by condescending behaviors, because they strive for social harmony (Harris, 1993). Taken
together, this shows that both men and women alike have accepted the patriarchal expec-
tations of their culture, and ﬁnd it ofensive when another is breaking the gender roles of
their society. It can therefore be reasoned that they could also ﬁnd it hurtful or ofensive if
someone were to believe or state, through a swear word or other means, that they them-
selves were breaking societal norms.
3. Gender-Directed Slurs and Reactions
The existence of gender roles is the basis for the existence, and use of, gender-directed
slurs, which may, in turn, perpetuate gender stereotypes. Gender-directed swear words, as
a category, provide a powerful tool to sanction actions by either gender that are contrary
to the socially accepted behavior (James, 1998). From this description, it is clear that gen-
der-directed swearing falls into the category of “policing undesirable behavior” function of
swearing discussed above. This “policing” can be done within or between genders. Because
men and women are expected to express diferent characteristics and behaviors, it can be
concluded that diferent slurs would be used to police the diferent genders; some have
even argued that gender-directed slurs not only relect, and police socially undesirable be-
havior, but that they can actually shape the society's perceptions of masculinity and femi-
ninity (James, 1998), possibly towards a more gender equal society. James (1998) argues
that some women are leading the trend to use certain terms in a gender-neutral fashion,
and that this implies, and potentially causes, a blurring of traditional patriarchal views.
While the direction of the cause-and-efect relationship of gender-neutral swear words
and a gradual convergence of gender norms is debatable, there is a connection between
society's gender expectations and the use of gender-directed swear words.
Another factor to consider when investigating gender-directed swearing is the rate at
which men and women use swear words, because this could inluence their overall per-
ception of the act of swearing. While swearing is traditionally seen as a masculine habit,
evidence suggests that both men and women use swear words at similar rates, but in dif-
ferent contexts (Gauthier et al., 2015; Jay & Janschewitz, 2008). However, a diference is
seen overall in how men and women perceive swearing. Women generally tend to rate
swear words as more ofensive than men do (Gauthier et al., 2015; Jay & Janschewitz, 2008;
van Oudenhoven, et al., 2008), which may be due to the fact that men tend to use more of-
fensive language, and are more comfortable expressing emotions through swearing than
women (Gauthier et al., 2015). This use of highly ofensive language could perhaps gener-
ally desensitize men from the ofensiveness that swear words usually elicit.
It is clear then, that when looking at gender-directed insults, it is necessary to assess the
diferent genders’ reactions to all swear words in order to determine what can legitimate-
ly be categorized as gender-directed. Slurs that receive higher ratings within one gender
that are not rated as ofensive by the other could then be considered gender-directed.
However, it is important to note that the same slur could be used for both genders with
diferent implications. For example, the word bitch, when directed towards a woman,
would indicate that she was acting too aggressively, but when directed towards a man, the
same word would imply that he was being weak or cowardly. Because the word carries dif-
ferent connotations based on the gender of the recipient, and still polices behavior based
on stereotypes, it should still be classiﬁed as gender-directed. Therefore, it is evident that
a crucial factor in determining the ofensiveness of any given gender-directed swear word
is the gender of the recipient of the insult. While the gender of the sender may have some
efect on the perceived ofensiveness, the recipient of an insult has been shown to be a
more important factor (Harris, 1993). While particular insults can be gender-directed, the
rating of ofensiveness across all gender-directed slurs may not be equal. Previous studies
have shown that if a group is perceived to have a lower social status, then insults speciﬁ-
cally directed towards this group will be rated as being more ofensive than those directed
at the group with higher social status (Henry, Butler & Brandt, 2014). In the case of gen-
der-directed swearing, this has been supported, and insults directed towards women have
been evaluated as more ofensive than those directed towards men, because women are
seen as inferior in a patriarchal society (Benedixen & Gabriel, 2013).
3.1 Slurs Directed Towards Women
As predicted, studies have shown that men and women difer in which slurs and which
categories of slurs they ﬁnd ofensive (Benedixen & Gabriel, 2013; Harris, 1993; James,
1998; Preston & Stanley, 1987). In general, the swear words that ofend women the most
are those that imply that the woman is promiscuous or sexually loose (e.g. slut, whore;
Benedixen & Gabriel, 2013; James, 1998; Preston & Stanley, 1987). Within this category of
sexual promiscuity, there is a larger set of ofensive vocabulary for women than men (Har-
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ris, 1993; Preston & Stanley, 1987), conﬁrming the stereotype that it is more acceptable
for men to have multiple sexual partners. On the other hand, women are also ofended
by slurs that imply they are being sexually withholding (e.g. prude, James, 1998). This
paradox highlights the fact that women are “evaluated in terms of the extent to which
they conform to heterosexual male needs and desires” (James, 1998, p. 404; see Buss,
1998 for a review of Sexual Strategies Theory). This reinforcement of the patriarchal
gender roles is further seen in the other categories of swear words which are particu-
larly ofensive to women: slurs that suggest a woman is homosexual or masculine
(e.g. dyke), physically unattractive (e.g. dog), a sexual object (e.g. pussy, cunt), and that
she mistreats others (e.g. bitch; Benedixen & Gabriel, 2013; James, 1998). Furthermore,
there is evidence that women are conscious not only of which slurs are ofensive, but
also the reasons why they are ofensive, as discussed above. While some women accept
the gender roles put forth by society, and may even use these slurs towards other wom-
en to police their behavior, others have begun to use certain slurs, such as bitch or slut,
as terms of endearment in an efort to reclaim these words as a symbol of female power
3.2 Slurs Directed Towards Men
Men, on the other hand, are most ofended when they are the recipient of a slur which
implies that they are homosexual (Benedixen & Gabriel, 2013; Brown & Alderson, 2010;
James, 1998; Preston & Stanley, 1987; Saucier et al., 2015). Because homosexual males blur
the lines between masculinity and femininity, slurs in this category (e.g. faggot) are used
as a policing agent against behavior that is determined to be too feminine. The underlying
power of this category of slurs comes from the belief that women and homosexual males
are devalued members of society. Alternatively, slurs within the same category can func-
tion as a way to bring a group of men closer together, and create a strong inner group de-
ﬁned by how “masculine” its members are, in contrast to the outsiders who are the recipi-
ent of the slurs (Carnaghi, Maass & Fasoli, 2011; Saucier et al., 2015). Additionally, but to a
lesser extent, men are also ofended when they are the recipient of slurs that suggest they
are not fulﬁlling the traditional gender roles by being physically unattractive/weak (e.g.
wimp), stupid (e.g. jackass), or cowardly (e.g. wuss, bitch; Benedixen & Gabriel, 2013; James,
1998; Preston & Stanley, 1987, Saucier et al., 2015). It is interesting to note that studies have
shown that men are more ofended by slurs insinuating they are womanly, and therefore
lesser members of society, than women are by slurs implying they are manly, and poten-
tially better than their feminine peers. This dichotomy further highlights the importance
of the patriarchy and gender stereotypes in the interpretation of gender-directed swear
words (James, 1998).
4. Incorporation into a Model of Communication
In order to fully understand why gender-directed swearing is so insulting, it is crucial to
investigate how stereotypes and gender roles afect a working model of communication
and interpretation. As discussed above, the function of gender-directed swearing can
either be to police certain behaviors or, to a lesser extent, bring groups of people together.
Van Berkum (in prep) has developed a model that allows for the incorporation of these
diferent functions. In the Afective Language Comprehension model (ALC; See ﬁgure 1
below), the listener (person Y) must ﬁrst recognize and parse the verbal and non-verbal
signs completed by the speaker (person X), and then Y must interpret the communicative
move. At the various steps of parsing and interpretation, Y's afective state can be altered
by an emotionally competent stimulus (ECS), which can potentially impact Y's emotions
and response. However, Y's emotions will only be afected by a stimulus which they ﬁnd
Figure 1. Afective Language Comprehension model from Van Berkum (in prep).
While there are many steps in this model, the two most relevant in the interpretation of
gender-directed slurs are “X's stance,” and “X's social intention.” If X uses a gender-directed
swear word, Y will likely interpret X's stance to be negative, simply from the use of a slur,
but Y's interpretation will likely go father. Provided that Y has had extensive experience
with the culture and language of X, Y will recognize that the slur is gender-directed, and
that its use by X signals that X has a negative stance towards the situation, but also that
X's negativity is directly related to their perception that gender roles are being violated.
Using this inference, Y will go on to further interpret X's social intention. Given that there
is a social stigma against the violation of gender roles (Brown & Alderson, 2010), two
possible intentions, congruent with the functions of swearing, arise. Either X is trying to
police the behaviors of Y, and the use of the gender-directed slur serves as a warning sign
that Y is not acting appropriately (James, 1998), or X is trying to distance themselves from
Y in order to avoid any association with the stigmatized behavior (Brown & Alderson,
2010). Additionally, certain bonus information could potentially be drawn from X's use
of a gender-directed swear word, such as their world knowledge and the degree to which
they subscribe to their culture's gender stereotypes.
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5. Hypotheses & A Study Proposal
From the above discussion of gender-directed swear words and the ALC model, it could
be suggested that both men and women who strongly value their culture's prescribed
gender roles would have a heightened emotional state to the implication they were not
fol lowing them, due to stronger efects from the ECS steps. Gender congruent slurs
(e.g. calling a woman a slut) should elicit stronger responses than gender incongruent
slurs (e.g. calling a man a slut), and possibly gender-neutral slurs (e.g. idiot). Furthermore,
it is diﬁcult to predict how those who reject traditional gender roles would react. It is
possible that those who strongly object to gender stereotypes could have a strong
reaction to another person trying to force them into the culturally accepted gender roles,
or it could be that those with more “progressive” views would not be ofended by the
implication that they are breaking society's expectations, because they do not ﬁnd these
In order to determine the responses to various gender-directed swear words, I propose
a study that utilizes EEG technology to record participants’ physiological responses to
this particular category of insults. The studies discussed above relied on surveys for
their ratings of ofensiveness. While these studies have been informative, adding a
physio logical measure will determine whether or not these diferent perceptions and
reactions are internalized. A previous study has shown that insults, as compared to
compli ments, elicit a stronger P2 efect, and that insults directed at the participant,
as opposed to another individual, elicit a stronger LPP response (Struiksma et al., 2014).
Thus, it is possible that when the insult is highly ofensive to the participant, a larger
P2 and/or a larger LPP efect would be seen. By exposing both male and female
participants to gender-directed slurs in a context using a second-person form
and a noun, it should become apparent whether the survey-based ratings of
ofensiveness discussed above correlated to similar physiological diferences be-
tween the genders. Comparisons will need to be made within one gender, as well
as across genders, between gender-directed (congruent and incon gruent and
gender-neutral slurs. Furthermore, conducting a survey on participants’ opin-
ions on gender roles and interpreting this alongside the physiological responses
could potentially reveal whether or not one's social views afect how ofensive they
perceive gender-directed insults to be.
This paper has demonstrated that gender-directed swear words and slurs not only
exist, but that they fall into two distinct functions of swearing: policing culturally undesi -
rable behavior and, to a lesser extent, bringing groups of people together. The power
of gender-directed swearing is rooted in the society's perceptions of masculinity and
femininity. Furthermore, one's reaction to a gender-directed slur is most likely linked to
the value that they place on upholding traditional gender roles. Future studies should
utilize behavioral responses to further the results of previous studies, and potentially re-
veal a physiological diference in response to gender-directed slurs.
Received March 2017; accepted July 2017.
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