When I think of the word woman, I think of bosoms. A word I found difficult to say out loud because of its salacious quality, as if the very word bosom was as unspeakable as any idea I might have had of sex.
And then I think of the word cunt, a word I also find difficult to say out loud. A word I might find less disturbing when it’s said by a woman but when I hear a man use this word, and men tend to use it in anger or as a form of denigration, I feel troubled but in a different way from when I was a child.
When I was a child the word bosom had an exciting quality. As much as it set my heart racing, it also felt pleasurable. I practised saying it whenever I sang out loud the words to ‘The Lonely Ashgrove’.
A song about a man who has lost his beloved and wanders down by the ash grove in search of solace.
‘in sorrow deep sorrow, my bosom is laden, all day I go searching in search of my love.
Ye echoes oh tell me where lies the sweet maiden?
She sleeps ‘neath the green turf down by the ash grove.’
The word cunt, on the other hand, speaks to me of sexual violence, which is the other association I make to the word woman. I heard it first when I was at university, and someone told me it was the worst word in the English language, far worse than fuck.
So why is the slang for vagina such a powerful and unacceptable word?
Sure, the collection of letters offer the satisfaction that comes out of uttering certain letters together, the emphasis on the ..unt, beginning with that hard ‘c’, and then something else, the hidden and secret nature of vaginas, the part of women’s body that cops such bad press these days.
I didn’t consciously realise I had one until I hit my early teens when talk of periods first entered my life experience. It was all tied up with the making of babies, the vagina as that tunnel, or so my older sister told me when I was fourteen, the route up which the man put his thing, the thing I could not even name when I was still more a child than an adolescent because it felt so dangerous.
‘Yuk’, I said when my older sister told me the facts of life, just as my father had told her when she sat on his lap on a Saturday morning when our mother was away at work.
I walked up the hall way from the kitchen to my bedroom and there was my father in his usual chair and my sister curled up on his lap. He is whispering things into her ear.
If this was the lot of women I thought then, I did not want a bar of it and more so when my sister decided she needed to tell me the facts so that my father did not get to me with them first.
Our father told my sister he said, because he wanted to prepare her body for a man. Our mother he told my sister was too much of an innocent. She knew nothing about sex when they married twenty years earlier and he had to teach her everything.
They did not teach us about vaginas at school. The only thing they taught us about being a woman at school was to do with the need to maintain our purity and help the man control his impulses over which he had no control.
You’ve no doubt heard all of this before. Stock standard for the education of young Catholic women in the nineteen fifties and sixties. Hold onto your passion and your desire.
And so, I learned to hold onto my passion and desires for many a year.
Made worse by the fact that my father used to visit our bedroom at night when all the lights were out. His visits were so regular I learned to wait for them, to anticipate them and to brace myself for his arrival.
In those days I shared a room with my older sister and our beds ran side by side with a narrow corridor in between. My father padded along this corridor and turned to face my sister, this then was my cue to turn and face the wall. To face the wall and hold every fibre of my body tight so that he might not notice me, he’d think I was asleep and therefore leave me alone.
Which he did, night after night. I heard the rustle of blankets the slip slide of hands on bodies the muted muffles of my father’s breathing and the occasional sigh from my sister.
I never imagined it to be a sigh of pleasure. Instead I heard it as a sigh of duty.
In the mornings she climbed out our bedroom window early to go off to mass and from this I imagined she was escaping any further visits that night.
This then was the lot of women, I decided as I anticipated my own future. To be ready willing and able and if not to escape into the dark.
She who once thought these thoughts.