On women: ready, willing and able

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.

7 thoughts on “On women: ready, willing and able”

    1. Maybe, Andrew, but such comparisons always make me feel a little sad. It’s been the mantra in my family that this sister had the worst if it but if you knew her and you saw how she’s managed her life compared to some others of my siblings you might think otherwise. I suspect the experience of growing up in an abusive family is problematic for everyone in that family, and I mean everyone. And the various ways that people cope with the abuse differs on the basis of so many factors: personality type, chronological position in the family, the help available over time, the ability to use help, the actual experience of abuse which is different for each one of us, though yes indeed, the first born girl, my older sister, seemingly copped the worst of it. The crazy thing is that seeing her as the chosen one, left me with a strong sense of being rejected by my father, as if I wasn’t good enough for him to choose me, even as I spent my childhood avoiding any such possibility. It’s tricky isn’t it? That a person might want to be abused in order to feel loved and chosen. Unfortunately, from my understanding and experience it happens a lot. Thanks, Andrew.

    1. As I was just saying to Andrew her, Joanne, it is sad. In so many ways sad, which might be one of the reasons I gnaw way at it in my writing, trying to get to the bottom of it.But there is no bottom to the story, not really. No end, only sadness. Yet there’s also joy in being able to survive these things. In being able to write about them and in being able to share them with others who might benefit from the sharing. Others who’ve been through similar experiences or worse and others still who can benefit from understanding how other people have experienced life. Thanks Joanne.

  1. Elisabeth, I just finished writing my memoir and I’ve decided my route route is to blog it bit by bit. Any advice? Warning? Thanks for your help
    – john

  2. There’s definitely a harshness to many sexual slang terms, lots of kicking k’s and monosyllables. The first euphemism I used for my genitalia was “old man.” My dad’s the only person I’ve ever heard use that expression and, by comparison to most alternatives, I suppose it’s one of the least offensive. There’s something harmless about an old man as opposed to the weaponised “prick”. In Scotland, at least amongst young boys, the term “willie” is probably the most common term; it can even be used in polite society on the (I imagine) rare occasion when polite people feel the need to discuss penises and, again, it’s quite a friendly word unlike “dick”.

    My dad never taught me a comparable expression for a vagina. I wonder if he called it an “old woman”? Probably not. My first girlfriend called hers a “pussy” and that’s harmless enough. As you know I grew up around cats and loved cats and the idea that you could stroke a woman’s pubic hair was not entirely unappealing even if it wasn’t especially arousing. At the time I really had no idea what I found arousing other than the IDEA of sex.

    Words obsess me. Sex not so much these days but words still have the power to excite and fascinate me. I still can’t get my head around so-called bad words. What makes “cunt” SO offensive? There was a time no one could say “fuck” on TV and now not a day passes and we don’t (at least I don’t) bat an eye. I’ve noted the use of “cunt” is increasing too and its shock value is diminishing week by week. What’s left? Is there a worse swearword I don’t know about?

    1. I’m drowning under the weight of misogyny at the moment Jim, despite all the words. I can’t go into details here and now, which is unfair, I know but still, I’m grateful for your thoughts on language and sex and all the ways we try to talk about these things, experiences that are attached to feelings. and how sometimes we muck them up, and sometimes they seem more ok. Thanks, Jim.

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