On Gender and Sexual Insults

by Cara on May 18, 2009

in assholes, gender, misogyny, patriarchy, sex and sexuality, sexism, slut-shaming

Yesterday, a piece by India Knight about the breakup of Katie Price and Peter Andre appeared in the Times Online (h/t Gauntlet).  It seems that these two are reality television stars in the UK.  I’ve never heard of them before in my life.  So let’s just get it out of the way that I have absolutely no dog whatsoever in that fight.

The argument in the article revolves around Price’s reported and repeated insults regarding Andre’s penis size and sexual prowess.  And if what is reported here is true, I agree that she certainly is an absolute, major asshole:

Having dissed on record everyone she’s ever gone to bed with, she even used an insult to reel Andre in. The pair met in 2004 on I’m a Celebrity. . . Get Me Out of Here!, the reality show on which C-listers are humiliated in grotesque fashion – bug-eating and so on – for viewers’ pleasure. Andre was a rabbit caught in Price’s headlights. She liked him, too, so she looked in his shorts and told him he had a tiny penis.

They eventually got married, even though she kept on telling him – and a million or so viewers every week – that he still had a tiny penis. I don’t mean once or twice – I mean repeatedly, for years on end. Recently, on The Graham Norton Show, following a complaint from Andre about infrequent sex, Price said he took “too long” (45 minutes, since you ask), and on a recent episode of their reality show she repeatedly trotted out her favourite line about her husband’s “acorn”. He dumped her shortly afterwards, although it is still unclear whether the dumpage will lead to divorce or to a lavishly remunerated reconciliation via the pages of OK! magazine.

My problem isn’t with Knight sympathizing with Andre, in the least.  In fact, it does indeed sound like he deserves some sympathy.

My problem is with the conclusions that Knight draws about men in general and women in general (who are all assumed to be heterosexual), and how they relate to one another in romantic relationships and in the aftermath of breakups.

First of all, there’s this:

What is interesting about these public critiques of sexual performance is that men never make them. They may make ungallant remarks in private, but they never go into the nitty-gritty: there are no kiss-and-tells by men about how sleeping with such-and-such a starlet was extremely disappointing sexually. Female sexual prowess is arguably more difficult to measure, but still: it would be ludicrous to suggest that all women are the same in bed. And yet, not a peep from men and a veritable torrent of abuse from women.

Really?  Men never, ever make these kinds of public critiques of women’s sexual performance?  Wilmer Valderrama, anyone?  And speaking of him, seeing as how he ranked his ex-girlfriends’ sexual performances on Howard Stern’s show, hasn’t Stern himself gone off on this tangent numerous times, at the very least about his ex-wife?

But hey, despite the fact that I don’t follow celebrity culture very closely at all and therefore I’m sure that there have been other examples that I’m just not aware of, let’s give Knight the benefit of the doubt.  Maybe Valderrama is about as well known in the UK as Price is here.  And maybe they’re also lucky enough over there to not get Stern.  I don’t know, and don’t particularly care.

Because what I’m really concerned about, more than the statement that negative judging sexual prowess is entirely the domain of women, is the implicit suggestion that because men supposedly don’t make these kinds of statements (but actually do), they’re somehow playing fairer.  The idea seems to be that they wouldn’t dare insult a woman’s sexuality or through such personal means.

And that, of course, is absolutely laughable and untrue on its very face.  Here’s the thing: even if men never did this as Knight states above, all it proves is that we live in a highly gendered society, which judges men and women (who are all assumed to be heterosexual) by vastly different sexual standards.

You want to know why men are probably less likely to insult women in this fashion?  Because insulting women in this way doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  In our society, a man’s sexual worth is determined by his sexual prowess — and sexual prowess is (falsely) linked in this same society to penis size.  A woman’s sexual worth, on the other hand, is determined by overall appearance and adherence to cultural beauty standards.  Every so often you’ll hear about “flappy vaginas” or some other such misogynistic nonsense spoken against cis women, but a woman’s genitals themselves are not generally seen as some great bearer of sexual worth in the same way that a man’s are.

So the difference is that both sexes hit each other where it hurts.  After all, that’s the whole point of unleashing insults after a breakup, anyway — hurting your ex as much as you possibly can.  So a woman may in some cases mock a male partner’s penis size.  A man, on the other hand, will call his (ex-)female partner ugly, fat, a cow, or slut/whore, or even better, sloppy seconds.  Which, again, in a society that links female sexual worth to appearance and also to chastity, are easily as equally repugnant, hateful and damaging as any crack about penis size, if not more so.  Pretending that women are therefore the only ones who engage in this type of behavior is disingenuous at best and misogynistic at worst.

And then, after reading this next paragraph, I almost want to give Knight the benefit of the doubt:

Perhaps women feel this is their only recourse when they have been unfairly treated – perhaps it speaks volumes about female powerlessness in a patriarchy and how you’re forced to take the lowest form of revenge because you feel yourself to be at the bottom of the food chain.

So . . . this is a deeply misguided feminist analysis and one that I strongly disagree with, but at least the point isn’t to just disparage women, right?

Wrong.  The last sentence of the paragraph dismisses everything else in it with:

That would not really apply to Price or [Lily] Allen, though, both of whom are at the top of their game.

Sigh.  Because clearly a woman who has class privilege and a successful career therefore has her lack of gender privilege both in society as a whole and in interpersonal relationships automatically erased.

One last thing: in the same article, Knight compares Price’s remarks about penis size to a song by Lily Allen, in which she remarks on an ex who failed to get her off:

Meanwhile, the marvellous Lily Allen has a new single out. Set to a jaunty country tune, it’s about someone who is really bad in bed. “Oh he treats me with respect / He says he loves me all the time / He calls me 15 times a day / He likes to make sure that I’m fine,” it begins. But, alas! “When we go up to bed / You’re just no good / It’s such a shame,” it continues, before delivering the coup de grâce, a line about the man making a ghastly noise and it all being over. “You’re supposed to care, but you never make me scream,” the song concludes. The faux sadness is actually sniggeringly triumphant; if ever a song said “gotcha”, it’s this one.

Hmm.  Is anyone here seeing a problem with conflating the two?

Insults regarding penis size are inherently mean-spirited and wrong, regardless of the actual size of the penis in question.  Insults regarding a partner’s failure to get you off might be mean-spirited, and sometimes might be a lie just as a means of hurting the other person.  But other times?  Well, I’d bet that a whole lot of the time, it’s probably said because it’s true.  And while you might think that saying a guy sucks in bed is mean, I’d say it’s a hell of a lot meaner to not care about whether or not your partner has an orgasm.

The fact is that if women negatively comment on a man’s sexual performance more regularly than the opposite, it’s not just about how men and women are valued differently in society.  It’s also about constructions of who is active during male-female sex (the man does all the work, she just lays there) and therefore whose performance can be ranked.  And it’s also a result of the fact that straight women just plain have more reason to complain.

I’m not being an asshole, I’m looking at the facts.  Seventy-five percent of men report having an orgasm every time during sex. Twenty-six percent of women report the same. It’s unclear whether all of the participants are straight, but even assuming it’s a review of the population as a whole, straight participants are still going to make up a very significant majority.  Which means that a whole lot of men are failing to help their female partners get off — a whole lot higher than the reverse.

Chances are, if a woman is complaining about how her male ex-sexual partner never made her come, it’s true.  And her “failure” to come is not, contrary to popular opinion, because she is a “frigid bitch.”  It’s not because women have such an enormously difficult time reaching orgasm, either — most don’t, and the fact that, on average, women take longer than men to reach orgasm isn’t an excuse or even remotely the same as having difficulty.  It comes down to a sad abundance of straight male laziness and lack of equal concern for their partner’s pleasure.  Stimulating a woman’s clitoris (or g-spot, as her individual case may be)?  God, that’s such work!

So maybe the fact that women are talking about it is a sign of revolt.  Maybe it’s a sign that straight women are finally realizing that hey, they deserve better than that, and straight guys who aren’t total assholes do in fact exist, despite efforts to suppress that fact.  So maybe women should be less concerned about the straight guys’ poor, fragile fee-fees and more about how those guys treat women when they’re in bed together.  And maybe straight dudes should be less concerned about a woman saying something “mean,” and more concerned about making sure that women have less reason to complain . . . . by treating them as sexual equals with desires of their own, who deserve pleasure every damn bit as much as they do.

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{ 16 comments }

1 mzbitca May 18, 2009 at 12:38 pm

In regards to Lily Allen;s song. The song is not poking fun that he’s not getting her off. The song talks about how he may be nice to her outside but never once considers her thoughts and desires in the bedroom

2 Mephit May 18, 2009 at 12:56 pm

Just to say, as someone from the UK, I’d never heard of Wilmer Valderrama before. I have heard of Stern, vaguely, but I have no idea of the content of his radio shows, other than he’s a “shock-jock”. Neither would be big names to the the general public over here, really.

Not that it detracts from your points.

3 Cara May 18, 2009 at 1:10 pm

Mzbitca — yeah, I interpreted it as “you clearly don’t care about my desires therefore you don’t get me off.”

Mephit — I figured that it might be the case. Valderrama was a B-list celebrity at the time he said that stuff on Stern, and is at best a C-list celebrity now. The main reason tabloids even cared about him was the fact that he kept dating famous women, like Lindsey Lohan. A fact which he leveraged on Stern’s show to make himself more famous.

4 Alyce May 18, 2009 at 2:14 pm

I like your points about how woman ARE criticized but that the talking points are different.

To play devil’s advocate, it does tend to be a general trend that men do not talk with other men about intimate issues with the same sort of frankness that women do. However, I feel that is born out of a fear that, if they complain, they will seen as being weak and perhaps to blame for whatever fault they are finding with their partner’s love making.

5 mzbitca May 18, 2009 at 3:05 pm

Alyce,

Exactly but since everything male is good and everything female is bad in our society men assume there is something wrong with the way females interact and never think that what they’ve been taught is not helpful to them.

6 Feminist Avatar May 18, 2009 at 5:19 pm

The small penis jokes in Price/Andre relationship are part of a much more complex dynamic. She is a working class, topless model made good- famous for extremely large breasts and significant amounts of plastic surgery- including a recent makeover with breast reduction, new nose, lips and hair colour. A number of men have sold their sex stories with her- she is famous for her sexploits before her marriage to Andre. She also gives sex advice in magazines where she is very open about her sex life; what gets her off, what doesn’t.

He is a one hit wonder who is pretty much the male equivalent- all body, no brains [or that is the public persona]. The small penis joke in a strange way operated to say that this relationship, unlike her infamous previous relationships, was based on more than sex. And it was at least in part to suggest that she was of equal social status to Peter, who is middle class and whose fame was at least slightly based on a ‘legitimate’ talent, and who was always seen as the ‘nice guy’.

It was also a joke that operated throughout their marriage- not just at the end.

7 Ryan May 19, 2009 at 12:18 am

I really liked this analysis. It explained very well something that, I have at least, found difficult to articulate.

One thing I wonder about this though, and this may just be my male perspective, but why is it that insults about penis size and sexual prowess seem to be such a low blow. After reading through the OP I don’t really have a good answer for that.

For example, back in high school I remember a rumor of this sort that got spread around about a guy. Nobody ever directly addressed it when he was around, not even to offer some sort of support. People who did not really know him snickered about it a little bit, and people who liked him occasionally talked shit about the girl who alleged it.

What I described above could probably more briefly be described as an insult that was near taboo. Whereas the equivalent insults discussed in the OP are basically ubiquitous. It is probably worth noting I work in a overwhelmingly male IT field and that could be slanting my perception quite a bit.

8 Rose May 19, 2009 at 6:50 am

Can’t say I understand why Andre would stay with a woman who publicly and repeatedly mocked his penis, but then she did that right from the very start of their relationship to the very end and these are two people who are obsessed with warts n’ all fame. I really don’t think it factored into their decision to separate, though it was probably a symptom of a belligerent personality. If the penis jokes were the problem, he never would have married her and had kids with her.

And if Knight thinks men don’t mock women’s genitalia… boy, that’s blinkered thinking. Our own language values derogatory terms for female genitals as the ‘worst’ and most offensive insults. And for every woman like Jordan there’s a man who derides his girlfriend or wife’s vagina with just as much or more mean-spiritedness.

9 Hannah May 19, 2009 at 7:18 am

I’m not defending what either one of them say, but I can’t help but feel that Katie is a product of her culture – her entire career has been based on the size of her breasts as a validation point, it wouldn’t suprise me if that is one of the ways she has internalised for looking at a person.

That and that anything they say in interviews is to be taken with a pinch of salt, they are both masters of the press.

10 Mephit May 19, 2009 at 8:29 am

I do think that women’s genitalia is a source of insult in similar ways, although of course it ties into “sluttiness” or “used goods”. Tends to be things like “shaking a stick in a bucket”/”Dartford tunnel” and so forth.

I don’t honestly think that is less common than insulting men with small penis jokes.

11 Cara May 19, 2009 at 8:36 am

I don’t honestly think that is less common than insulting men with small penis jokes.

Maybe we’re hanging out with different crowds? I avoid the kinds of dudes who say misogynistic things as much as I can like the plague, so that might have something to do with it. I would argue though that small penis jokes are seen as regularly acceptable in a wider range of media. You can find those jokes regularly in primetime sitcoms, it seems to me. While I’ve seen the kind of jokes you’re talking about in movies, I’ve never seen it on tv. I do however see all kinds of jokes about a woman being fat or ugly or slutty . . . just without overt references to genitalia.

Which again, could just be me.

12 Thomas MacAulay Millar May 19, 2009 at 10:10 am

It’s also about constructions of who is active during male-female sex (the man does all the work, she just lays there)

Yes, this. Subject/object dichotomy, with men assumed cis- and het- and constructed as agents, and women assumed cis- and het- and constructed as objects acted on. Men are graded on performance, women on appearance, consistent with this assumed dynamic.

The hetero- and penetrocentric modeling of sex allows this construction to stick around when it is irrelevant to many people’s lives, and to the extent it is relevant it is harmful and limiting. Sex as an interaction between two (or more) active participants is the reality for many, and ought to be the default in how we analyze it. (That is to say, “object to be acted on” ought to be a kink, of interest only to people with a specific interest in it, rather than an assumed norm).

13 Mephit May 19, 2009 at 4:32 pm

I worked in the pub trade for a long time, so it wasn’t a matter of hanging out with such crowds by choice, as such, more a hazard of the job :).

I’d agree that it isn’t widely represented in the media, which I guess is interesting in itself. Somehow, apparently, female genitalia is more obscene than male.

14 Helen May 20, 2009 at 4:38 am

That writer’s theory certainly doesn’t hold water here in Australia, where we’ve had Wives are all Lousy Lovers and OMG Slutzz!!!

15 PennyArcadia May 28, 2009 at 6:06 am

Talk about totally misconstruing what the Lily Allen song is about. Personally I think the song has nothing triumphant. She did write a song with all kinds of ‘gotcha’s about someone being bad in bed (Not Big), but even there she was honest about the fact that she knew what she was doing, that she used it to get back at him. I didn’t see it as very triumphant either.

One thing I wonder about this though, and this may just be my male perspective, but why is it that insults about penis size and sexual prowess seem to be such a low blow. After reading through the OP I don’t really have a good answer for that.

I suppose it’s because such insults are seen as directly targeting someone’s masculinity – as defined by penis size and sexual prowess. And male sexual prowess is usually measured in terms of how often and with whom he can get off… not whether his partners get off. Because that’s about female sexuality. I think that’s where the taboo lies: on the fact that women are active participants who equally want to enjoy sex. And many people just don’t know how to deal with that.

16 Froth May 28, 2009 at 8:18 am

You don’t often hear female gentitalia insulted, because female genitalia IS an insult. Pussy. Cunt. Twat.
There’s also dick, which implies that a man thinks with that organ, and which is never used to insult women. It wouldn’t be an insult if applied to a woman – it would suggest they had a penis, a good thing.
But calling a man female-genitalia is a dreadful and unforgivable insult, too awful to be printed or repeated.

Penises are insulted because in order to deride a man, it is useful to suggest that he has an inadequate penis and is therefore not really a man at all.

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