Jessica Valenti points out one of the ways women are given special treatment.

When I argue with a sexist, there’s an inevitable point at which he will call me “sweetheart”. (I like to think of it as shorthand for “you’re winning”.) If I’m really making him feel foolish, he may resort to “bitch”. “Ugly” is the last refuge of the hopelessly destroyed.

I’ve been writing about feminism on the internet long enough that these names don’t really bother me. But nothing is more grating than when a man I don’t know – in comments, Twitter or real life – calls me “Jessie”.

I don’t know if I find the diminutive the most grating item, but I do find it grating. Which is worse, hatred or contempt? Hard to say. Are “cunt” “bitch” and “twat” worse than “honey” “sweetie” and “babyname”? I don’t know; both are special.

As it turns out, it’s not just me. Behind every female with an opinion is a man with a sneering nickname for her.

Sophia Wallace, a photographer and feminist artist, tells me, “In professional contexts, I suddenly become ‘Sophie’ with people who have an issue with me. Usually they think I have exhibited too much leadership and are trying to bring me down.”

Well, it’s like “boy,” isn’t it. It’s what you do to uppity inferiors – you remind them of their inferior status.


  1. Beth says

    I’ll take honey or sweetie over “cunt” “bitch” and “twat” any day of the week. With exceptions made for my DH under certain circumstances.

  2. stevebowen says

    I would have thought that basic etiquette would demand that you address people in the way they introduce themselves. I get irriitated when people choose to call me Stephen, a colleague of mine does this, despite presenting myself as Steve my entire adult life. Regardless of whether the motivation is sexism, which I’m sure it often is, it’s disrespectful on so many levels.

  3. Kevin Kehres says

    Whenever I see a poster use names in that manner, I always, always, always think “well, they just lost that argument.” Everything that comes after is automatically a lie.

    Regarding the use of “honey”, etc. I will point out that occasionally when someone around these environs disagrees with me, they do much the same thing by saying, “I disagree with you, cupcake.” It’s so thinly veiled as an attempt to diminish one’s argument that it practically SCREAMS “I have no factual basis for my complaint, so let’s go for the cheap shot”. It’s a bad silencing tactic.

    Just a little tu quoque for thought.

  4. iknklast says

    Another thing I’ve noticed is that the students where I teach routinely give the male teachers their epithet – “Mr.” this or “Dr.” that – even when the teachers prefer to be called by their first name. The female teachers are always on a first name basis, even if they have requested the students do otherwise.

    I realized what this meant after a sportswriter was pointing out how often sportswriters refer to black players by their first name, while referring to white players by their last. This, he said, is a means of juvenilizing them, keeping them in an inferior status, while showing respect to the white players. Since that time, I have never allowed my students to call me by my first name. You know what? It works. It reminds them that I am not just some broad in front of the room, I am the woman who has some level of power over the rest of their lives (though, in reality, the power is mostly their own – those who choose not to submit any of their work don’t get any extra points just for calling me “Dr.”)

  5. Seth says

    I think the automatic truncating of someone’s first name is clearly insulting, especially when it’s done to demean a woman’s stature in an argument.

    From the other direction, the use of last names only in articles and ‘professional’ publications can also be a way of erasing women—since the vast majority of people take their last names from their fathers, and it’s been presumed that men are the Important People saying Important Things since before things started being printed, it’s unfortunately easy to read a last name in an article and think it’s referring to a man.

    That’s why I either use everyone’s full first name (when I’m commenting on a piece), or use their full stated mane and then their last name thenceforth (when I’m writing something serious). First names can be ambiguously gendered as well (at my alma mater, two male administrators were named Kim and Brook, respectively), but there’s less of a chance of erasing a professional woman’s identity that way. At least that’s my experience.

  6. Seven of Mine, formerly piegasm says

    I don’t post anywhere on the internet under my actual name so this is the first I’ve heard of this business of using diminutives but I definitely find the pet names more grating than the openly hostile slurs. The slurs don’t usually get deployed until the person in question has abandoned all pretense of having a point other than “bitchez ain’t shit” and it becomes a clear case of their words reflecting more negatively on themselves than on me.

    The pet names, on the other hand, don’t read as sexist to a lot of people so onlookers can continue to take them seriously. Additionally, it’s usually accompanied by a lot of smarmy, tone police-y, straw Vulcan-y horseshit.

  7. Beth says


    Yes, it could be because I tend to take things literally. It’s also just my preference, likely due to my parents having raised us without using swear words ever. I never even heard words like ‘cunt’ or ‘twat’ until I was an adult. Using words like ‘Darn’ or ‘Gosh’ would resulted in a mouthful of soap when I was young. I once witnessed my grandmother chewing out my grandfather for using the phrase ‘for Pete’s sake’.

  8. screechymonkey says

    Kevin Kehres @4:

    Whenever I see a poster use names in that manner, I always, always, always think “well, they just lost that argument.”

    I think that’s a poor rule. It’s like those people who insist that whoever expresses any anger or frustration — or sometimes just any emotion whatsoever — just “lost the argument.”

    I don’t use “cupcake” myself — I’m more likely to just call someone an asshole — but in either case, I don’t think people are pretending that it’s anything other than an insult. (I trust I don’t need to go over the difference between a fallacious ad hominen argument and an argument accompanied by an insult.)

    What I think Ophelia and Jessica Valenti are complaining about is what Seven of Mine says @7: it’s a way of being patronizing and insulting while maintaining plausible deniability. (“What? I call my friend Robert ‘Bobby,’ and he doesn’t mind, so I figured ‘Ophie’ is just fine!”)

  9. throwaway says

    Regarding the use of “honey”, etc. I will point out that occasionally when someone around these environs disagrees with me, they do much the same thing by saying, “I disagree with you, cupcake.”

    I’d like to see the “disagreement” alluded to, in the bold font, in context.

  10. says

    I’ve often found it amusing to observe just how FURIOUS some guys get when I start calling them terms like ‘Sweetie’ and ‘Cupcake’, when they’ve been doing it for some time.

    There have been cases in which the guy flat out denied doing so and continued to deny it even after being linked to his own posts.

  11. says

    It’s called a “diminutive” for a reason.

    I suppose it depends on one’s personal experiences. For me, the worst are names Valenti doesn’t even mention, slut and whore. I once had a boyfriend who would, when losing an academic argument, not a personal argument mind you, stand up and shake his finger at me and shout, “You’re a whore. You’re a whore. You’re a whore.” The most amazing thing is how long it took me to break up with him. I was sixteen when we met and it’s amazing what you can think is normal, or close to normal, behavior when you’re young enough. Now in my late forties, that would end a relationship in seconds the first time it happened. In any case, it’s still a sore spot for me.

    Other than that, nicknames or other names to make you feel small and inadequate like “cupcake” are the next worse.

    Bitch is pretty bad, but that often comes up in other contexts. In personal contexts it can be quite powerful. No one wants to be accused of acting like a bitch. However, I’m not sure it would be as powerful in an online argument.

    “Cunt” is the least bothersome to me. It’s by far the most vulgar, but people mostly spit it out when they’re really angry. It doesn’t seem to me to have the social power of the other words. In normal life I don’t want people to see me as a whore or a bitch, but what’s a cunt? To me, it’s not very different from being called an asshole. I should add that I grew up in an environment where people were pretty blase about cursing. Fuck, shit, damn, piss, whatever. Even my grandmother could curse a blue streak.

    My mother mentioned the other day about how feminism made it okay for women to curse. She said, “Wow, by nineteen-seventy we were all sitting around saying, ‘Fuck this shit.'”

    So, while I have to say that each person is probably irritated by different things, I have to agree with Valenti. Also, I never use the diminutive of my name and correct people in my personal life if they use it.

    I just noticed that I referred to Jessica Valenti as “Valenti.” The matter of online comments switches things up a bit. If addressing you directly, I’d probably say “Ophelia.” However, if I were writing a blog post I’d probably write “Ophelia Benson,” or “Benson.”

    Etiquette in this matter has been in flux for about thirty or forty years now.

    While the subjects up, what do you prefer anyway?

  12. says

    I’m not sure to what degree it is true that people are now less likely to bring up specious comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis in online debates now that we all have the meme of Godwin’s Law in our heads, but if so, maybe having a handy tag for this would help likewise: something like
    “As an online debate continues, the probability tends towards 1 that a participant will address their opponent using a patronising diminutive”; and the corollary “This is the point at which that person should be deemed to have conceded the argument”.

    Unfortunately, “Benson’s Law” seems to be already claimed, but I’m sure someone can come up with something pithy.

  13. Yellow Thursday says

    This reminds me of something that happened about 10 years ago in my workplace, primarily about how women internalize sexism. At the time, the only male employee was the president of the company. Most of my coworkers refer to the female employees, all adults, as “girls.” I have tried to speak out against this in small ways over the years, but the most memorable time was when I asked one of my coworkers if she would refer to the president as a “boy.” She claimed that she would, but she never did.

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