I hate the c-word. I can't even bring myself to type it. I recoil because it's a word that sums up a deep hatred of women.
My friend Simon doesn't agree. He says I've got it wrong. It's just a word, he says. It's got nothing to do with misogyny.
Of course it's entirely possible that I'm living in a little fantasy world of kittens and bunny rabbits here in South London, but I have never heard a woman use it. On the street, in the pub, shouted out of open car windows on a sunny day, it's always the men who use it. It's aggressive. It's violent. It's deliberately offensive. It signifies disgust. It's the ultimate insult.
And, surprise, surprise, it describes female genitalia.
To my mind, if the most abusive word you can think of describes a woman's vagina, it's not surprising that there's still so much casual sexism around. Yes, of course there are insults based on male bits. You can call a man a prick. But it just doesn't have the same weight. Most nicknames for male sexual equipment are friendly and affectionate - cock, dick, willy, balls, crown jewels, meat and two veg.
Women have nothing. She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Maybe that's why the c-word has such impact. Like Voldemort, it's used only in extreme situations confronting nameless evil. Use the c-word, and you're saying the person you're insulting is stupid, worthless, beneath contempt, nothing but a cockroach that should be squashed to oblivion.
Or, in other words, a woman.
The c-word has been in the news a lot recently. (And I'm sorry I can't bear to write it out in full. I feel like a Victorian heroine with an attack of the vapours. I hate being coy. I have become a series of asterisks, nudge-nudge, wink-wink, know-what-I-mean, a smutty joke in a birthday card.) Several newspapers, including the Daily Mail, have been up in arms because the BBC rejected a complaint about Sandi Toksvig's joke on Radio 4's News Quiz in October last year. If you haven't heard it, the News Quiz is a current events comedy show that pokes fun at politicians and celebrities. What she said was: "It's the Tories who have put the 'n' into cuts." Then there was TV presenter Ben Douglas in the Mail on Sunday last week, writing about celebrity hairdresser James Brown's drunken outburst after the BAFTAs. James Brown (who has since apologised) used the n-word eight times.
In describing his humiliation, Ben Douglas said, "But here's the rub: this fool thought he was bonding with me as a black man. By using the N-word (and for the record I would rather he had used the C-word – it's that bad), he thought he was being fashionable. I believe they call it 'street'."
So Ben Douglas would rather have been called the c-word than the n-word. I re-read this several times with growing bewilderment. And I thought, but that's because you're a man. Don't you see? It doesn't affect you in the same way. Both words try to assert superiority over someone else based on the insane assumption that certain physical characteristics make you less of a human being. One targets race. One targets sex. But both are terrible. Both hurt.
Maybe I should lighten up. My friend Simon thinks so. Maybe I should try to reclaim the word. That's the thinking behind the SlutWalking movement taking off all over the country – women do not provoke attack because of what they choose to wear, whatever Toronto policemen might say, and I'll dress like a slut if I want to.
But I don't want to be called a slut or a slag or a c***. I don't really see the point of taking male insults, lining them with red velvet, sprinkling them with Swarovski crystals and tying them up with a gauzy pink ribbon. I don't want to be told how to dress. But I don't want to be told how to talk either. For the record, I didn't find Sandi Toksvig's joke particularly offensive. It was an oblique reference. (FCUK all over the high street is a lot more blatant.) In any case, Sandi is a woman. If she wants to poke fun at the word, that's up to her. Those who are the targets of racist or sexist abuse can rip up the words any way they like.
But I'm not sure I liked the BBC's defence. BBC executive Paul Mayhew Archer said that as a society our tolerance of 'strong' language keeps shifting. 'Ten years ago,' he said, 'the single use of the word in a film would automatically earn it an 18 certificate. This is no longer the case.'
Be careful when you make assumptions. Women used to smile through bottom-pinching. Just because something's commonplace, it doesn't mean we like it.