Boys Can Curse But Girls Can’t?

Noah Brand has a few choice words for the sexist stereotypes surrounding a few choice words.

A private Catholic school in New Jersey has drawn controversy for a “civility campaign” wherein girls—and only girls—are asked to take a no-cursing pledge. School administration is quite open about the one-sided nature of this policy, stating “We want ladies to act like ladies.”

I don’t want to pick on one small school as the epitome of human evil or anything, but I have a particular interest in swearing, and I can confidently say that this incident is symptomatic of a larger problem. It’s based on cheesy old sexist stereotypes, and as usual with those, it’s got two sides and they both suck.

First and most obviously, this is some serious bullshit about girls. It’s yet another way women’s voices are silenced, before they even become women. They get taught, quite literally, that because they are female, there are things they can’t say, ideas they can’t express, language they are not allowed access to. They get a nice little box labeled “Ladies” that they have to cram themselves into, regardless of whether it’s a good fit. And sure, it is a good fit for some folks. Size 8 shoes are a good fit for some folks, but if you make them mandatory for a whole gender, you’re going to have problems.

And speaking of dumb, limiting, ugly, harmful gender stereotypes, let’s look at what this says about boys and men. Because that’s the other side of this coin: boys are exempt from “civility”. Boys are expected to swear, because they’re intrinsically unrefined and dirty and gross, a stereotype promulgated by every form of media, all day. This ties in with the domestication narrative, the idea that men are naturally uncivilized and it’s women’s job to civilize them and, of course, clean up after them. It’s also a classic example of a self-fulfilling prophecy, of course. Tell a kid every day that they’re supposed to be gross, stupid, and uncouth, and sooner or later they’re just going to take your word for it.

So yes, this bullshit swearing policy is just one school, but it’s a clear example of a problem that runs deeper and wider than that, one of those paired stereotypes that warps people’s minds in subtle ways, that goes unexamined because people vaguely accept it as “just the way things are.”

As my dear departed mother would have said, fuck that noise.



About Noah Brand

Noah Brand is a writer and editor, and quite possibly also a cartoon character from the 1930s. His life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. He is usually found in Portland, Oregon, directly underneath a very nice hat.


  1. John Anderson says:

    I often ask this question when talking with fellow men about sexist laws that only or mainly benefit women. Does it hurt men? What I mean is if something benefits women, isn’t it a good thing even if it doesn’t benefit men as long as it doesn’t harm men? It would be better if it benefits both, but that doesn’t make it bad. It just means it could be better. Is a no swearing pledge a good thing? If it is then this is a good thing, but it could be better. I think we need to start approaching things in that light.

  2. Alanna G. says:

    The timing of this article is great. I am a female graduate student at one of the largest catholic universities in the country. Today I dropped the f-bomb in front of a female first year student in a casual environment, figuring that at this point in the school year the freshmen should be shockproof. But the look on her face said otherwise. It’s a shame that in this day and age that women are still being told what and what not to say.

  3. Boys are expected to swear, because they’re intrinsically unrefined and dirty and gross, a stereotype promulgated by every form of media, all day.

    Oh not just expected but rather demanded. Swearing, when used improperly, is often used to take the place of what one really wants to say. It becomes a form of communication that covers up what they are really feeling.

    This rule is basically teaching girls how to communicate properly and throwing up yet another roadblock in front of boys that keeps them from communicating properly. And then when they fail to communicate properly it’s somehow their own fault.

    I personally have begun to use cursing as a flame to burn off the extra rage I feel in a situation and then follow with a standard more calm explanation afterward (or in some cases I’ll start calm and once I explain I burn off the excess).

    (But of course I have to admit that when comparing this to my own school days where it was quite literally the case where boys got in more trouble for hitting girls than the vice versa, assuiuming she got in trouble in the first place, I have a hard time feeling anything along the lines of sympathy over this.)

  4. Alyssa Royse says:

    What the fuck?

    Back in the old days, when I was a creative writing teacher in the juvenile prison system in Saint Louis, my kids used to ask me about swearing all the time. I told them they could swear all they wanted, but they needed to know two things: It will not impress or shock me, and they couldn’t swear instead of communicating. So, if they were going to swear, I would assume there was something really important behind that language, and they had to be prepared to express it.

    “What do you mean?”

    “You can call me a goddamned mother fucking bitch if you want. But if you do, I’m going to stand right here while you explain what I did to make you feel that way, how you feel and what you want us to do to change the situation.”

    They swore a lot less, because they realized it was often a waste of time. But when they did, they did it really will, and with great impact.

  5. Nick, mostly says:

    I used to work in a private Catholic high school, and one of my favorite students used to curse like a sailor (at least that’s how she described herself). But being a dorm parent in a girls dorm wiped away any illusions I had about them being the “fairer sex.”


  1. […] the same website, a Catholic school required the girls to take a no-swearing pledge while the boys looked on silently, highlighting a double-standard when it comes to gender and swearing: girls are judged more harshly […]

  2. […] Noah Brand has a few choice words for the sexist stereotypes surrounding a few choice words.  […]

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