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"A photograph published yesterday with an article about the court-martial of a guard at Abu Ghraib prison showed a book cover that contained an obscenity. The obscenity went unnoticed during editing and should not have been published. Publication of the photo violates The Sun's guidelines. The Sun apologizes for the oversight." — Apology published in The Baltimore Sun, 3/15/06.

U.S. Army Specialist Jennifer Scala was in the courtroom that day to testify in the trial of fellow Abu Ghraib guard Sgt. Michael J. Smith, who was accused of torturing prisoners using dogs. Speaking to one of Smith's less violent but more perverse practices, Scala admitted his dogs had licked peanut butter off her bare breasts in front of a video camera, on a dare by another soldier. Ultimately, Sgt. Smith, the tenth soldier convicted of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, was sentenced to six months in jail.


   Into the courtroom Scala carried a copy of Inga Muscio's Cunt: A Declaration of Independence (2002). The book has an introduction by masturbation icon Betty Dodson and a blurb by rock star Joan Jett. It encourages women to think of themselves as "cunts," in what the author describes as the original, empowering sense of the word. She cites dubious etymology: "'Cunt' is related to words from India, China, Ireland, Rome and Egypt. Such words were either titles of respect for women, priestesses and witches or derivatives of the names of various goddesses." But Muscio is unconcerned with the facts according to "historians," a term she puts in quotes. Acknowledging that it may in fact be a word with modern, possibly negative, roots, she writes, "venerable history or not, it's ours to do with what we want."
   The Baltimore Sun image of Scala greatly confused commentators, for good reason. What are we to make of a soldier carrying a book with such an incendiary title? On The Huffington Post, sex writer Susie Bright wrote, "So is Jennifer Scala coming to her senses, and ready to stick it to the man? Or does she just like pissing people off whenever the occasion comes up?" Her headline: "I Can't Wrap My Vulva Around This."
   In the weeks that followed, the photo was reprinted in the local alternative weekly, but the question was never convincingly answered: Why did Scala have that book with her in the courtroom?
   Despite repeated attempts, we were unable to reach Spc. Scala for comment. But Cunt's author weighed in on the webzine Gelf, and reprinted the item on her website, ingalagringa.com. Of the Baltimore Sun image, she said, "When I first saw that photo, I laughed my ass off. The smile on her [Scala's] face is just SO perfect. She looks like a devious sprite, having a rollicking good time in what most would consider a nerve-wracking situation."
   That smile. Why does Scala seem so happy with Cunt? Does Cunt seem potentially happy with Scala? The answer to that last question is yes.

Spc. Jennifer Scala at the court martial of Sgt. Michael J. Smith.

   Cunt's greatest enemy is the "containment of woman's sexuality" by patrifocal societies. By contrast, the gold standard for good is a "cunt-lovin' babe." According to Cunt, the Judeo-Christian tradition is evil; goddess worship is good. Television is evil; only independent media can be trusted. Male doctors (especially male gynecologists) and western medicine (i.e., medicine based on science) are bad; charting your reproductive cycle using the cervical mucus method and a moon calendar is good. Muscio describes her three abortions, claiming the two suction aspirations were bad; the one coaxed with massage and herbs was good. (When the result of the third procedure, at eight or nine weeks, "plopped onto the bathroom floor," wrote Muscio, "It was clear but felt like one of them unshiny superballs. It was the neatest thing I ever did see.")
   Muscio suggests all women are soldiers by virtue of the fact that they are always potential victims of rape. "If indeed, my home sometimes seems to be a fortress that deters enemy soldiers — then aren't I kind of like a soldier, and isn't my life kind of like a war?" She encourages women to think of themselves as predators, to fill their pockets with rocks when they go out alone at night and to fiercely battle agents of oppression — that is, men who suppress women's ability to practice "cunt-love," a term that throughout the book is left conveniently vague: "Every girl and lady who is strong and fighting and powerful, who thrives in this world in a way that serves her, is a rockin', cuntlovin' babe doing her part to goad the post-patriarchal age into fruition."

   Vigilante justice is Muscio's ideal punishment for rapists. She suggests women gather into groups and burn huge severed-penis effigies on a rapist's front lawn, pack his car full of rotten fish heads and pelt him with bloody tampons. She offers no "innocent until proven guilty" caveat and admits no grey areas. Instead, there is this almost erotic description of torture:
   "Wouldn't you just hate like the devil to be pilloried, smeared with dogshit, forced to kneel in front of a high-powered microphone on a raised platform and apologize to the ten thousand women who solemnly marched by you?" Muscio writes. "Boy, that would be an unpleasant day that you might not forget right away, huh." She calls this practice "Cuntlovin' Public Retaliation," and it is one of the extra-important terms the book renders in bold.
   In the afterword to Cunt, Muscio recounts being asked what the book is fundamentally about. The word she uses is, ironically, the same as President Bush's: "Freedom."
   Some who have read Cunt characterize it as an example of Third Wave Feminism. Rebecca Walker coined the term "Third Wave" in Ms. magazine in 1992 to distinguish it from the suffragettes (First Wave) and the bra burners (Second Wave).
   The online magazine Bookslut panned Cunt eloquently ("Muscio is selling non-answers packaged as answers, New Age pop psychology packaged as sociology"), but concluded that the book epitomized Third Wave feminism, "a movement that preaches all men are potential rapists." Wikipedia describes Muscio as a Third Wave feminist.
   I would like to explain what I understand Third Wave feminism to be, and to show how Cunt is not that.



Commentarium (24 Comments)

May 18 06 - 7:02pm

I read your whole essay, but I'm mostly still reeling from the seminal photograph & retraction.

How can we be so worried about this four-letter word, ESPECIALLY in the context of the trial and the TRUE obscenity of remorseless torture? Did any of the source material refer to this twisted reversal?

I'm sickened.

May 18 06 - 11:26pm

Excellent essay. Thank you.

May 19 06 - 2:13pm

I was once a young clueless male who had my eyes opened in a Feminist Philosophy class. I signed up for the philosophy at first, not the feminism. I remember reading Mary Daly, Catherine Mackinnon, and Shulamith Firestone, and feeling like I was the enemy of the very ideals I embraced. In that class, I had to lead a class discussion on

May 19 06 - 4:54pm

Thank you, this was a great essay! Can you synthesize it into a few sentences so that when people don't understand why i'm a women's studies major I can tell them where their misperceptions are coming from?

May 21 06 - 3:28am

Much of what Ms. Calhoun had to say about the book "Cunt" and the attitudes expressed within I thought were dead-on, but I did think she missed or only glossed over one of the most important aspects of the book and of Third-Wave Feminism itself: process. See, all of us described by Calhoun in our twenties and thirties and forties who have read Cunt, among other incendiary materials, are ignited by them. Life is breathed into us by Kathleen Hanna, and a million other artists dead and living, sane and insane. We find a way to incorporate that life and spirit into our life and our worldviews, and then we move on. We put the book into our bookshelves and then we fondly remember it as an old friend who once served us well in a time of need, but who embarrases us at Thanksgiving. But the process is learning. Separating the wheat from the chaff is learning. Cunt had a lot of good ideas, that we all still carry around with us today, and we owe it a minor respect for that. It had a lot of bad ideas, just like the US government does at times, and I suppose if you can't lead by example, you may as well lead by contrast. Perhaps that's the Fourth Wave.

May 21 06 - 11:10pm

This is absolutely the best article I have ever read on Nerve.com, and I've been reading this site every day for three years.

May 23 06 - 2:12am

Thank you for defending us Third wavers - I am proud of my feminism, admit to having a love/hate relationship with "men" in general, yet still cringed all the way through Inga's book.

May 25 06 - 1:59pm

Ada, thank you so much for writing this piece. It nicely balances that horrible "Modern Love" piece in the New York Times which really made me cringe with that tired old "before I met COLIN and had the love of a good man it was just too hard, too much of an intellectual challenge to figure out that you can a feminist and love men at the same time" whiney routine.
From now on I will just send your piece instead of going into one of my long diatribes about the true and contemporary nature of third wave feminism. Have you by any chance read "Yes Means Yes" by Kath Albury? It would be right up your street, she is a wickedly funny Australian scholar and "sexpert" having a go at the likes of Inga while also sending up anyone from John Gray to Andrea Dworking and Naomi, defending internet DIY porn and the right of surburban housewifes to be saranwrapped to the apple tree in their own garden, if they so choose.

Jul 16 06 - 5:24pm

I know I'm a little late on reading this piece, but just wanted to give fives up to Ada Calhoun on her dead-on approximation of third-wave feminism and cogent explication of why _Cunt_ doesn't deserve to be included in its canon.

Mar 25 07 - 6:28pm

I thought this whole article missed the point.
First, as a veteran, I can say the author makes points about connecting how this soldier acted to her reading of Cunt. First off, no where in Cunt does Muscio EVER try to teach women to act the way the military does. Not understanding military mentality deeply flaws this article. I can tell you as a person who both has read Cunt and has been in the miltary in no way does the retalliation portion liken itself to military training or the mentality that teaches the military to treat its enimies not as people but as objects. While you may say that the retaliation prt does just that I will say that it is talking to women to act out of love for themselves. Would you say the criminal justice system acts out of hate? No, its acts out of justice (or so its supposed to) When we as women are continually denied justice Muscio suggests ways to regain both self-appreciation (and cast away shame) and seek justice. It seems very right wing to take that idea and make it into a complaint of "innocent until proven guilty" over being appalled that women are STILL denied justice in the criminal justice system. Nothing Muscio calls for is even near the level of loss rape casues for women, its more an exercise in shame for the offender. What happened at Abu Ghraib has nothing to do with ending patriarchy, its poor logic to try to connect Cunt with approval for what happened there.

This just seems like more pettiness that women too often partake in. If you don't like what Muscio wrote then write your own book. Its better than spending your time trashing a book that has helped many women feel more empowered as women. Constructive criticism is one thing, but as I said before, alligning this book with approval for torture is another.

This article seems rife with white priviledge, and I feel this also leads to missing the point on more than one level. Being able to call some a crack pot for pointing things out that people of color have been plauged by for generations is not only rude but it is also allows people to continue to walk down the path of blindly repeating the same mistakes this country has been making since its inception, starting with the genocide of the native peoples.

If you can't see how racism, sexism, homophobia and the like are all connected I am not sure that either of Muscio's book are for you.

We have enough barriers and hills to climb as women without tearing each other down.


Mar 25 07 - 6:34pm

And, Muscio says she is NOT a third wave feminist, so this whole article and most of the comments are pointing out something she has already made a point to say. Maybe it is the type of attitude shown here that made her make that statement.

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