what is vulgar in academia?

Last night, a friend told me about a kid who had his dissertation censored by their school. I was wracking my brain trying to figure out what on earth one could write that would get censored and failed. So i responded with puzzlement and i was told that he had written an entire chapter on how his department’s drama had detrimental effects on his research (this was part of the methods section). Needless to say, this did not go over well.

Today, i was told that i could not submit an abstract with “MySpace whores” in it and was encouraged to change it to “MySpace prostitutes.” Of course, i was like no no no… that’s not the term people use. I think that it is wholely inappropriate to alter cultural terms when trying to talk about the culture. I unhappily agreed to remove the entire segment from my abstract but made it very clear that i had every intention of talking about “MySpace whores” given that the talk is on friending practices in MySpace and the term comes up in almost every conversation i have with people. The response? “i don’t care how vulgar you get in your talk. that will be only a reflection of you and not of me.”

Wow… that was harsh. Am i vulgar to be using the terms that people use? Sure, one could make an argument that their terms are vulgar to elitist ears, but i’m studying a culture filled with all sorts of shall we say… interesting… terminology. If i were speaking to an audience of anthropologists or gender studies folks, no one would bat an eye. Why am i suddenly lacking decorum when i move to disciplines filled with mostly straight white men? Because hegemonic decorum doesn’t recognize the language of less privileged populations? Hrmfpt.

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26 thoughts on “what is vulgar in academia?

  1. Zac

    Most unfortunate. It’s surpemely disappointing when cliques within academia reveal such bull-headed unflexibility and neurotically nervous conservatism…

  2. Cathexys

    I wonder whether the difference is between your and the study subject’s terminology, i.e., would you have gotten away with it if you’d said “whore”? [And isn’t it interesting how sexual terms are used as metaphors like that? Fans talk about pimping their shows all the time or use the term canon whore etc.]

    I’m not surprised that a self-reflexive chapter criticizing the institution/department/faculty would be looked upon critically, but your experience makes very little sense! [And abstract for what and how would it look bad? Was that for your diss proposal and your advisor didn’t let you?]

  3. Mark Federman

    I’m wondering if it has less to do with the culture of marginalized groups per se, and more to do with the neo-puritanism that seems to be pervading your country of late. The “reflection of you and not me” comment seems to point in that direction from where I sit, and ironically, seems apt.

    It is a reflection of him (neo-steel rod up his neo-puritan ass) and not you. 🙂

  4. Melanie

    Danah – you should contact Shannon Bell at York U (in Toronto). She wrote a book called “whore carnival” it’s considered an academic work. She has written extensively about whore culture. Not sure she’s still teaching but last I knew she was lecturing on philosophy and leading female ejaculation workshops here in Toronto …

    Otherwise there’s always Annie Sprinkle, Betty Dodson, Judith Halberstam, Tristan Taormino, Carol Queen and so many others who would tell them where whore culture is at.

  5. Melanie

    Danah – you should contact Shannon Bell at York U (in Toronto). She wrote a book called “whore carnival” it’s considered an academic work. She has written extensively on, what she terms, “whore culture”. I suspect she’s not the only one using the word in academic contexts. There’s also Carol Queen – who lives in SF. She’d be a great person to talk to in terms of finding other academics who are actively involved in whore culture research.

    I’m wondering what the economy of use is when it comes to appropriation of difficult/derisive names? Do you need to have worn the word (i.e., been called that name, derisively)in order to use it? Or is this one of those words that may only be used by the group/identity in question? But maybe the appropriation helps to fully rob the word of it’s former context.

    Now you’ve got me thinking of the word. It’s a good one to meditate on.

  6. B

    Quotes anyone?

    I can’t really get your point; are you advised against an abstract such like:

    This study looks at social software, similar
    to the MySpace on-line service, and focuses
    on the role of “MySpace whores”, the most […]

    or are you using it without quotes?

    I would understand an academic saying the expression sould be in a corpus (a list of examples such as “What a MSW you are!” or “can u imgn MS is censoring myspace Wh*re bu tnot myspacewhore!!??!”) but always used between quotes, compared to similar expression on other social software (I can tell you there are no similar institutional expression on Friendset, a French not-so-equivalent of Friendster, but I can provide you with a corpus of expression showing people spending too much time on-line or posing in bikinis —whatever MS Whores are— are adressed to with comico-negative expressions). I would understand someone prefers you replace it with an overall more academic expression (“virtual lifers”?) that encompass a more general reality, or explicits the irony—but I completely agree that “MySpace Prostitutes” wake no sense: they are not prostitutes, they are people with a peculiar sociology.

    If your DoS or a referee disagrees with the usage of the term, then either he misses the point of having a corpus, or you haven’t made yourself clear enough.

  7. roseg

    Just a question – no flaming please…

    What if you were doing a paper on the Klu Klux Klan and wanting to use the “N” word in your title because it’s part of their lexicon? Would you?

    While I think that the title of your talk is acceptable, I do wonder where people think the boundaries are/should be.

  8. zephoria

    In using the term “MySpace whores,” i explicitly framed it as self-labeling. I’d put that in a title too. And actually, a talk that i’m giving next week has an extensive discussion on the use of nigga in MySpace by different racial populations.

  9. Gardner

    I’m entirely sympathetic to your complaint, but I wish there were a way to make it without demonizing the easy target of straight white men. Why perpetuate the cycle of denigration?

  10. Melissa Gira

    In asking you to change your terminology, there was no consideration for actual prostitutes who have nothing to do with MySpace whoring, of course. So twisted. If the suggestion has been “MySpace Sex Workers” I would not even be surprised.

    Then again, maybe it has nothing to do with liberal inclinations to “be nice to prositutes” and everything to do with keeping “impolite” words like whore out of earshot, still. Even more complicated as the MySpace Whores don’t use the term akin to queer women reclaiming dyke, slut, bitch, etc.

  11. joe

    This is total bullshit; I would have refused to submit it if they choose to censor (and you’re prolific enough as to be able to afford to miss a pub. opportunity if they insist)… it’s not as if you *have* a choice on whether or not to use the term if it’s a term of art.

  12. KT


    So I was taught about the whole “madonna-whore complex” in junior high school English. And that was in a suburb of Denver.

    Just saying,

  13. Frances

    It might be because I’m not a native speaker, but what’s the alleged difference between “whore” and “prostitute”? “I whore myself out” or “I prostitute myself”? I hear two different words that are complete synonims. Aren’t they equally vulgar? That’s the vibe I’m getting here. Just change one word that’s considered vulgar into another word that doesn’t change the whole thing much and we’ll call it even. But why change the word in the first place then?
    It’s like studying the slang of a couple of families in a small town and not being able to write that Paps swears every other sentence in his own peculiar way, because well, writing those words down might be offensive…

  14. Prentiss Riddle

    Somehow I find the suggestion that it be changed to “MySpace prostitutes” not just tone-deaf but creepy. I mean, “MySpace whore” doesn’t really make me think of sex workers any more than “this pisses me off” makes me think of golden showers. If an editor changed every instance of the verb “piss off” to the supposedly less vulgar “urinate”, the result would be far ickier than the original.

    Does anybody know a linguistic term for the process in which some words or phrases lose their original sexual or scatological meanings? I’m thinking not only of “to piss off” but also of “to suck”, which I’m convinced must have originated as a homophobic slur. We may be in the middle of such a shift regarding the word “whore”.

  15. roseg

    OK. Thanks. The term has integrity in the way you’re using it and your audience will get that.

    Interesting that the fellow who says you can’t use the title thinks that your work reflects on him. Sounds like a personal boundary problem more than a gender/class thing…

  16. Karla

    Fascinating discussion here. I quite agree with you. I’m trying to imagine this happening in my discipline, and can only imagine the “use prostitute instead” response from elderly, unusually prim professors who specialize in some distant time period. But even there it’s hard to imagine.

  17. Dustin

    What an amazing disconnect with almost the entirety of modern culture — and this was a social scientist that said this to you? Art whore, media whore, and yes MySpace whore put the word in a pretty well-established usage — one that, of course, has nothing to do with sex work! (Well, metaphorically it does, perhaps.)

    But more disturbing is the assumption that your choices in your academic presentation on the topic of your research could somehow be a reflection of the speaker. I know we have pretty close mentoring and advising relations with a lot of professors and even administrators (if we’re lucky) but ultimately we “own” our work, at some point they have to let us stand or fall on our own merits. Or will your advisor closely monitor you the rest of your life to make sure you don’t do or say anything in your career that might reflect badly on them?

  18. what

    Roseg, yes I would use the word “nigger” in an academic paper about the Ku Klux Klan. In the context, the use of the word is wholely appropriate. While it may not be a word that is appropriate in everyday usage, there should be no problem with using it in a paper about a racist organization that uses the word as part of their rhetoric.

    The fact is that words are not inherently good or bad, their meaning is based on the intent of the person speaking them. A word is merely a verbal expression of an idea, and repugnant and vulgar ideas spawn repugnant and vulgar words. To make the argument that any one word is inappropriate for use in an academic paper, even if relevant to the context, is one of both arrogance and ignorance. Censorship is never justified under any circumstance.

  19. Tash

    I’m about to start a dissertation around the topic of Myspace and the consumption and production of genered virtual identites and would be really interested to know more about your ‘Myspace Whores’ piece if that was possible. Thanks.

  20. Matt Volatile

    I’m an academic, and have submitted abstracts and papers with most of George Carlin’s favourite swear words. There’s no place for shyness or censorship in academia – in fact, most decent academics positively embrace caustic language.

    Granted, it’s not appropriate to swear for no reason, and you’d have trouble justifying using certain curses in an undergraduate essay, but plenty of PhDs and books in, for example, queer theory, have used the F and C words in their titles, let alone their abstracts.

    Your tutor is an idiot and doubtless would have trouble getting anything published in any decent journal with views like that.

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