'Smith will need balls to tackle the top brass,' proclaimed Laurie Oakes, political editor for The Punch last weekend. The statement, headlining an article on the possibility of a Royal Commission into decades of sexual abuse within the defence force, is laden with unconscious irony. Testicles are presented in their guise as a prerequisite for courage, for leadership, for pluck. And, in this case, for pushing through an investigation into abusive behaviour almost entirely perpetrated by males. In other words you need balls for that too.
First, a disclaimer - I don't have them. Never had, never will, and - apart from a brief period at age seven - never wished to. Even then it wasn't so much that I wanted extra dangly bits but that I figured growing them was the only way I would be guaranteed my own bedroom in an all-girl family. I would have also been guaranteed a place in history as a medical marvel, but at the time I didn't quite think the concept through.
However this lack has never impacted on my ability to forge ahead. Doesn't seem to have retarded the pluckiness of other females either, or even the males with limited possession. Such as Napoloeon Bonaparte, who only had one, same as Hitler, Arnold Schwarzegger and even the intrepid Harvie Krumpet. Tour De France specialist Lance Armstrong has done okay too. So what does the requirement to 'have balls' really mean? And why is our highest compliment for courage, and most dastardly smear (test) of cowardice, firmly attached to the male groin? Could it be because our sliding scale of courage automatically favours men, and penalises women? Could it be - gasp, horror - rigged?
Because if having balls is a measure of internal fortitude, then it follows that not having them is a weakness, a deficit. Which is why being called 'a girl' is so often an insult. See the McDonald's ad with a group of glowing teenagers trying to eat a chilli-style burger, while ridiculing those reluctant with the words: "what are you? A girl?" Or read about the courageous young policewoman stabbed on the dance-floor, with witnesses declaring that the male assailant 'ran away like a girl.' Or hear the scores of children being encouraged each week, on footy fields and basketball courts and cricket grounds, not to catch or throw 'like a girl.' Or what about the female US politician who, last week, was banned from addressing the House of Representatives for a day after using the word 'vagina'. "So offensive," commented a male politician, "that I don't even want to say it in front of women." Incidentally, the debate was about abortion.
It seems that the 'girl' is a derision, an insult, or, at the very least, an entity to work away from, towards those 'manly' qualities that are awarded with testicular possession. Which females can only aspire to because, in reality, we just don't have the little buggers and never will. Yet I know girls whose catching skills are the envy of many, and I know women whose bravery would bring a tear to your eye (at the risk of being called girly), and I know, too, that if someone told them they had 'balls', they'd most likely swell with pride. I also know that criticism of embedded language is not particularly popular, even seen as somewhat petty. It is, after all, just 'the way things are.'
But language is important. It reflects and defines culture, creating a worldview that frames individual interactions. The old idiom 'sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me' is fundamentally flawed. Words can hurt, both in an immediate sense and with broader, cultural implications. Raising children within a paradigm that holds the female as inferior, even something to be despised (Man up! What are you? Apussy?), is going to inevitably have consequences. And one of those consequences is violence against women.
Terminology that privileges a particular gender is discriminatory. And discrimination fertilises the ground from which abuse flourishes. We know that abuse tends to gravitate towards relationships with the greatest power imbalance, and that a sense of male entitlement is common across incidents of violence against women. The recent research report More than Ready: Bystander action to prevent Violence against women in the Victorian community (VicHealth, 2012), makes clear that the prevention of violence against women is ultimately served by promoting gender equity and respect; and one way to do so is to target sexism and gender discrimination. Worrisomely, however, the research found that whilst physical and verbal forms of violence against women were seen as unacceptable by the majority of Victorians, a significant proportion saw sexist jokes, comments and attitudes as being more acceptable, particularly when occurring in a social setting. Yet where discrimination and sexist attitudes go unchallenged they are effectively condoned.
Which makes it all the more concerning that Laurie Oakes should have chosen the balls concept with which to highlight personal fortitude. Or that the Scrubs sitcom should have one main male character call the other a series of girls' names to belittle him, or that ACDC should have ever released a song with the lyrics 'But most important of all, let me tell you, my lady's got balls. She's got soul. Likes to crawl all around on the floor on her hands and knees. Oh, because she likes to please me.' The underlying belief system, the paradigm of male superiority and female inferiority, that supports the balls equals courage hypothesis also supports a breeding ground for the very abuse that Laurie Oakes was discussing. They are directly related. It's that simple.