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Gossip as an act of resistance

When we talk about women and gossip, we must speak, first, about the bathroom stall.

Brown University, 1990. A list springs up on campus. “Beware of [blank], he doesn’t take no for answer,” the first entry says. It grows from there — reams of names, a record of rape that cannot be said. The janitors wipe and wipe it away — scrub it — paint over it — the admin, in their official stance, paints over it, too — but eventually those women’s lists sand down that door.

There are still such lists today.

This gossip is an act of resistance. It’s often derided or dismissed — called witchhunting, rumormongering, attention-seeking. Yet often, gossip is one of the only tools women and other marginalized people have to share information that formal systems —politics, education, and the media — often won’t consider or share.

We’ve seen the way that women talk about the particularities of our experiences and lives — gossip. Especially in the age of social media, such behavior is both censored and marginalized — and is a powerful force for change. Recently, for example, the issue of sexual assault in the comedy world has taken center stage largely due to women communicating with one another and their communities. In this case as in many other cases, we’ve seen both the power and censorship of female speech.

Yet gossip isn’t always something we use to keep ourselves safe — it can also be a tool of moral policing used to keep marginalized people in our places. How many times have you been afraid of doing something because of the possibility of talk? The language haunts us: Slut. Whore. How many people has she slept with? 

So let’s tease apart how gossip can both be a radical tool of community-building and self-protection, and how it can also reinforce harmful stereotypes. How do we find ways to express ourselves that don’t, ultimately, reinforce harmful social norms?

At a fundamental level, female speech is often stigmatized. Why do many words used to degrade the feminine relate, in some way, to talking too much? Catty, chatty, gossip, loudmouth, rumormonger. There is, always, the connotation of pettiness in this nomenclature, the notion that women’s speech is an inferior form of speech (remember the outrage about vocal fry?), that women are inferior speakers because we dwell on the personal and the intimate rather than the masculine realm of the impersonal and “objective.”

The double standards are everywhere: Of course, when we speak of politics and business, we are still dismissed. And when men and people with privilege gossip — as they do; as does everyone — this speech isn’t seen with the same derision. Take the double standard inherent in the figure of the male internet troll: A dude that dismisses women’s ideas by focusing on our appearances and personal lives, yet dubs women’s speech as inconsequential or frivolous when we talk about real issues that affect us. 

To understand gossip, then, we need to reject easy, sexist stereotypes — women are petty; women are shallow — and listen, instead, to the subtext. When women talk about what we are wearing, we are also navigating the tenuous, ever-receding line between prude and slut. When we talk about our dating lives, we are collaboratively navigating minefields of risk and violence. When we talk about sex, we are talking about how to ask for pleasure, how to understand and avoid rape. When queers gossip about others’ sexualities and political attitudes, we are navigating around whom we can be out without danger.

Example: At the end of my senior year in college, I slept with a man who is known to be a serial rapist.

My friend told me the morning after. She was giddy on early-summer wine. I shuddered to her how strange it was, his robotic thrusting, his big, unfeeling hands.

She hiccuped on the grass. “Oh honey,” she said. Hiccup. Honey-colored hair. “Everyone knows. I would have told you if you had just asked. And it’s like he even talks about it. This one time a couple years ago he’s like, “If I’m having sex with a girl, I’m going to finish.””

How did gossip function in this experience? On one hand, by speaking about their own experiences of violence with this man, women in the community warned other women — a way to both tell one’s story and keep one’s friends safe. At the same time, I sensed judgement in my friend’s tone: That because I wasn’t friends with her friends, didn’t know what they knew, I was somehow guilty for having slept with him.

This is the central tension of gossip: When does keeping each other safe become reinforcing harmful cultural messages?

Patriarchy, after all, presents us with a logic— if a maddening, contradictory, unwinnable one. Stay within these limits, patriarchal societies tell us, and you will remain safe. So we censor each other, we tear each other down, we scrutinize each other, in a desperate hope that if we follow the rules — if we don’t go out at night; if we don’t go home with him; if we only have sex when we’re dating — we can win a system whose very rules are slated against us.

Sometimes, we reinforce the very stereotypes that oppress us in an attempt to keep ourselves safe from them. We tell our daughter she is a slut before men tell her the same, because that seems like the only way to save her dignity and even her life. We talk about other women and marginalized people who have crossed social boundaries in an attempt to keep ourselves away from the line of fire.

I’m better, smarter, make better choices than that bitch, we say. I won’t be hurt like she was.

Tenth grade: A girl in my class is away from school, she says it’s appendicits. She’ll come back tomorrow and show us the scar, but maybe it’s an old scar; my math class doesn’t buy it. Abortion, someone hisses, and then the whole class is tittering, abortion. Most of us are girls, as vulnerable as she is, who knows whether we’ve been pregnant, what violence we’re facing? But the class is off, dragging her through the mud, their ropes around her: Second one this year

killing another baby

slut.

I screech are you serious? She’s a slut for doing what she needs to do and what’s her boyfriend, a sweetheart?

But I get it too, for speaking up, from the boys in eighth period biology class. Threatened that I am smarter than them, that I am speaking out of my place: Lesbian.

Why would even a girl want to have sex with her?

She should lose twenty pounds and wax her mustache.

This time, it is men talking about me, men wielding the knives of stereotypes and cruel words against my body, my safety, my dignity and my mind — men wielding gossip to keep my own speech in check. 

Gossip, like any fiber, serves a dual purpose: It keeps us together, and it keeps us too close. It equips queers and women with knowledge we need, and it keeps us under society’s watchful, censoring eye. Gossip both binds and hogties — is both lifeline and net.

Understanding, then, that gossip can be wielded as both a weapon against oppression and a tool of it, how can we gossip ethically? I don’t think the answer is in the moralizing stance many people often take —that gossip, in any form, is inherently a vice. The challenge is, rather, to understand gossip as a form of relaying information that can be used for both progressive and harmful purpose. 

At best, at most revolutionary, we can understand gossip as weaponized intimacy — as the power of marginalized communities to build guerilla information networks to keep ourselves and each other safe. In order to do this, we need to help each other discard forms of talking and thinking that blame each other and ourselves for our oppression, so that we may together have more space to thrive and grow.

We also need to work towards a world where formal information networks — media, education — are not hostile to, but are run by and empower the marginalized, and where the information and resources we need can be prioritized out in the open rather than restricted to private half-whispers.

Yet there is something valuable in the act gossip itself, and the community-building it can entail. Leaning toward each other in bed or over a breakfast table, the truth, the pain, the secret hot on our tongues. I think of how growing up, gossip — as much as it was a weapon used against us — was also a form of love girls showed each other. Where to get condoms, who will force you, who is safe to talk to about your queerness. How would we learn about sex at all, many of us, if not from gossip — behind the bleachers, in gym class, on the bus? How else would we have known that we weren’t the only one bleeding from our vaginas, that we were not imagining things, that we could love each other, that we were enough?

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing a masters degree in Indian cinema, theater, and visual art at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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