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What sort of place is a ‘shithole’? It depends on your gender

In a meeting with lawmakers in January, Donald Trump reportedly complained that the US received too many immigrants from “shithole countries” such as “Africa”. His remarks were condemned as racist and offensive by the United Nations, the African Union, the Vatican and world leaders past and present.

For the past two years, we have been studying what the term “shithole” means in a British context, where it’s a common way to denigrate places. Books such as Crap Towns have made saying mean things about places seem like sport. Online forums provide a space for users engage in what we term “the discourse of denigration” – academic speak for slagging somewhere off.

Our research was sparked by the simple fact that one sees and hears the term “shithole” on a regular basis in the UK: on the train, in the pub, in the streets or online. But now, in light of Trump’s remarks, the word has taken on a whole new significance – and so have our findings.

What makes a ‘shithole’?

We set out to discover what people actually mean when they call a place a “shithole”. In particular, we wanted to know what kind of places they are talking about and who goes around saying this kind of thing. To this end, we collected 2,076 tweets over a 155-day period, which used the term “shithole” or #shithole (yes, there is a hashtag), along with a geotagged location, so that we could mark the places being labelled as “shitholes”, as well as the places where people were tweeting from.

According to our research, which has been accepted for publication at the Transactions of the Institute of British Geography, there does not appear to be a distinct geography to “shithole” talk. The meanings behind the term are exceptionally varied – a “shithole” could be boring, dirty, populated by people of different races or faiths, poor, or simply the home of a football team you don’t like.

But our study did reveal one remarkable finding: there is a clear gendered difference in how people use the term “shithole” when it comes to places. Men were far more likely to direct their derision at other places, which they were not from – and which they may or may not have visited. A full 83.3% of tweets about other such places came from men. Women, on the other hand, were more likely to direct the term at somewhere they were familiar with: their home town, their house, the bedroom, their street.

This finding makes sense, given what we know about the way men and women use language. When writing online, men tend to use authoritative, assertive and challenging language, whereas women are more reflective, defensive and supportive. And while women tend to write about their own lives, men typically talk about other things.

Our research fits with these trends: in our study, where women directed their attention at areas with which they were familiar and had intimate knowledge, men often directly dismissed entire towns and cities as “shitholes”, while rarely commenting on their own surroundings.

Toxic masculinity

Trump uses assertive, challenging language to pit poor, coloured nations against wealthy, white nations (which he clearly sees as superior). Although Trump denies it, there can be little doubt about the racist intent of his message.

Yet Trump’s comments can also be viewed as part of the growing problem of “toxic masculinity” - defined by psychologists as “the need to aggressively compete with and dominate others”. Our research indicates that his use of the word “shithole” is typical of the way that some men tend to denigrate other places on Twitter. And using this kind of language to assert dominance over other places can have serious consequences.

There is a growing body of scholarship, which demonstrates the negative impacts of stigmatising places – especially when it’s done by people in power. Residents of those places face greater prejudice and fewer opportunities in life. And it can prompt interventions which aren’t always good for the people who live there. For example, denigrating housing estates can be a way of justifying regeneration schemes which can lead to residents being displaced, or worse.

It is comforting to imagine a world where the term “shithole” wasn’t so common as to warrant a hashtag. But in the meantime, we can think twice before referring to a place as a “shithole”, by recognising the impact of this simple word, and the role it plays in larger debates. Since Trump made his comments, there has been an encouraging display of “shithole solidarity”: artists, activists and irate citizens in the United States seem to be looking in the mirror and asking where the real shithole is.

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