Is It Time For Women To Reclaim The Word 'Slut'?

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Much of the power of slut-shaming lies in the word itself — and yes, names can hurt us.

What's more, slut-shaming can do real harm beyond just humiliation. Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped and raped at age 14, recently told an audience at Johns Hopkins University that the anti-slut messaging she received as a girl discouraged her from trying to escape her captor. She was taught in school that girls who have sex with multiple partners become like used chewing gum. Once she was raped, she says, "I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, I'm that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.' And that's how easy it is to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value," Smart said. "Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value."

We see tragically similar attitudes in the recent suicides of girls who have been raped or sexually shamed. And we see them in social research, like the 2010 UK study in which more than half of people surveyed believed that women who had been raped bore some responsibility for their attack if they had dressed provocatively or gone back to the attacker's house for a drink.

Beyond enabling sexual violence, slut-shaming limits a woman's sexual possibilities. Experimenting with our sexuality can be liberating, even healing. 

The word 'slut' is a tool used by certain people to further their own agendas for our bodies. And the best way to resist someone else's agenda is to be clear about your own. That's why I recommend that each of us develop a sexual mission statement: a manifesto about our own sexual rights and responisbilities, and those of our partners. When you're clear about your agenda for sex, it's a lot harder for someone else to set it for you. And when you're not susceptible to others' sexual agendas, the word 'slut' loses its power.

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Which is great news not just for you, but for other women as well. That UK study that showed half of people blame the victim of rape if they thought she'd been acting slutty? When you break it down by gender, you find that more women than men are jumping on the slut-shaming bandwagon. And that's just what the word is meant to do: pit us against each other so we're more easily controlled. If we all live in fear of being labeled a slut, we'll go to great pains to differentiate ourselves from sluts. You know, those other women over there who really deserve it. And that’s just where the ever-shifting definition of 'slut' comes into play. A bomb of a word with no real definition means that sooner or later, whatever you do, if you throw it, the s-word is going to boomerang back at you.

So redefine the word 'slut' for yourself or refuse to use it altogether. What matters is that we reject the idea behind it: that women who enjoy sex on our own terms are bad and deserve to be shamed or hurt. Our lives are way too often full of struggle and pain. If you can do something with someone else that brings both of you pleasure and joy? You're increasing the pleasure and joy in the world. No one should ever make you feel bad about that. 

Jaclyn Friedman is a writer, educator and activist. For a detailed excercise to help you develop a sexual mission statement, check out her book What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl's Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety.

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