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

slut
Sex

Are you a slut?

It's a loaded question. What makes a woman a slut? Is the word simply defined as a woman who has casual sex? Does a woman have to have sex with a certain number of partners to be a slut? Does a slut have to be a woman at all? 

Controversies about 'sluttiness' have been raging for years, and there's no sign they're slowing down anytime soon. A recent study found that women tend to reject the friendship of other women who are perceived as promiscuous. On the television show Nashville, Connie Britton’s character, Rayna James, recently worried that she was a slut just for "going to second base" with a guy. Amanda Knox, the American accused of a bizarre murder in Italy, was presumed guilty largely on the premise that she's a slut, so of course she did it.

Much of the power of slut-shaming, it seems, lies in the word itself. 'Slut' can pack a pretty powerful and damning punch. Is it time we reclaim the word and hope that we can stop it from being used as a weapon against female sexuality? It's a tough and complicated call.

The definition of 'slut' I find most useful is "a woman who's having more sex than you are." I like it because it gets to the heart of the problem: 'slut' is what we call woman who's acting in a way we disapprove of. It's a judgmental word. In fact, before it had sexual connotations, 'slut' meant "an untidy woman." In the present day, it still does: a slut is a woman who's dirty and and out of control.

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You may have heard of SlutWalk, a viral series of protests designed to combat the notion that dressing in a way that suggests promiscuity means you deserve to be raped. Some SlutWalk marchers even write the word 'slut' on their bodies and wear it proudly as a way of owning the word and claiming its power as a force for transformative good.

Other women argue that the word 'slut' cannot be turned into a badge of honor, because the word has been forced upon them for too long, and the consequences for being called a slut are just too great. They advocate for the eradication of the word altogether.

I've publicly identified as a 'slut' in an attempt to strip the word of its hurtful power. When I call myself a slut, I’m saying, "I'm not ashamed, and you can't shame me." But the word means different things to different people, so I would never tell another woman she should identify as a 'slut,' either personally or politically. Whether or not to take back the word slut is entirely a personal decision. What I will insist on — what I think is even more crucial — is that we reclaim the behaviors that are perceived as slutty.

So much of our popular culture is built on the idea that sex is for men. That men are the pursuers of sex, and women are the prize to be had. That women only "give up" sex to men in exchange for love and commitment, and that women who give it up too easily are, at best, fools who don't know how to broker good deals for ourselves.

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The idea of women as the sexual gatekeepers, the natural wielders of "no," is so strongly embedded in our culture that women who enthusiastically say "yes!" because we actually like sex are profoundly threatening. We obviously must be controlled, and one of the best ways to do that is through sexual shame. That's where 'slut' comes into play. It's a word that's used to rein us in, to strong-arm us into behaving.

But why is another woman's sex life ours to judge anyway? Maybe doing things that you consider slutty is against your own moral code, but who's to say it's against someone else's? As long as we're all being honest and respectful with our sex partners, one of the perks of being an adult is the freedom to make our own life decisions. If you think monogamous marriage is the best way for you to run your sex life, then by all means, that's what you should choose. But that doesn't make it the best way for everyone to live happily. Keep reading ...

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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.

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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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