Copyright: Lizzie Jekanowski

Slut Claimin', Slut Shamin'

Reclaiming a word, or re-appropriating as fancy pants call it, is all about taking back the linguistic power of a word that has been traditionally used to oppress a group of people that have historically been in positions of less power. Slut is one of these words. It is a bullcrap word, based on a bullcrap idea that was invented by people who want to stay in power, originally men and now women. But recently, women have begun to use it on each other but in a different context, as a way of empowering us instead of putting us down. In theory, it is a great idea -- by saying this word is illogical AND its implications it does not make me feel ashamed, so I will use it, it could create a more empowered people.

To start, some musings on the word "slut." I hate the term. It is stupid. It is ludicrously relative; is a slut someone who sleeps with more than 3 people? Or more than 30? Someone who goes to second base when they first kiss someone? Or only all the way? Can a slut be someone who has a boyfriend? There is no one definition, nor one meaning -- so technically, it isn't even a word. And at the core of all of this is the glaring question, WHY IS THIS EVEN AN ISSUE?  If I am safe and in control, why do my sexual decisions have anything to do with my character; why do they have anything to do with YOU?

If it has no meaning, then what is it that makes being called a "slut" hurt equally for a middle schooler with no sexual experience and a woman with experience?

First off, once it has been applied to you, it is impossible to shake, unlike other insults like "stupid"or "fat" which can be proven wrong. Secondly, because it strikes at the very core of how women view and assess themselves. We live in a society where a woman is either innocent/cute/virginal -- a "good girl," or a cougar/hoe -- a "bad girl." And saying we aren't innocent feels like saying we are unmarriable, unlovable, and unacceptable versions of "woman." This in part explains why women would use this to take down other women. It is used by middle school girls on each other, to tragic ends. These are girls who are not even sexually mature, who have not even kissed a boy, yet they are being called sluts because bullies know it is such a damaging word.

Yet even for a confident, older-than-13 woman, being called a slut is psychologically damaging, because it causes us to doubt our decisions. And when we do that we are giving power over our bodies to men, because we are saying that we are not capable of knowing the risks of sex and making our own decisions to have safe sexual encounters.

This is why it is surprising that many women have chosen to reclaim the word slut.  Women like senior Lizzie Jekanowski use it as a way of empowering each other, both by dismissing its normal meaning and adding their own. As she says, "For me, a slut is someone who is in control of their sexuality, loves their body and engages in informed and safe sexual activity. So, I am a slut and I am proud of it."

But I argue it is a bad idea to reclaim "slut" for a few reasons. Even when trying to empower it, more people continue to hear it, and that contributes to its longevity. And any person who hears you say slut may turn around and use it, thinking that it validates their usage of the word.

Also, your empowerment does not outweigh the negative consequences your speech may have on a bystander. To use an example, while writing this article I went on Facebook (I am human after all, not just a feminist horned hag) and saw at the top of my news feed this "humorous" card, posted from a GIRL to another GIRL'S wall, with the message "you're such a slut for not coming to stats today." Following the knee-jerk queasy reaction, a million thoughts came to mind. Does this girl think she is reclaiming the word? Maybe she thinks that by using it in a casual, not-sexual-at-all context, she is dis-empowering it, making it neutral and silly. But it didn't come off that way to me; all I could feel was the sting of seeing the word, and wonder if this girl knew she was enforcing the idea that girls should be shamed for having sexual relations.

Senior Franca Godenzi is sick of the word and just doesn't want to hear it anymore, even in this amiable context. She sees problems with re-appropriating the word, saying "if I were to re-appropriate the term slut, would I expect that to be empowering to myself, to others? And how could I do that, re-appropriate it, without first changing the society we live in? Our society is still so sexist I don't think that we can use that term without it being loaded with misogyny."

Godenzi's point brings me to the primary reason why re-appropriating the word "slut" is a bad idea.  If I can draw a comparison to the reclaiming of the n-word, I think that particular re-appropriation is successful because the word as a derogatory term is not nearly as omnipresent as "slut." It only works because presidents, politicians, and the normative person would all agree -- or at least publicly agree -- that racism is a terrible thing, based on a ludicrous concept. Not so with "slut." We have gone through a feminist movement, sure, but politicians of today are still so far from giving women bodily autonomy. We are in the middle of a War on Sex! The concept of female value = female sexual innocence is not dead; until our society as a whole recognizes or at least pretends to agree that women have bodily autonomy, we cannot re-appropriate the word. So it is too soon to start appropriating the opponent's weapons while they are still being used against us.  The word needs to go through its own life cycle: it has been born, it is now mature and healthy, and it needs to die, before it can be reinvented. Just as the n-word left acceptable speech by the late '60s, and it was only in the '90s that it re-emerged as a reclaimed word in hip hop culture. And before the word can die, the concept needs to be exposed for what it is: ridiculous, sexist, and oppressive.

We cannot use "slut" in an amiable manner while it is still being used in a derogatory way, by men and women who think that a woman who has safe sexual encounters as she pleases is "inferior." Before we re-introduce the word into our vocabulary we need to address the larger issue of differing ideas of sexuality for men versus women. Today still, those who discuss this scrutiny of women's sexuality are dismissed as "feminists." Our society still has not agreed that female value means female abstinence. Student Becca Quirk puts it well: "If I am still being called a slut by Rush Limbaugh, then I won't react well to hearing it from a friend, whatever their reasons."

Comments