Chloe at Feministing has a run-down of the “slut panel” at Harvard’s Rethinking Virginity conference, which featured our own Sady Doyle. Chloe talks about how we define sluttery:
The panel opened with a discussion of what slut-shaming is, and Sady, who was the first to offer a definition, was careful to note that being labeled a slut can happen to anyone, even to people who have never had any sexual contact of any kind. Slut-shaming is often the result of perceived, rather than proven, sluttiness. As Therese then noted, sluttiness itself is entirely relative: In some cultures or among some social groups, she said, having slept with ten people over the course of your life is considered a pretty tame sexual history. In others, it makes you a dirty, untouchable slut. I added that, with definitions of what’s acceptable and what’s slutty being so malleable and poorly defined in our own culture, you often don’t know where the line between the two is until you’ve crossed it. And then – poof! – it’s too late: Other people have decided that you’re a slut, and you’re stuck with this damaging, divisive and damn stubborn label.
The fact that anyone can be labeled a slut, at any time, with any level of sexual activity under their belt, and the fact that sluttiness is a moving target, makes it clear that slut-shaming isn’t just about controlling how much sex women have*. If you can be called a slut without so much as kissing another person, then it stands to reason that your slut status must be based on something besides your level of sexual experience or activity. And often, it is. It’s based on what people assume about you just by looking at you – at your body, your clothes and the way you move through the world. Once you realize that, it becomes obvious that the slut label isn’t just about controlling how much sex women have: It’s about controlling how we dress, how we walk, how we talk, how we dance, how much we drink, who we talk to, how we feel about our own desires and so on and so on. And crossing the invisible, culturally-determined “slut line” in any of these arenas is enough to earn you a label that, no matter how much we denounce and detest it, no matter how well we understand its purpose and its perniciousness, somehow manages to seep into our brains and eat away at our certainty and self-assurance.
I used to joke that the definition of a slut is generally “Someone who has had more sex than me.” But Chloe’s right that it’s about so much more than that — sometimes confusingly so. And sometimes hilariously so! Like when the college student who is writing a sex diary for New York Magazine, in which she documents a week of doing it with three different dudes and suggesting threesomes left and right, updates her diary with the following:
11:34 p.m.: At the cast party for another show. My slutty friend is changing her panties in front of a few men we know. They ask me if I’d like to do it too. I don’t know how to reply without calling her a skank, and/or insinuating as much.
Panty-changing girl = slutty. Actual having-sex girl = ?. I can’t keep up!
I always feel a little silly engaging in these conversations, because I am apparently at an age where the word “slut” just isn’t a common insult anymore — it’s not a word that I’ve heard used seriously in years, and I can’t tell you the last time I called someone a slut in total seriousness.* I’m guessing that’s a factor of where I live, the kinds of people I surround myself with, and the fact that I am no longer in high school, which is where “What a slut” was a pretty common (and pretty devastating) way to insult a girl for anything at all. It’s up there with the phrase “that’s so gay” — kids said it a lot when I was in middle and high school, and then I just stopped hearing it completely, and now when people toss it out seriously it’s jarring not just because it’s offensive (although it is), but because it’s so retro. I want to respond by yelling, “WAAASSSUUPPP!” It’s kind of like when my mom decides to insult someone by saying that they look “loose.” Wrong, yes, and rare for such an insult to come out of my mother’s mouth, but unintentionally hilarious because, really? Loose, mom? Oh mom, you’re such a square.
However, apparently people still say “that’s so gay!” all the time, and apparently people still call other people sluts in total seriousness! And apparently not all of those people are 14,** or my mom! (Side note: My mom is actually quite lovely, and not a professional slut-shamer I promise). And age aside, those kinds of phrases and insults are really hurtful and really pernicious. On the rare occasions where I do hear those insults, I typically respond with a furrowed brow and a cocked head — a tried-and-tested badger-face that makes the speaker feel like a fool almost immediately, generally bypassing the need for an Extended Feminist Lecture (which I love! But think I should probably be getting paid for at this point).
But that doesn’t work if phrases like “what a slut” are commonplace. And even where they aren’t commonplace, it sometimes takes a little explaining. I find something along the lines of, “What’s wrong with being a slut?” or “Oh I am way whorey-er than her” does the trick — it’s funny and it points out that your sex life really isn’t fair game for insult. Or if the speaker is a friend and they really just mean “I hate that chick” and you agree that said chick is awful and the hatred is justified, something like “I mostly hate her because she’s a terrible human being; her sex life is the least of my issues” is a pretty good way to not put your friend on the defensive while still edging away from the slut-shaming aspect of the hateration. (That’s also a trick I only employ with women, and only where “slut” is short-hand for some other distasteful aspect of the woman’s personality that has nothing to do with sex; call me bitchy, but I come down way harder on dudes who use the s-word). And I’m always a little torn on the value of reclaiming harmful words, but I do toss around “slutty” and “whorey” in reference to myself and close friends all the time — not in an obnoxious “Hey, love you slut!” kind of way (that’s one of my pet peeves right there), but more like, “What are you going to wear tonight? I’m definitely going with something whorey” or “Hey remember last year’s Summer of Sluttitude? We should repeat that in 2010.” [Ed Note: There was no 2009 Summer of Sluttitude, unfortunately; it's just an example you guys. But a girl can dream!]. It’s easier to use such loaded words when they aren’t commonly used as insults in your social circle, and when pretty much everyone you’re using them with is on the same page — that “slut” is a silly insult, because there’s nothing wrong with having a fulfilling and active sex life, and because we definitely all qualify as “sluts” in someone’s eyes (whether that’s for the offense of actually having sex, or maybe just for wearing tight jeans, or maybe just for being ladies who are not liked by every other person in the entire world).
But that pretty much only works if you have the privilege of being in a community where “slut” is silly and not hurtful. I get the feeling that such communities are rare. So for those of you who run in social circles outside of the internet where women are regularly called sluts for doing whatever it is they are doing that personally irritates the speaker: How do you respond?
*False. I totally can. I used it to describe one former friend-ish person with whom the dude I was seeing cheated on me, a few years back. Which is not nice, and which I still feel bad about, but at least wasn’t said to her, but rather to my mother about her, in the heat of a crying phone call immediately after finding out about the incident. Before that? Eighth grade, maybe, was the last time that word came out of my mouth seriously. Point being, even the most feminist and word-reclaimy-ist of us do sometimes, in the heat of anger, use Very UnFeminist words as barbs. Because these words are powerful!
**Not that there’s anything wrong with being 14. Just that those phrases, in my experience, are tied to youth and inexperience.
- Sex and the Upper East Sider by Jill January 19, 2008
- Pro-Choice Congressmen More Likely to Have Slutty Daughters by Jill June 18, 2007
- Sleeping with the Enemy, Part 2 by Jaclyn August 9, 2007
- Today in Badass Young Women by Caperton April 18, 2013
- Chastity Clubs: Bringing the Hymens to Harvard Since 2001 by Jill March 31, 2008