Defining Sluttiness

What sluts!

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.

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60 comments for “Defining Sluttiness

  1. Shelby
    May 6, 2010 at 6:02 pm

    “Slut” label is life-threatening. Especially if you’re read as: not white, poor/working class, being a trans woman… And someone in the Feministing thread mentioned gay men being automatically perceived as “slutty.” I hadn’t thought of that, but I think it’s completely true. And gay male “sluttiness” prob would NOT be like hetero “manwhore” sluttiness which has positive connotations of power and conquest.

  2. Sam
    May 6, 2010 at 6:47 pm


    interesting post. I think that slut-shaming is one of the most damaging cultural narratives, for women, but also for men – which may not be instantly apparent.

    I wonder if the cultural *core* of this isn’t that female sexuality is socially considered as more valuable than male sexuality *unless* this difference is equalised by a transcending factor like love, or an institutional factor, like marriage. Since male sexuality is considered to be worth less than female sexuality, engaging in heterosexual sex always implies that she is giving more than he is, and he is taking more than she is. Hence a double bind – women are told to go and get what they desire, but when they do, they will likely feel like they’re giving more than they’re getting every time. And if *every* woman, and I’d say to a lesser degree, every man, should have internalised such a social value attribution, in which having heterosexual sex implies a perceived net transfer of social value from her to him (which creates a different double bind for men), slut shaming would seem likely to remain an easy way to hurt women whose sexual activity is suspected to be higher than that of her peer group.

    I’ve expanded this thought in a different context in a comment to a thread about manliness and feminism here, should you be interested –

  3. May 6, 2010 at 7:01 pm

    I lived with the label for all of high school. Survived it, more like. Thanks for this piece, and for the link.

  4. Dawn.
    May 6, 2010 at 7:11 pm

    I’ve been called a slut, both for serious and for LOLz, so many times I can’t count. It began before I made it to “second base,” so yeah, the word is lobbed at any woman (and pretty much all non-straight men) for anything, really.

    One of the most “WTF” reasons I was given for why I’m a total Whorey McSlutterson was that I smoke cigarettes. I was 14 at the time. The guys who told me this were 15 and 22. Totally appropriate. Also, my love of sundresses, skirts, and fishnets (I was over fishnets by high school graduation, thankfully) was brought up frequently.

    Same year: a man in his early 30’s (friend of the mother of some of my friends) said behind my back (the mother told me later) that, based solely on my style and “behavior,” (WTF?) that he would be shocked if I wasn’t “knocked up” by the time I turned 18. Guess what. I didn’t have PIV sex until I was 18. Nice one, dude. Also: why are you commenting on a 14-year-old’s propensity to get knocked up???? Creepy.

    And later (later=16 years old), it was the fact that I smoked pot. Cause you know, all stoner girls are total sluts. Because pot makes all girls love all sex all the time and that makes us dirty dirty bad girls, apparently.

    Another oft-used justification: Guys hit on me a lot. Sometimes I hooked up with them and/or dated them. Total weirdo for doing that apparently, even though I was harshly ridiculed for showing any interest in girls (I stayed in the closet as a result), and all the girls who weren’t sexually active in any way were also harshly ridiculed. So pick your poison, girls: Slut, dyke, prude. And guys: be straight or you’re gross. We all lose, basically.

  5. Steve
    May 6, 2010 at 7:21 pm

    For the most part this is a really great discussion. I do find find the use of the word “whorey” problematic, even when used in a positive way. This kind of language reduces a category of people (sex workers) down to what may or may not even be one of her (or his, but I believe “whore” is typically deployed at female sex workers) characteristics.

    I am not slut-shaming when I say we should be careful not to conflate “slut” and “whore” together. Reclaiming “slut” certainly is a viable way of expressing the fact that it is absolutely okay for women to have sex lives (duh… it is). But when the two are took as synonyms, we are saying “you are a whore, meaning you like sex/do it a lot/like expressing yourself sexually/etc.”. Reducing sex workers to such an allegedly monolithic characteristic is inaccurate and, I believe, damaging to sex workers, an all-too marginalized group.

  6. May 6, 2010 at 8:18 pm

    I’m poly and active in several online poly-discussion circles, and the amazing thing is, even ethically nonmonogamous people will use “slut” and “slutty” as insults! Like, uh, you do realize that according to the culture we live in, once you are married and fucking someone other than your spouse, you have no moral high ground with respect to promiscuity … right? But they get snooty because they only fuck people they’re in luuuuurve with, and they don’t have casual sex ever ever ever, and they don’t dress provocatively, etc. etc. They’re not interested in radically redefining sexual ethics — they just want to move the goalposts far enough to put them on the “good” side.

    I also see “slut” strongly used along class lines. That’s an old meme, of course; high-society women are prim and proper, and poor women are there for the fuckin’.

  7. Happy Feet
    May 6, 2010 at 9:02 pm

    I think slut can also be used to mean “person I’m attracted to but feel uncomfortable about it, so I’m going to insult you/make sure everyone else thinks I think you’re grotchy”.

    I’m in your camp Dawn – the first clear memory I have of being called a slut was when I was 12 – 2 years before I even menstruated and developed the secondary sex characteristics that got my early-blooming friends the slut label – by my friend’s gross uncle, and shortly after by… pretty much my step-dad’s entire ball team. I thought this was unfair – I didn’t even have big boobs! I was called a slut without even the boys my age liking me! (Fortunately I figured out how grossly wrong this train of thought was fairly quickly).

    By the time I was 14, I stopped wearing skirts and dresses. I didn’t wear heels. I wore “freaky” makeup. Anything to make it stop… but, it’s a moving goalpost, as the panel said.

    I started to think, later… since a lot of these men were into grabbing me or making lewd comments when they thought they could get away with it, that maybe it was a) to make other adults think less of me so if I ever complained, they could retreat behind the “but she’s obviously a slut” defense or, for the ones who only glowered, never touched b) because they knew that sexualizing a young girl was wrong, and rather than sit with that on themselves, they put the hate on me.

    More and more, I think the latter might be a big one among older guys (I think my husband is only half joking when he says “is it really wrong for me to think Miley Cyrus is attractive?”) – it’s like, they want to punish young girls they know they can’t legally or morally touch, yet still see as attractive (beauty of youth and all that) for “putting sinful thoughts” in their head or something, rather than just going “I think that girl is pretty, how nice for her…oh look, here’s the mail”.

  8. Bonn
    May 6, 2010 at 11:21 pm

    My mom told all her teacher friends I was a “slut” because I slept in the same hotel room as a boy. This from the woman who couldn’t WAIT for me to have sex and wanted me to tell her all about it (creeeeepy, but my brother did oblige her when he did it). She was so angry when I told her I was asexual …

    As an asexual virgin, I’m about as unslut as can be, but I’ve still had lots of middle-aged men try to slut shame me. Which is gross in itself, since they’re twice my age and speculating about my sexual habits based on … based on … based on the fact that I had a vlog and opinions. Oh, and apparently the degenerating cartilage in my knees means I must give bjs a lot.

    So yeah. I know all about the “slut shaming doesn’t even have anything to do with having sex” thing. If I’m a slut, then I can’t imagine how slutty people with actual sexual attraction are.

  9. May 7, 2010 at 12:45 am

    DAWN: THAT “SLUT .DYKE. PRUDE.” world-o-choices! Is exactly what made me totally not care what anyone said about me in high school. Because, there was, clearly, no winning, unless winning is defined as “being unaffected by”.

    I really think it is/was pretty NORMAL to get called ALL THREE!

  10. Bagelsan
    May 7, 2010 at 1:53 am

    Wow, yeah, I think the only time I’ve used the word “slut” since, I dunno, middle school, is in situations like “what, you went on that WoW raid with your guild and then with a different guild? You slut!” (Often I substitute the word “ho-bag,” which I’m not sure can be taken seriously in any context. :p)

    Weirdly, I’ve never been called a slut (at least, not to my knowledge.) I have no idea why that might be — I doubt it correlates at all with actual sexual activity so being the stay-at-home-with-a-book type of person I am shouldn’t really protect me. It’s a mystery.

  11. Chocolate Tort
    May 7, 2010 at 9:05 am

    Dawn & KMTBerry: it occurs to me that all those things are related. There should be a term that covers all of them: sex shaming? That’s not quite right, but I’m sure someone will think of something.

    I’m extremely lucky to be able to say that I’ve had very little experience with slut-shaming. In high school, I learned that my sister’s friends called me a slut based on the way I dressed, which even then I found hilarious because of my veeeeery limited interactions with the dudely gender. All I can say is that I’ve seen the problems other women have had with the label, and I’ve also seen a good deal of virgin-shaming (moreso among the dudely set). There’s such a complicated dynamic of gender roles and personal insecurity and social pressure going on when people use these words to insult one another.

  12. May 7, 2010 at 11:42 am

    My “favorite” time I was called a slut has to be when an ex-boyfriend called me both that AND frigid within the space of five minutes. It was confusing to say the least.

  13. May 7, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    When I was younger, I suppose the word “slut” could have been assigned to me, assuming I had been female. Though a part of me wanted a relationship, my primary desire at that point in my life was sex. I made that clear up front with whomever it was I shared a bed, and the arrangement worked fairly well for me.

    Female friends who have lived in NYC often talk about how it’s not the place to seek a partner. One noted that she was single for all of her five years of living there. Another stated that all men are looking for is casual sex, and assuming that they don’t get it by the second date, they are then off to someone else.

  14. Jay
    May 7, 2010 at 12:41 pm

    I’m poly and the sexual dynamics of my relationships revolve heavily around kink/BDSM; so I’m pretty much immune to the ‘slut’ insult by now. No one’s called me a ‘slut’ since middle-school; and even if they did I’d just be like, “Meh. So what else is new?”

    I can’t recall myself ever using the word to insult another woman, though.

  15. jz
    May 7, 2010 at 1:24 pm

    A slut is a girl/woman so desperate for male attention that she damages her emotional/psychiatric welfare. She’s jaded, sclerotic, and can’t trust men. She’s damaged goods and I will teach my son to avoid her.

  16. May 7, 2010 at 1:42 pm

    The dictionary defines slut as a sexually promiscuous female, or a prostitute. If I have ever used this term, I have only used to to refer to people who actually have careless, unprotected, meaningless sex with people who they don’t even know. I have never used to to describe someone who dresses or acts a certain way.

    For example, I know this 18 year old girl. She probably sleeps with 10 guys a week. Lost her virginity at 12. She was pregnant by 15. Has numerous stds and never uses protection. She has told me this herself. She is SO proud of it too and considers herself a sexually liberated woman, and feminist, yet she is fine with men using her as a sex object. She says feminism is about choice and she chooses have sex with people she doesn’t even know and she chooses to allow men to only see her as a walking vagina.

    People call her a slut. But I want to to know what people here would think? Is she a slut? Is she a feminist?

  17. Shelby
    May 7, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    @Ashley & jz
    You guys could try compassion, maybe? This whole post is about how a “slut” IS NOT A REAL THING. No one is a slut. Ever. Nor is anyone EVER EVER “damaged goods.” I mean, really? jz, the type of person you’re describing sounds like someone who’s going through a painful time in their life and maybe battling mental illness as well– and you labeled her a slut? People struggle sometimes. Such is humanity. Why would you ever want to further dehumanize someone who’s already hurting with terms like “slut” and “damaged goods?” Which applies to Ashley’s comment as well: why do you want to label your friend and her life struggles with a pejorative like “slut?” If she says she’s having unprotected sex and you’re worried about her maybe try treating her like a human? Tell her you care about her and worry that she’s not being safe? It almost sounds like you’re judging her worthiness as a person based on her “slut/feminist” status. Which is terrible and makes me wanna weep for humanity a lil bit =/

  18. Jay
    May 7, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    If your description of her behavior is indeed accurate, she’s definitely reckless & irresponsible for having unprotected sex; but being reckless & irresponsible doesn’t preclude one from being a feminist, nor does it justify the “slut” insult.

  19. Jay
    May 7, 2010 at 2:31 pm

    Oops, looks like I messed up the html. That last post was meant to be a reply to Ashley’s description of her friend.

  20. May 7, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    Shelby, I hope I understand what you’re saying and I agree that people don’t deserve labels like this, on any terms. I still don’t think the way my acquaintance behaves, in such a careless and wreck less way. I don’t agree with her that it’s feminist behavior at all, because to me, part of feminism is about wanting to be respected as well as respecting yourself, and I don’t feel like the girl I know does. But people on here seem to basically say that it’s cool to be promiscuous and women have a right to be without judgment. I’m just confused on where exactly some people draw the line between being a feminist sexually liberated female and allow yourself to be used as a sex object, to be treated with no respect, and not respecting yourself…or is there even a line at all? That’s why I asked at the end, what people here think of a situation like that.

  21. MissaA
    May 7, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    A slut is a girl/woman so desperate for male attention that she damages her emotional/psychiatric welfare. She’s jaded, sclerotic, and can’t trust men. She’s damaged goods and I will teach my son to avoid her.

    Damaged goods? Yeah, if you think your son’s on the market for a commodity, instead of looking for a person to spend time with, that may be one way to think of it.

    I’ve had several Big Conversations with my boyfriend (I’m slowly converting him into a feminist-anti-racist-marxist) and one time, after I asked him, “what’s wrong with being a slut?” he gave the, they-have-no-respect-for-themselves-and-have-emotional-issues answer. To which I replied… so, why do you think insulting them will help? Now he’s on the ant-slut-shaming side. :)


    If she believes in equality, and tries to live her beliefs then she’s a feminist. Feminists are often “sluts” as well. Even if there’s some cognitive dissonance in her life, feminists are all just people, and people aren’t perfect. And she’s not in charge of how men see her.

    In general:

    I was too much of a nerd in school to be subject to slut-shaming. But guys did speculate that I was a lesbian and engaged in sexual deviance.

    The one time I was ever called a slut, I thought it was hilarious. I had gone to visit my boyfriend at the university he goes to in the US. They had just finished exams, and we went to a bar where everyone was celebrating. There weren’t many chairs, so I sat on my boyfriend’s lap, and we danced for a bit.

    I went back home, and my boyfriend went back to class, and one of his classmates asked him, “So who was that slut who was all over you the other night?” To which he replied, “That was my girlfriend. We’ve been together for 2 years, and I love her very much.” and he just sat there and watched her turn red, and then got up and found another seat. Similarly, a bunch of his male classmates who saw the two of us leave the bar together asked if he “scored”, and seemed disappointed to find out that the two of us were dating. It was pretty funny to hear about.

  22. May 7, 2010 at 2:42 pm

    “For example, I know this 18 year old girl. She probably sleeps with 10 guys a week. Lost her virginity at 12. She was pregnant by 15. Has numerous stds and never uses protection. She has told me this herself.”


    No one is a slut ever, as has already been pointed out. But the behavior you are describing – if accurate – is quite possibly, even likely, the behavior of a child sexual abuse victim. Before passing judgment, perhaps you might wish to extend some compassion and recognize that there is likely quite a great deal more going on that what you realize. Young women who are genuinely endangering themselves and their health are in need of help, understanding, and education, not judgment.

  23. Jay
    May 7, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    “I’m just confused on where exactly some people draw the line between being a feminist sexually liberated female and allow yourself to be used as a sex object, to be treated with no respect, and not respecting yourself…or is there even a line at all?”

    Why does enjoying casual sex with lots of different people have to mean “allow[ing] yourself to be used as a sex object, to be treated with no respect, and not respecting yourself”?

    I’ll concede the fact that unprotected sex is a horrible decision (for both her and her partners), but I get the feeling you’re passing judgment about the “10 guys a week” part, too, as though having sex with ‘too many’ people somehow means that she isn’t ‘respecting herself’.

  24. May 7, 2010 at 2:52 pm


    Funny thing about dictionaries: They don’t actually define anything. They are references on usage- we define things. Dictionaries merely take note.

    (The rest of this comment is not directed at anyone in particular.)

    My younger sister is overly fond of the word slut. I’ve tried everything I know to get her to stop using it, but the one attempt a thought-provoking response to her use of the word that actually elicited derisive laughter was, “What’s wrong with sluts? I’m a slut.” The response:

    “You’re a guy! Guys can’t be sluts!”

    The biggest problem with that response isn’t that it bought into the typical double-standard set for men, but that my sister knows for a fact exactly how much sex I’m not having. But, that was never a disqualifier. “Slut” is another way women have to earn respect and trust where it’s simply taken for granted in men. A man can have sex with as many consenting partners as he wants and no one will develop anything resembling a low opinion of him. Nor should anyone, as long as he follows the established gold standards for consent and honesty.

    A woman can follow those exact same standards and it can affect everything from her career, to her friendships; and as I don’t need to tell anyone who reads this blog enough, it affects her believability and the social capital available to her in society.

  25. Tracey
    May 7, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    That is the whole problem with a term like “slut.” You are painting your own morals onto her because she is what you consider to be too promiscous and therefore doesn’t respect herself. The problem is, number of sexual partners isn’t necessarily an indicator of how much respect a woman has for herself. That she is being irresponsible and doesn’t seem to protect her health is problematic, yes, but you are not helping her by labeling her a slut and you are not helping anyone by suggesting that having a lot of sex partners means a woman doesn’t respect herself. That is the same logic some rape and sexual harrasment apologists use “look at how she dressed/acted, of course she wanted it. She doesn’t respect herself, why should anyone else?”
    Trying to hide behind the mantra of being worried for her overall health doesn’t cut it when you label her a slut and tie respectability to number of sex partners. That is no different than people who constantly make fun of and belittle fat people all in the name of “health.”
    ” But people on here seem to basically say that it’s cool to be promiscuous and women have a right to be without judgment. I’m just confused on where exactly some people draw the line between being a feminist sexually liberated female and allow yourself to be used as a sex object, to be treated with no respect, and not respecting yourself…or is there even a line at all?”
    “Allowing yourself to be used as a sex object” is precisely the reason people give to belittle sexually active women or women who dress a certain way in the first place. Who are you to make that judgement of all women who have a lot of sexual partners? It is one of the ways in which women are dehumanized and reduced to their sexuality. You are tying promiscuity to respectability and sense of self-respect, that is extremely messed up. Being promiscous isn’t “cool”, it just is, some people are and some aren’t, but it is not a reflection of how much respect and love they have for themselves. It is important that people make informed decisions, personal decisions free of heavy influence from others, and healthy decisions. For some people it may mean waiting to have sex, having few partners, not having sex, or having multiple partners.
    -having lots of sex partners does not mean someone has no self-respect
    – even if someone is doing something unhealthy it does not make you a decent person to label them a “slut” and decide b/c they don’t respect themselves that you have license to further belittle and dehumanize them.

    I think the nominations for this round of Top Troll are over. Best of luck making it into future rounds though.

  26. thepenguingirl
    May 7, 2010 at 3:05 pm

    I don’t think it’s cool to be promiscuous- but I also think that you should live by your judgement of what promiscuous is- if you are old enough to be having sex you should be able to make that judgement. I judge my prospective partners under the same lense that I judge myself. Sex is awesome but it is also a massive risk to take and I feel that when a person has (what I consider) a large number that they do not respect that risk and I will not sleep with them. The main problem is when people allow others to make that call for them. You should live by your ideas, values and judgements and others should go by the wayside. If a man calls me a slut- for whatever reason- then he is a fool (in my eyes) and if he calls me a prude then I fully reserve the right to call him a herpes infested magpie :)

  27. PrettyAmiable
    May 7, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    I have three thoughts on this topic:

    I’m incredibly promiscuous (and thus am going to ignore the entire Ashley comment because I’m fully aware that I respect myself plenty by wanting/needing sexual contact and then getting it… instead of pretending that somehow my drawers are in such a moral twist that I’m above such silly things like human contact).

    Anyway, I’ve had conversations with my guy friends who use the word “slut.” They actively don’t apply it to me, but they do for other promiscuous girls, and when I asked why, they explained that I’m sleeping with guys because it’s fun, I’m not looking for a relationship, and I’m not doing it to justify my worth. Thus, they end up applying “slut” to girls with low self esteem who try to validate themselves with sexual partners. Has anyone else come across this? This use is particularly distressing to me because they’re identifying someone who is hurting and then keeping them down emotionally. (I called them out immediately, in case you wondered).

    Second, I think there’s a religious component that probably can’t be denied. I’m living in the Midwest/maybe South depending on who you are, and it’s the first time I’ve ever had anyone call me a slut. At least part of this is heavily influenced by religion (I THINK**) because after those instances, I’ve received lots of proselytizing which I hit back with my own atheistic philosophies. (I’m not anti-religion, but I am anti-pushing your own philosophies onto unsuspecting people who live differently than you and pro-haha see how you like it childish behavior). This is complete conjecture, however – because I only have my own anecdotal experience to fall back on.

    And last, has anyone who has been slut-shamed found themselves prone to virgin-shaming as described above? Keep in mind that I’ve only been called a slut in the last nine months since moving to my new home because I’ve been pretty lucky, but my immediate in head response is, “Whatever, at least I’m getting laid” – which is horrible. I’m trying very hard to undo this because I cognitively know that intolerance isn’t solved with more intolerance, but the gut reaction to punch back is so strong. So – has this been an issue for you and have you found something to help you deal with your frustrations in a more manageable way? (Please note I’ve never said these things aloud and it’s only about anyone who calls me a slut – it has nothing to do with actual virgin status because I typically have no clue if they are or are not having sex. It’s more, fuck you if you don’t like my life choices because yours probably suck too and the opposite of slut-shaming seems to be virgin-shaming).

  28. PrettyAmiable
    May 7, 2010 at 3:23 pm

    Oh, and when it comes up (I have a comment in moderation) – regarding point 1, that’s what the troll on this thread did! Funny how I’ve gotten pretty good at ignoring them.

  29. Jay
    May 7, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    they explained that I’m sleeping with guys because it’s fun, I’m not looking for a relationship, and I’m not doing it to justify my worth. Thus, they end up applying “slut” to girls with low self esteem who try to validate themselves with sexual partners.

    But wouldn’t that require them to make enormous assumptions about these women’s motivations? How do they know whether a woman is having lots of sex because it feels good, because she wants ‘validation’, some combination of the two, or another reason entirely?

    Seems like that’s just their way of covering up their disgust for women who’ve had lots of sex. It’s like the backtracking people do when they inadvertently insult someone they’re talking to by making a derogatory remark, like so:

    Person A: [insert hateful remark about queer people here]

    Person B: Um, I’m a queer person!

    Person A: Oh, no, no! I didn’t mean you. I meant those other queers who’re totally different from you.

  30. PrettyAmiable
    May 7, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    I differ from a lot of people in how ridiculously open I am about sex. That is, I’ve never acted like it’s a super shameful thing I do. I laugh semi-publicly about silly things my body does and how it’s great that X guy is moving because this is fun but neither one of us is in a position right now to get attached and I’ve gone to bars and turned to my friends and said, “I’m going home with that guy” and then executed. The girls I’ve seen them call “sluts” are the ones that would say something about how going home with a guy from a bar is disgusting but then later that same night went home with a strange guy from that bar. And actually, these guys would tell that girl openly that she was a “slut.”

    Keep in mind that I’m working with SUPER particulars. I’m talking about two very specific guy friends, me, and one other girl I know – so it’s obviously going to be hard for either one of us to generalize from anecdotal information. I didn’t mean to present it as a “what do you think of my friends” kind of thing so much as – this is how I perceive it, has anyone come across this.

    Sorry for the confusion I’m causing!

  31. matlun
    May 7, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    To me the dictionary definition of “slut” as just being a sexually promiscuous woman is incomplete. I would argue that since the word implies a very negative judgment, the full definition should be an overly and immorally promiscuous woman.

    But I do think that even if you do not accept the classical cultural limitations on female sexuality, you could use the word from the standpoint of a more progressive moral system.

    For example I would say that Jill’s example in her footnote about using the word for a so-called friend who cheated on her with her boyfriend might very well be a correct usage of the word. (Obviously I do not know the details of that specific incident…)

    I think the important cultural change would be to get it accepted that being promiscuous and sexually liberated is not intrinsically immoral, and we do seem to be moving in the right direction.

  32. May 7, 2010 at 9:11 pm

    What if some people don’t associate the term with something negative? For those of you familiar with the fat acceptance movement, they are fine with being called the word “fat.” They don’t see it as implying anything other than describer their larger than average size, even though most of society associates the word “fat” with a list of other negative ideas. People fat shame in much a similar way that people slut shame, but fat acceptance people don’t go around forbidding anyone to call them fat. Instead they say, ‘Why yes, I am fat, but that doesn’t make me a horrible person.” They accept the word and refuse to use it the same way most people do. I admire that. Some people might say even call themselves sluts, and be okay with it seeing as how they just see it as a term to describe that they are promiscuous. In other words, I do think it is possible to use the word slut without passing judgment. Of course, this is not how it is used by most people, but I’m just saying it’s possible to see the word and not associate a slutty woman with something as dirty and foul. I hope that makes sense.

    I want to thank everyone for replying to my questions as I am trying to better understand the whole idea of feminism.

  33. Bitter Scribe
    May 7, 2010 at 10:47 pm

    A good book on this topic is Leora Tanenbaum’s “Slut!: Growing Up Female With a Bad Reputation,” published in 2000. It’s not perfect by any means–uneven and a little uncertain in its conclusions–but it vividly illustrates some of the points of this post, in the “sluts’ ” own words. Especially how it can happen to anyone.

    Personally, I’m not sure “slut” means anything anymore, if it ever did. To me it’s just a slur that the boss cliques fling at any pretty girl who refuses to kowtow to them.

  34. Sky
    May 8, 2010 at 12:12 am

    I’ve been called a slut for being poly, even though at the time I was only having sex with one of my significant others (for personal reasons). In my experience, the word “slut” isn’t used for actual behavior; it’s used for perceived or assumed behavior, where people don’t like you to begin with and then make whatever assumptions they need to make in order to use your own sexuality against you.

  35. Erica
    May 8, 2010 at 2:42 am

    I’ve been called a slut a few times growing up (mostly because I have large breasts). Interestingly, now that I am 22 years old, people never call me a “slut.” These same people are shocked when they find out that I am asexual, virginal, and that I have no interest in having sexual relations. They are mostly shocked by this because I am also a feminist. I think that this may be because feminism has become associated with feminine sexual freedom and perhaps they think I am suppressing my sexuality to fit into the prescribed gender role for females, which is certainly not true.

  36. jz
    May 8, 2010 at 9:39 am

    It’s cute how the hobby linguists here try to claim wordsmith authority over the term. Out in the real world, people find it a useful term.
    Men: slut means she’s for sex only, no long-term commitment of money, time, resources. Emotionally jaded and scarred. Sluts can not be trusted as wives.
    Parents: sluts are ill-bred, desperate for male attention, most likely daughters of single moms.
    Girls of self-restraint: sluts are losers
    Taxpayers: sluts are eventual succubi off the taxpayer dole for her bastard kids. She pockets WIC, earned-income credit, subsidized housing, subsidized Medicaid, subsidized “education” from a diploma mill.

    • May 8, 2010 at 12:53 pm

      Aaaaan JZ is banned. Awesome.

  37. Bitter Scribe
    May 8, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    Sluts go to diploma mills? Who knew?

    Lenny Bruce had a hysterically funny take on the whole subject. He did an impression of a female tsk-tsking about those girls, about how a man could always go to one of those tramps if all he wanted was sexual release.

    The punchline:

    “And I’m dying to find them! Where the hell are they?!”

    The point being, “slutiness” probably is a lot more a matter of imagination–whatever the motivation of the imaginer–than of actual behavior.

  38. Sarah
    May 8, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    Succubi! I love it.

    On the serious side, here’s some logic:

    Is it not possible to be emotionally jaded and scarred and refuse to have sex with men unless they commit money, time, and resources? As in, the bitter and mercenary “you bastards aren’t getting this pussy for free” attitude. Is this not in fact a more likely consequence of being emotionally wounded by men than having no self-restraint and sleeping with whatever hottie catches your eye at the time?

    If I screw a whole bunch of guys and they don’t respect me for it, isn’t that more a sign of their emotional problems than mine? I have sex because I like it, and try to get as much as I can with people I’m attracted to. They, on the other hand, judge me for something that has nothing to do with my intelligence or moral character (defined here more logically as whether you tell the truth, stick up for friends, inconvenience yourself for others’ welfare, try to help the poor, fight for people’s rights, etc.). Furthermore, they’re judging me as bad for something they do themselves.

    I think the root cause of this is the idea that all women are whores–in the literal sense. That is, a female can’t possibly enjoy sex for its own sake, so it becomes a bargaining chip she uses to get something else. Women who have sex without demanding anything in addition as price are seen as “giving it away too freely” and therefore as insane, like someone selling a new car for a penny. Women who demand the socially acceptable going rate (love & marriage) are seen as sane. Women who demand money are also judged badly, because money alone (without being flattered in public) is a lower price than the going rate (=whores). Women who demand the going rate plus a ton of extra money are shamed for setting too high a price, for being too greedy/demanding (=gold diggers). And women who don’t put in on the market at all are shamed essentially for being hoarders, but because of “sour grapes” it’s implied that the value of sex with them is worthless (=dykes, prudes, man-hating hairy-legged feminazis, etc.)

  39. May 8, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    “Taxpayers: sluts are eventual succubi off the taxpayer dole for her bastard kids. She pockets WIC, earned-income credit, subsidized housing, subsidized Medicaid, subsidized “education” from a diploma mill.”

    I nominate JZ for the next top troll!

  40. May 8, 2010 at 2:12 pm

    I’m lucky enough to have never been called a slut seriously (that I know of), but it’s a topic that’s certainly affected me emotionally a LOT. In high school, when I was still quite virginal and really rather prudish if I do say so myself, a male friend jokingly called me a slut for some reason I don’t remember, and I ran away bawling. He apologized profusely afterward, but even thinking that someone might believe that to be true was terrifying. I knew enough to understand that the “slut” label was to be avoided, because it never went away.

    Church youth group didn’t help matters any, either. I remember lengthy discussions with girls at the church about whether or not Jesus would approve of being fingered. The general consensus was that it’s okay, because we never had orgasms as a result of our boyfriends fingering us. Naturally, when the roles were reversed, we certainly didn’t stop to make sure that he didn’t have an unapproved orgasm.

    Wow. That’s an embarrassing memory.

    /off topic rambling

  41. alexish
    May 8, 2010 at 7:16 pm

    I think we can all agree that “slut” just means “doesn’t get along with those that gossip.”

  42. Rachel S.
    May 8, 2010 at 11:53 pm

    I am a social butterfly. I talk to everyone, I dress provocatively, I drink. I have an active, polyamorous sex life, and I’m pretty open about it — because it’s not a big deal. I also get to hop around to different social circles because I’m a networking whore (in the more literal sense, I am totally selling myself) and very active in the poly community in these parts; but you know what’s really funny? I have never been called a slut by an adult (other than myself — also, people on the internet don’t count). I think it’s partly because people like me, and partly because I’m so open about both my feminism and the fact that “being poly doesn’t mean that I’m going to sleep with you”.

    I also call people on their shit, but most of the people I hang around are more likely to gossip about someone’s professional short comings, and we’re not going to talk about their sex life (because mine is so much more interesting anyway). I like to think that I put out a vibe that I don’t appreciate it when people insult women (well, anyone) for the sake of insulting them. If she’s not an honest business woman, that’s one thing, but we all know that you know nothing about her sex life unless you’re involved in it and in that case you’re either biased or joking.

    Calling men sluts is a totally different thing though.

  43. May 9, 2010 at 6:32 am

    In my experience, “slut” and “whore” as insults have little to do with sex. I’ve been called these things by people who had no clue about my sex life, and who would just as easily shame you for being a virgin (an dcould’ve used “virgin” and “slut” in the same sentence). I have also called other people “slut” and “whore” without knowledge of either the meaning of these words (apart from that they are insults used on women) or their sex lives. That’s why I like the suggestion of saying “her sex life should be no reason to hate her”, because it communicates what these words actually mean to someone who may not know that.

  44. May 9, 2010 at 10:08 am

    “Calling men sluts is a totally different thing though.”

    I’m not sure if this comment was made in seriousness or not. If it was made in seriousness, I’d love to hear an explanation. I’m not anymore comfortable calling men sluts than I am calling women sluts. I’m of the opinion that the word needs to be eradicated from our vocabulary all together. While men certainly engage in sexual activity that I find highly inappropriate – and not to mention abusive and violent – I don’t believe that any of them deserve to be called sluts. If I call a man a name in reference to his sexual activity and/or attitude that name is much more likely to be asshole or rapist.

  45. Jay
    May 9, 2010 at 10:14 am

    I’m not sure if this comment was made in seriousness or not. If it was made in seriousness, I’d love to hear an explanation. I’m not anymore comfortable calling men sluts than I am calling women sluts.

    Calling a man a ‘slut’ is different than calling a girl a ‘slut’ – it’s less hurtful. The insult has no teeth when applied to a (straight) man.

    Sure, no one should be shamed for their sexuality; but it’s a lot harder to shame a straight guy for his sexuality than it is to shame anyone else.

  46. sophonisba
    May 9, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    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.

    This is huge. What she’s saying is that she literally “does not know how” to decline an unwanted sexual request without having the slut-concept available to her for contrast: that is, she does not know that it is an option to say, “No, I don’t want to.” It has to be some version of “No, because I’m not that kind of girl.” And therefore, “that kind of girl” has to be an extant category, or there will be no excuse for her to give.

    So she has this strange double-bind she made for herself, where she can’t say no to an act without insulting women who say yes to it, and the woman who says yes to it is her friend. What a terrible predicament! Except it’s only a predicament because she believes you say yes or no to sex based on what kind of girl you are, not based on what you happen to want to do. For women like this, discarding the slut-concept is viscerally threatening, because if you can’t say “No, because I’m not a…” you can’t say no at all.

  47. Sid
    May 9, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    I think Trey Songz settled the debate “If the neighbors know your naaaaaaaamee,” then you a slut.

  48. May 9, 2010 at 9:12 pm

    “The insult has no teeth when applied to a (straight) man.”

    I’m not entirely sure that I’d agree that it has “no teeth”. I agree that it certainly isn’t even in the same stratosphere as calling a woman a slut. Be that as it may, using the word against anyone of any gender isn’t going to help anyone in the long run. Using the word slut does not only degrade the individual whom the insult is being thrown at; it also degrades sexuality itself. The last thing we need is any more degradation of sexuality.

  49. Henry
    May 10, 2010 at 1:30 am

    It’s about control in the majority society – “boys don’t date her she’s a slut, date a nice girl like me who people will respect you for.” Calling a man a slut, which I see on occasion now, means that he is not good enough for your social circle, he’ll cheat so don’t date him. It’s about controlling anothers access to sexual relations (I mean in terms of emotional relationships, not just sex).

  50. May 10, 2010 at 6:30 am

    I honestly don’t think I’ve heard “slut” used as an insult by anyone in my social groups since junior high (and that was a LONG time ago). In high school, I was part of a group of Nerd Queens — which meant that while the rest of the world thought we were too nerdy to ever find sexual partners, we were going to science fiction conventions and using them as our personal hunting ground for boys. Among ourselves, sometimes there was gossip and concern over one or another girl’s sexual behavior — but it was never “she’s a slut” as much as “I’m worried about her, I don’t think that boy will treat her well and I think she can’t see it.”

    When my kid was 12 or so, she used the term in reference to, I think, Jessica Simpson, and my response was, “I don’t like you using that word. It’s a word people use when they disapprove of a woman’s sexual choices, and I happen to think her sexual choices are her own damn business. On the other hand, every interview I’ve heard with her suggests she’s dumb as toast, so if you feel like insulting her, go ahead and say THAT.”

    My social circle these days is a more grown-up version of the Nerd Queens and tends towards the poly and kinky, so “slut” is pretty meaningless as an insult. The division seems to be between the ones who find it hot to hear it in bed, and the ones who find it icky. A much more serious insult would be “careless” — neglecting safer sex practices or BDSM safety would damage your reputation a lot more!

  51. Melissa
    May 10, 2010 at 8:46 am

    This is slightly off-topic (since everyone else seems to be covering the “slut” issue so well), but I know people as old as college and grad school who use the phrase “that’s so gay” regularly. I never heard it much, because I’m a musician and goodness knows no one in a MUSIC department would ever use that phrase…but I dated people in other fields, and from what I heard from friends-of-dudes-in-other-departments…”that’s so gay” doesn’t end at middle school.

  52. May 10, 2010 at 4:09 pm


    I would have to say it really doesn’t have any teeth used against men. It would be bewildering at most. Aside from how I would react if I was called a slut, the test I apply is the following: If a female character, a lead, in a movie yelled, “You slut!” at a man who cheated on her- would the audience laugh? If the answer is yes, then the insult is gendered. The answer, I think, if you approached enough people with this scene from a fictional movie, is largely that everyone would laugh.

    I agree, to me, slut is sort of a hollow accusation. Still I am on another planet relative to most on the matter. Acknowledging that doesn’t give me a pass to use the slur any more than my relative enlightenment in on racial matters entitles me to use racial slurs. I’m distinctly of the view that the only people who can use it, are the people who apply the label to themselves willingly and without irony or buying into the mainstream narrative about women and sex.

  53. JD
    May 10, 2010 at 5:07 pm


    “Sure, no one should be shamed for their sexuality; but it’s a lot harder to shame a straight guy for his sexuality than it is to shame anyone else.”

    I don’t think that’s true. I’d say that while it’s more difficult to “slut shame” a straight guy, but it’s absolutely easy to “gay shame” or “virgin shame/not-getting-laid-shame” a guy.

    One question though – has anyone ever used/heard “slut” in a complimentary sense? Imagine a friend whom you just talked to about your latest conquest smiled at you and said “you’re such a slut” – and it was obvious from his/her tone that it was considered a compliment. I can totally imagine being proud of being called a slut in that sense.

  54. May 11, 2010 at 7:04 am

    I definitely use “slut” as a term of endearment – among close friends. Or else I’ll say, “I’m such a slut for [LOST, giant military parades, instant coffee, etc.]”

  55. Brian
    May 11, 2010 at 3:45 pm

    I have a question – there’s one other facet to the whole slut-shaming debate that i didn’t see represented in this conversation (although i may have just missed it): what about people who repress their own sexuality or deny themselves something because of the fear of being slut-shamed? I am a gay male in a small town in Texas, and one of the reasons i find it difficult to engage in sexual relations is the fear that people will find out about it and then treat me differently… i am sure i am not alone, when i think of young women who might discovering their own burgeoning sexuality, whatever it may be, but they hold themselves back because of the general tone that slut-shaming creates around sexuality as a whole, and how it paints their perceptions of themselves and what’s appropriate behavior. or am i off base here?

  56. May 11, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    I don’t think you’re off base at all Brian. In college I was serious into catholicism but got pressured into sex with a boyfriend and realized (aside from the consent/coercion issues) that hey! this sex thing is pretty nice! It was a hellish few years for me trying to reconcile those 2 aspects of me and it did a number on my mental health.

    Now I’m in a much better place and tend to laugh in the faces of people who try to slut shame me. (and I don’t remember the last time someone seriously called me a slut either, but I’ve definitely had people try to shame me because I’ve had a lot of partners, have had one night stands, and am poly)

  57. Sadie
    May 12, 2010 at 2:19 am

    Out of my group of friends (college-age), only a few use the word “slut” at all. They’re also the ones that talk down/offensively about sex the most. I’m not open about my sex life in general, and especially not with them, because if I was they *would* call me a slut, and it would either be an insult or carry approval of a kind I don’t want. They do not need to be judging my sex life.

    These same friends regularly try to virgin-shame my boyfriend–who genuinely doesn’t care. Their virgin-shaming is associated with a naïveté that, again, they don’t have the right to decide is wrong.

  58. La BellaDonna
    May 13, 2010 at 5:04 pm

    OMG, I just remembered the last time I was called a slut! (The first was when I was in high school, and a virgin.)

    It was by my husband and companion of more than two decades – and he meant it, too. What did I do that was so heinous?

    I painted my toenails.

  59. La BellaDonna
    May 13, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    I’ll throw a definition into the mix:

    Slut: A woman who cannot be controlled by men or other women.

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