Last updated: February 22, 2011 3:44 pm
‘What a slut’
What that four-letter word really means and why you shouldn’t use it
OTTAWA (CUP) — “And then we went back to my place and fucked,” the girl ahead of me in line at the coffee shop triumphantly declared, catching her friend up on the weekend’s events.
“I can’t believe you did that,” responded the second girl, incredulously. “You’re such a slut!” Both girls erupted into laughter as they grabbed their coffees and walked away.
What’s wrong with this conversation? For starters, the fact that most of you silently thought “nothing” in response to that question.
The word “slut” is everywhere — be it on TV, scribbled across a bathroom stall or in our everyday conversations. Even the Canadian Oxford Dictionary has an entry for slut, yet the word has inconspicuously taken on a meaning greater than that which can be defined by a dictionary.
First used in the 14th century to refer to “a dirty, untidy or slovenly woman,” the word slut has always been applied to women of low character, specifically those who exhibit questionable sexual behaviour — behaviour that doesn’t conform to society’s patriarchal expectations of a woman’s sexual conduct.
But within our contemporary culture, where it’s increasingly acceptable for a woman’s sexual identity to exist outside of a marriage, what constitutes “questionable sexual behaviour” is unclear. Nonetheless, words like “slut” and “whore” are hurled at women, usually in an attempt to exert control over their actions.
You’re a woman and you’re open about your sexuality? Slut. You’re a woman who enjoys having sex — be it within the confines of a monogamous relationship or as a career choice? Whore. You’re a woman who has never had sex before, but just so happens to wear shirts that say you do, indeed, have breasts? Skank.
When we consider the endless scenarios that render a woman a slut these days, it becomes clear that this word is used solely to shame a woman for expressing herself sexually. There’s a notion that this act of slut-shaming — making a woman feel ashamed for being sexual or having one or more sexual partners — is a tool that can be used to compel a woman to alter her behaviour for the better.
Call a woman a slut and perhaps she’ll feel ashamed enough to change her behaviour — behaviour that society believes leaves her vulnerable to things like unplanned pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and sexual assault. It’s for her protection, right?
Far from leaving her better off, slut-shaming can irreparably damage a woman’s self-perception. Being called a slut for exhibiting perfectly normal sexual behaviour can cause a woman to associate herself with the negative connotations intrinsic to that word: Dirty, easy and worthless. Maybe she’ll indulge these unfounded labels and take on multiple partners, or maybe she’ll shut herself down to all forms of sexual activity out of shame. She may become a target for others to take advantage of, feeling as though her right to consent is taken away by her reputation. Either way, it diminishes a woman’s ability to express her sexuality — and that’s not healthy.
Slut-shaming has been used to make examples out of “bad” girls to their peers, sometimes ending with severe consequences. In 2009, a 13-year-old girl from in U.S. sexted a photo of her breasts to a boy she liked, which was intercepted and circulated around her school and a nearby high school. The girl was forced to endure endless taunting by her peers, routinely being called a “slut” and a “whore.”
When school officials were informed of these events, their response wasn’t to talk to the girl about what had happened, or to discipline the offending classmates. They suspended her from school for a week, an action that sends the message to students that calling someone a slut for exhibiting “slutty behaviour” is okay — that, perhaps, slutty girls deserve to be punished by their peers.
She hung herself less than a week after the suspension.
Beyond damaging someone’s reputation and self-esteem on an individual level, slut-shaming shapes societal discourse on things like rape, abuse and sexual harassment. There is an inconspicuous but real conception in society and our legal systems that rape is more understandable under certain circumstances — circumstances that revolve around the identity of the victim.
In 2007, a British man charged with the rape of a 10-year-old girl was given concurrent two-year and 18-month jail sentences, as opposed to life in prison. The judge felt he was faced with “a moral dilemma” in this “exceptional case” because the victim regularly wore make-up, strappy tops and jeans, making her appear at least 16 years old — as though somehow her provocative clothing trumped her right to consent — assuming a child is even capable of consent.
Cases like the above aren’t isolated anomalies in our legal systems. Rape cases are thrown out on the basis of the victim’s appearance — how they dress, act and speak — while instances of sexual harassment in the workplace are overlooked because of the victim’s sexual history. Women are constantly written off by their peers as worthless, irrelevant and less capable at the simple utterance of that four-letter word.
The word slut has become a catch-all phrase used to defame a woman — one that has lost its meaning in society, while simultaneously carrying dark implications with its use.
Next time you want to call a woman a slut, think about what you actually mean to say. Does the fact that she’s open about her sexuality make her a slut, or is she just a liberal woman? Is the woman that fucked your boyfriend really a whore, or is your boyfriend simply a cheating asshole? Is that classmate wearing the low-cut top skanky, or is she just gutsy enough to wear something you could never pull off? It isn’t until we stop being so loose with our word choice that the problems associated with this powerful vocabulary will begin to dissipate.