On the reclamation of the word “slut”

What is revolutionary in one time and place can become reactionary in another. 100 years ago suffragettes engaged in protests, civil disobedience, and even arson in their struggles to win the vote. Today the only people who talk about women having the vote are anti-feminists who are trying to make a case that there is no longer any discrimination against women in our society, and that the wage gap is down to personal choices and supposed biological differences. In the 70’s feminists fought for “No means no”. Today feminists are trying to bring the concept of active, enthusiastic consent into the mainstream, while “She didn’t say no, so it wasn’t rape” is the cry of many a rape apologist.

It’s hard to think of a word with more hatred and social control packed into it than “slut”. This one little word makes every woman’s sexuality into a source of shame, invites society to scrutinize and judge all women, erases our sexual freedom, and excuses rape. The Toronto police officer who said “if women don’t want to get raped they shouldn’t dress like sluts” wasn’t using even a trace of irony, he wasn’t being “edgy”, he was just stating what he considered to be the common-sense truth. Women’s choice of clothing is constantly up for scrutiny, and any deviation from the norm will rightly be punished by rape, which will be considered to have been caused not by the rapist, but by the woman’s outfit choice. This is straight-up Patriarchal control of female sexuality.

I’m ambivalent about Slutwalk. I agree with the critique that the word “slut” is irredeemable, and that it would be better to do away with it altogether, rather than inviting it to hang around with its inevitable stink of hatred, violence, and control. I’m really glad to hear some feminists making this critique.

But I also think you have to look at where you are. “We reject the social control and punishment of womens’ sexuality” doesn’t make a very catchy slogan, and most people wouldn’t understand it. Most people would agree that “slut” is a nasty word, but at the same time accept unquestioningly that women who are perceived to be sexual or to have many partners are looked down upon and treated with hatred. Rather than thinking that we should stop calling women “sluts” altogether, most people think that women should carefully keep their behaviour in line with society’s (constantly shifting) expectations of modesty in an effort to avoid being labeled as such.

I think “Slutwalk” does a good job of meeting people where they are. The word is a slap in the face. The average person lacking a feminist critique might not understand all the ideas behind it, but there is an element of resistance that almost everyone will recognize on some level. After hundreds of women have walked through your town under the “Slutwalk” banner, it will sound just a little bit different the next time you hear someone say “to be honest, she’s a bit of a slut”, in an attempt to socially stigmatize a woman.

In a world where women actually had freedom and equality, the word “slut” wouldn’t be able to exist. Of course we could still have that syllable, but the collection of meanings that “slut” has attached to it in our time and place would be unimaginable. In the meantime, anything we do about it is going to be a bit of a compromise. If Slutwalk comes to my town I’ll probably participate, though I admit the whole thing seems a bit too fun and cheerful to me, dour rageful feminist that I am. I would be worried that people watching and other participants might not realize how psychotically angry the word “slut” actually makes me. I suppose I would probably be able to solve that by making a suitably unpleasant placard, though.

I look forward to the time, perhaps 20 years from now, when I get to hear the young whippersnappers saying:

“I can’t believe we still do Slutwalk every year. It was relevant in its time, but these days it’s just a chance for all the old third-wavers to get together and socialize.”

“Yeah, totally, who even calls women sluts anymore? The real issue today is Floopercheets.”

I’m looking forward to the Floopercheets.