Reclaiming the Word “Slut”

by Alyssa

in Articles

I have loved watching this SlutWalk phenomenon sweep the planet. I love it for a lot of reasons. I love anything that brings the discussion of people’s sexual individuality and autonomy to the forefront. And I love costumes, so there’s that. It makes me hopeful as the mother of a daughter who I hope will live in a world where she is both safe and free in her sexuality. As the daughter of a gay man, I know what it is like to be afraid that someone I love will be victimized simply because of how he has sex. As a business woman, I have been told that I am too sexy to be taken seriously. I have many sociopolitical reasons for wanting to see women able to express their sexuality in a way that is safe, healthy and fulfilling.

But mostly, as the survivor of a brutal rape, I never want another woman to be asked what she was wearing when she was raped. Or if her attacker had a reason to believe it was okay to rape her.   I want, once and for all, for people to realize that THE ONLY PERSON RESPONSIBLE FOR RAPE IS THE RAPIST.

That said, it’s been fascinating to watch people argue about whether or not the word “slut” can be turned from derogatory to neutral. Words to have meaning, and those meanings do change over time.

“Gay” used to mean happy, now it means someone who engages in homosexual activities. “Bitch” went from being a female dog to being a woman with a nasty personality to meaning a variety of things, some of which are terms of endearment.  “Queer” went from being purely derogatory to being simply an adjective claimed by the GLBT community to identify anyone who practices sex outside of the imaginary “norm” that defines absolutely nobody in reality.

“Nigger” is an interesting case study, and one that made me a little sick just to type. This is a word with such intense vitriol and violence attached to it that I would rather see it dead and buried that reclaimed. When I hear it spoken, by anyone, I think it is ignorant and vile. In my mind, this attempt has been a total failure, but it’s not my mind that matters here.

Despite all of these ever-changing meanings, none of these words justified a physical attack on anyone. Although the term “hate crime” was attached, they were still used to describe the attacker and the attack, not the victim. We’ll get back to that, but it’s important.

When I was a language arts teacher in the juvenile prison system in Saint Louis, my students were the “worst of the worst.” They were rapists, murderers, and drug dealers. They were mostly black, mostly poor and mostly pissed as hell (as they had every right to be.) I went walking in there, with all my happy perky whiteness and try to engage them in critical thinking and creative writing.  They would try to impress or scare me by saying “fuck” all the time. They would try to piss me off by putting it in their writing.

In one very poignant moment, something close to a pissing match with a student, I very calmly said something like, “I don’t give a flying fuck, if you choose to write about what a goddamned mother-fucking whiney ass little cunt I am. But you still have to communicate with me. So call me every name in the book, but tell me why you feel that way, and what you want to do to change the situation. And until you can do that, you can sit your fucking ass down in that goddamn chair and talk about my white cunt all you want, it won’t mean a goddamned thing until you can tell me what’s actually on your mind.” I explained that the word “fuck” had no meaning, but was, rather, a way to avoid thinking through your feelings and expressing them. It was a total fucking cop-out.

And here we are with the word slut. It is a way to not say something. It is used too much, in too-widely varied ways to carry any descriptive or emotive power. I will be happy when it has no meaning, at all. And absolutely does not imply the right to violent crime.

Slut has come to mean anyone who approaches sex in a way that is different from the person who is calling them a slut. Someone who has sex in a way that deviates from an imaginary norm.  And that’s the thing: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS NORMAL.

  • Does slut mean someone who has sex more often? With more people? More creatively? Than what? And why does that mean it’s okay to rape them?
  • Is a slut someone who turns you on when you look at them? That could be anyone, since we are all turned on by different things. So a woman who is Big & Beautiful is fair game, because that’s what you’re into? Is she a slut for turning you on, just by being Big & Beautiful?
  • Is a slut someone who dresses like the people we see on TV, in movies and on Billboards? In that case, they are conforming to the norm exactly, so what makes them a slut?
  • Is a slut someone who didn’t want to have sex with you, but did with someone else?

WHAT IS A SLUT? I have no idea. But I am certain that it is a word that has no meaning.

All those other words we discussed earlier – queer, bitch, fuck, nigger – those all meant something. Anyone could tell you what they meant.

What’s different about the word slut is that even though it can’t be defined, it can be used as a tacit justification for violent crime.  It implies one person’s OPINION about another person, there is no factual definition.

As revolting as words like “nigger” and “fag” are to me, they have meaning. When crimes are committed against those populations, (far too often, still) we look at the attacker as someone who has a problem by seeking out these victims.  With rape, we still suggest that the victim asked for it by their dress or location or behavior.

When we do that, we don’t look at what actually causes this violent crime and work to solve it. It’s a distraction, and a particularly cruel one at that.

Let’s look instead at a word with a more concrete meaning. Rapist. That word has meaning. A rapist is someone who forces sexual activity on someone who does not want it. It’s crystal clear.

  • If he or she said “no” and you had sex with them, you are a rapist.
  • If he or she had sex with you under coercion, like the promise of a job or the threat of shame or loss, you are a rapist.
  • If you had sex with someone without free consent, you are a rapist.

It doesn’t matter who it was. And that’s the point.

At best, the word slut is an adjective. It is not a command, and it is not permission.

I think we can change the meaning of the word. I don’t think it will ever be positive, but it needs to stop being seen as an invitation, or permission, or a justification for violence.

As for the meaning? I’d love to see a day when we can look at sexually empowered women and call them just that: sexually empowered women. I believe, passionately, that a world of sexually empowered women will be better for all of us.

Almost as good as a world in which rapists are called rapists, and we understand that rapists are the only people responsible for rape.

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