Posted: Jun 11, 2014 11:30 AM
 
Is slut the new s-word? Feminists are divided on this issue of linguistics. Some use it, some don't and some think you definitely don't have the right to utter it. I found out why.
Photo credit: g-stockstudio/ iStock/360/ Getty Images

So here's what you need to know about the word slut: It's back in fashion but women can't decide how — and whether — we should be using it. Let's discuss.

Shakespeare said it first

Well, not first, but Shakespeare did use the word slut. It first appears in the Middle Ages in 1402 as "slutte," meaning "a dirty, untidy or slovenly woman."But "slut" and "slutishness" do show up in Shakespeare's comedy As You Like It, written in 1599 or 1600.

All later uses of the word slut are almost exclusively associated with women — we can all agree on that. What's up for debate is how it's used. There's the traditional "loose woman," the reclaimers, the theorists, the re-definers and the "no, you didn't" sayers. It's a lot more complicated than the flip insult we thought it was, isn't it?

Slippery words

Leora Tannenbaum, author of the book, Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation, calls slut a slippery word with no fixed meaning, relegating "sluttiness" to be defined in the eye of the beholder. And the beholder, is often judgey. Slut is used as a negative term to describe a woman who is sexual. The male counterpart is a player. Slippery, indeed.

Even today in a post-Madonna, post-Sex and the City world, women are still not allowed to own their sexuality at any age.

Feminist writer Veronica Arreola says, "The label slut has been used by both men and women as a way to let a woman know she's enjoying her sexuality too much. Even today in a post-Madonna, post-Sex and the City world, women are still not allowed to own their sexuality at any age. Thus the label slut is thrown about."

Owning it

Some women, however, throw the word slut about in a different, some might say friendly, way. A woman who has chosen to remain anonymous says, "Some of my very close friends and I use the terms 'slut' and 'whore' when addressing each other in sarcastic emails or texts. In fact, I recall doing this all the way back in high school." You might be gasping, ready to pull the feminist card at this woman, her friends and her mother (hence her anonymous status), but she beats you to the punch saying, "I was raised by a feminist parent, I'm a feminist and many of my friends are feminists. None of us use the word in reference to other women or in a degrading way."

She goes on to explain, "I suppose it's a way of reclaiming language that has typically been used to tear women down." Reclaiming words that have been given way too much societal power is a trademark feminist creed. Much like saying "Voldemort" out loud to loosen his power, perhaps saying the word "slut" takes away some of the cruel negativity that has been associated with it. This woman says, "I certainly don't support someone calling another woman a slut as an insult, and you won't find anyone in my circle using that word to refer to another woman in a negative way. But in fun conversation, we absolutely own that word."

In theory, we need the word

In an article on The Huffington Post, Tannenbaum points to the shocking number of women in the media who've been called sluts to mean sexually loose — Elliot Rodger's victims, the Steubenville victim, the girls who committed suicide after being victims of rape. Anyone else notice how many times "slut" is associated with "victim?" These girls were assaulted and called sluts for it as if they were willing participants and therefore it's their morality that's off-kilter. There's so very much wrong with this reasoning, I'm not even sure where to start, but some theorists do.

A. Lynn, a self-proclaimed nerdy feminist, runs the blog FaceBookSexism where she calls out the sexist things people say on social media every day. She often tags submissions as "slut shaming," something she's been told she should stop doing. In an article on The Huffington Post she says, "Just because you think something is 'slutty' doesn't mean you can shame it." Meaning, slut shaming is pervasive, but how can we call it out — and therefore squash it — without calling it what it is? Banning a word rarely creates the change we want it to.

Re-definers

But redefining it sometimes does. In a surprising twist, sociologists Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura Hamilton's five-year research study showed that college girls use the word slut more as a judgment of class than sexuality. Armstrong told The Huffington Post, "The more affluent women tended to make a distinction between being 'classy' and 'trashy,' and that was very much about appearance — for example having the money to have fancy clothes, the right hairstyle, the right tan, handbags and jewelry. If you looked 'classy,' you wouldn't be seen as a slut. You couldn't be 'trashy' if you looked right... And the less affluent women associated 'sluttiness' with being stuck-up, snobby and exclusive. They considered the affluent women who went to a lot of parties and 'hooked up'... to be 'slutty.'" In this unique definition, slut is used as an insult, but isn't necessarily correlated to sexual activity.

New takes altogether

In a controversial blend of redefinition and reclaiming, there's the SlutWalk. SlutWalk is a transnational movement of protest marches which began on April 3, 2011, in Toronto, Ontario, with "sister" rallies occurring globally. Participants protest against explaining or excusing sexual violence by referring to any aspect of a woman's appearance.

The rallies began after Constable Michael Sanguinetti, a Toronto Police officer, suggested that "women should avoid dressing like sluts" as a precaution against unwanted sexual attention. The protest takes the form of a march, mainly by young women, where some dress as "sluts" in revealing attire.

No, you didn't

And then there are those of us who don't use the word. It's not one in my everyday vocabulary because I still define it in the "traditional" way and correlate it with an insult and a judgment that I don't want to make. Arreola distills what's behind the non-use of the word slut to this, "I know some women who have embraced the word... I support them in that reclamation. But I think it is just sad that we still hear this word bantered about. That a woman who is confident in her sexuality should have to pay any price by her peers."

At our house, if you're saying something to be mean to someone else, that's the problem, not your word choice

Bad words

My children often ask me about "bad words," words they'd get in trouble for saying at school. And I always tell them the same thing: I'm more worried about how you say the word than the word itself. At our house, if you're saying something to be mean to someone else, that's the problem, not your word choice. All of which gives me something to think about when it comes to the word slut.

Share with us!^ What do you think about the word slut? Will you be using it? How?

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