Reclaiming the Word Slut Is Great for the Feminist Movement

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
March 5 2012 3:14 PM

Sluts Unite

By standing up to Rush Limbaugh’s slur, Sandra Fluke shows how sex positivity is recharging feminism.

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Sandra Fluke, a third-year law student at Georgetown University, gets ready to testify before Congress

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Sandra Fluke has pointed out that Rush Limbaugh tried to silence her when he called her a slut and a prostitute last week. But the oldest, hoariest trick for shutting women up didn’t work this time. Bolstered by her experience as an activist and a pitch-perfect call of support from President Obama, Fluke soldiered on in her efforts to persuade Georgetown University  to include contraception in its package of health care coverage. She’s 30, not 14, and in her sober and smart TV appearances, Fluke is doing more than most of us ever will to take the sting out of slut shaming. Her forceful presence is the reason for Limbaugh’s apology over the weekend, utterly lame and inadequate as it was. How can he possibly claim that he didn’t mean to attack Fluke personally after hammering away at her for three days, even crazily suggesting that women who use birth control should post sex tapes online “so we can all watch.” May the advertisers who are running from Limbaugh, today joined by AOL, stay far far away.

Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

Reclaiming the word slut is also the aim of the SlutWalks, the protest movement that started last spring in Canada and spread to more than 70 cities worldwide. Taking angry inspiration from a Toronto police officer who said the best way for women to prevent being raped is to “avoid dressing like sluts,” the women joining in SlutWalks have marched in all manner of bras, bodices, and other scanty dress. They won both enthusiastic applause and ambivalence from the feminist blogosphere. SlutWalks, and the broader reclamation projection they and Fluke stand for, represent a cultural shift that puts women’s sexual agency front and center rather than modestly cloaking it. Could that change also be the key to reforming rape law for the modern era?

That’s the thesis of Deborah Tuerkheimer, a law professor at DePaul University who is one of the first in the academy to digest the SlutWalk phenomenon. In a new article, Tuerkheimer argues that the “rise of sex-positivity,” as she calls it, is “the most significant feminist initiative in decades.” What’s distinctive about this reclamation is that women are insisting both on sex without rape, and on sexuality without judgment. And that insistence, Tuerkheimer points out, directly challenges traditional rape law.

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In the protest movement of my own college days, Take Back the Night, women marched to make it safe to walk alone in the dark. The primary concern was stranger rape and physical safety. The SlutWalks conception is about acquaintance rape or date rape—the category of sexual assault that accounts for 90 percent of the whole. When women (or men) accuse people they know of rape, it’s far trickier for police and prosecutors to address, because the legality of the encounter turns on consent rather than force. Traditionally, rape law focuses on the latter. It sounds retrograde, I know, but as Tuerkheimer reminds us, in a majority of states, “a woman’s non-consent alone is thus insufficient to establish rape.” This makes it very hard to win convictions in the he said/she said realm of date rape. And it also means that a judge or jury can deem a woman who is totally passive—because she is asleep or drugged, for example—to not have been raped, even if she said she was.

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