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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Rape law also still treats certain kinds of sexual conduct as unacceptable for women, by exempting it from the rule that places a woman’s sexual history outside the bounds of evidence that can be admitted at a rape trial. Rape shield laws prevent defendants accused of sexual assault from putting a woman’s entire past on trial to discredit her. But courts still allow in this evidence if the judge thinks it shows a pattern of behavior that’s in some way distinctive. In many cases, it’s deviance that’s deemed to make a woman’s history distinctive, allowing the court to give the jury the chance to conclude that a particular’s woman’s claim of rape is less legitimate. “Women whose pasts involve consensual sex of a disapproved kind are presumed to be unrapeable,” Tuerkheimer writes. “Most vexing are acts of prostitution, group sex, and sadomasochism.”

The women of SlutWalks, of course, reject all of this. They think women, not old-fashioned judgments rendered by the state, should define what sex they want and what sex they outlaw. In this feminist roar Tuerkheimer sees a way to shift the rape paradigm once and for all. She wants judges to stop treating certain women as not rapeable based on the kind of sex they’ve consented to in the past. And she wants a new crime of acquaintance rape that topples the rule that it’s only rape, legally speaking, if there’s force involved. On this front, there’s progress in the new definition for collecting local rape statistics announced by the Department of Justice in January. DoJ now defines rape as “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus,” that occurs “without the consent of the victim.”

Tuerkheimer sees the wider feminist rebellion against slut shaming as crucial to forcing more changes along these lines from courts and legislators. Feminist consciousness, she says, could “enable a legal shift that would not otherwise be possible.” I’m not in the habit of imagining that feminists have such power, but in this season of uproar over Limbaugh, why not? Tuerkheimer urges the SlutWalkers to start talking to the law professors and lawyers, and vice versa. It takes a law professor to say that, of course, but maybe Tuerkheimer has pointed out a virtue of the muscular feminism that proudly rejects slut shaming that feminists themselves have so far missed.

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Sandra Fluke plays a role here, too. By making the case that women need insurance coverage that includes birth control—to protect their health in some cases, and in others, yes, simply to have sex—she is reminding us that of course this is part of who we are. We don’t have to modestly avert our eyes from that reality or keep quiet about it, either. That’s what President Obama understood when he told Fluke her parents should be proud of her. Feminists have plenty to be proud of Fluke for, too. For standing up to Limbaugh, for sure, but also for helping to make the revolt against slut shaming as mainstream as she is.

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