Slut: Why we shouldn't reclaim this word, despite SlutWalk, Slut Pride, Rock the Slut Vote, Femen, and other attempts

Why We Shouldn’t Reclaim Slut

Why We Shouldn’t Reclaim Slut

Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language
Feb. 4 2015 2:46 PM

Why We Shouldn’t Reclaim Slut

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Since the riot grrrl feminist punk rock movement of the early 1990s, when Kathleen Hanna of the band Bikini Kill wrote SLUT on her stomach in lipstick, feminists have attempted to wrest control of the label “slut.” Instead of being shamed for our sexuality, the thinking has been, let’s take ownership of this label and subvert its meanings. It’s a brave, saucy move with doses of irony and humor mixed in, and one that’s been gestating for a while. Years before the SlutWalk movement erupted in 2011 and sought to rehabilitate the term, I had amassed a closet full of slut T-shirts given to me by campus groups after my lectures on slut-bashing. But I’ve never worn them. Simply put, most people aren’t in on the joke, which creates more issues than it solves.

After a member of Femen, a Ukrainian women’s rights group known for baring their breasts, staged a topless protest in Berlin in front of Russian president Vladimir Putin, calling him a “dictator,” he smiled in amusement and put up two thumbs of approval.  “If you’re a feminist and a stripper, and the guys watching you don’t know that, does it really matter?” asks Andi Zeisler, the co-founder and editor of Bitch magazine.  You may think that your feminist message, or your feminist identity, is obvious, but chances are it’s not only not obvious, it’s an object of ridicule.

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In a milieu where females are hypersexualized, embracing the word slut does not seem to me to be an act of radical protest. It seems more like a capitulation. Today, teenage girls are young women pressured to dress and behave in an overtly sexual way, despite the conventional understanding that a “slut” is a woman who does just that. In this context, calling oneself a “slut” doesn’t allow a girl or woman to wrest the term away from those who would use it to judge her. Rather, it just confirms negative stereotypes of what it means to be female. She is merely adding ammunition to the arsenal.

From Slut Pride workshops at Harvard to the anti-GOP Rock the Slut Vote political movement to the social media campaign Slut Unite, reappropriation of slut in a “good” way is fashionable. Yet when Yale fraternity pledges hold a sign reading “We Love Yale Sluts” or when millions of us receive spam emails advertising the availability of “Hot Local Sluts,” the term is used in the traditional “bad” sense, referring to females as nothing more than sexual objects. A 20-year-old male student at Brown University told me that an acquaintance, a male athlete, posted on his Facebook wall a photo of a woman from a SlutWalk with this caption underneath: “I like to pretend I was raped, but I was asking for it.”

To a number of feminists, slut means “sexually liberated woman.” But to most people, slut means “disgusting woman who deserves to be shamed or even assaulted.” This contradiction exposes the tension between different meanings associated with the word slut.  I fear that that the weight of this contradiction is too much for the word slut to bear.

Besides, many women of color, particularly black women, worry that the pejorative meanings of slut are inseparable from the word itself. Historically, white women and men have likened black women to sexual savages. The default assumption for women of color among white people is that they are “sluts,” “hos,” and “Jezebels”—that they are inherently hypersexualized. Reclamation of slut makes no sense for someone already assumed to be a slut. In fact, it may be an act of self-harm; why denigrate yourself even more than you’re denigrated already? Why deepen your own oppression? As Wagatwe Wanjuki, a black social justice activist who has written and spoken about having been assaulted at Tufts University, explains, “I still worry that I can’t get away with doing ‘slutty’ things because they would be used as justification to not believe that I was assaulted and to invalidate me.” Reclaiming slut is a luxury that many women cannot afford.

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Yes, language is inherently unstable. It is constantly shifting. Chaucer used “sluttish” to refer to a man who was untidy, and the word has picked up a motley of meanings on its journey over the past 600 years. Different people associate different meanings with specific words, and nobody can pin the meaning of any word as if on a museum display. I hope that the injurious meanings of slut will erode over time, and I look forward to the day when the word is either not necessary or is translated with positive associations. Yet I am concerned that now may not be the most strategic time to wrestle over the meanings of slut because the space for misunderstanding is cavernous. When you reclaim slut, it’s not clear to most people what exactly you are reclaiming.

Still, many women feel empowered by taking back this hurtful, horrible term. Reclaiming the word may be a coping mechanism for some who have survived sexual violence or slut-bashing. No one can control the fluidity of linguistic development, and the meanings of slut will shift over time organically. And yes, activism should be fun, humorous, and joyous. Nevertheless, there is a real possibility that reclamation could trigger a terrible backlash against women.

I fervently hope for the day when we can all use slut as a feminist punch line that exposes the absurdity of the sexual double standard, but we are not there yet. First we must provide broader education about slut-shaming and sexual violence. Only when we have some degree of certainty that most people would agree that slut is a dangerous epithet can we begin taking back the word and making it ours.

Excerpted from I Am Not a Slut, © 2015 by Leora Tanenbaum. Published by Harper Perennial.