Slut Used To Refer to a Promiscuous Woman. Let’s Keep It That Way.

What Women Really Think
April 27 2012 3:17 PM

In Defense of the Original Meaning of the Word Slut

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Women take part to a SlutWalk

Photograph by Johanna Leguerre/AFP/Getty Images.

Katy, I was fascinated by your report on Sluts Across America, the latest project to wield the epithet as a weapon in defense of women’s reproductive rights. It’s tempting to want to nominate slut for the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year considering the attention it’s garnered since the SlutWalk movement gained prominence last fall, but I won’t—not because it’s too early, but because I’m afraid that at this rate, the word will have no definition at all by Dec. 31.

L.V. Anderson L.V. Anderson

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

Though its motto—“We might as well own it, right?”—sounds like a defiant statement of reclamation, Sluts Across America has redefined slut to the point of near-meaninglessness. Inspired by Rush Limbaugh’s “slut-shaming” of Sandra Fluke, the site encourages readers to complete the sentence, “I’m a slut because ...” and then gives them the prompt, “Why do you use or support birth control?” Now slut refers not to a promiscuous woman, nor even to a sexually active woman, but to anyone who supports the availability of contraceptives.

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Don’t get me wrong; I understand the political trick Sluts Across America is going for here. Limbaugh defined Fluke as a slut simply for testifying about her friend’s ovarian cysts; Sluts Across America is simply taking that absurd line of reasoning to its logical conclusion. But is embracing Limbaugh’s nonsensical categorization really doing feminists any favors?

Slut used to be (and in many cases still is) a derogatory term for a woman who sleeps around. When sex-positive feminists began reclaiming that term, they embraced its definition but rejected its negative connotation. The message of this reclamation was that the number of sexual partners a woman has and the kinds of sex acts she consents to have absolutely no bearing on her worth or respectability as a human being. In particular, the reclamation of slut was meant to fight the notion that a promiscuous woman couldn’t be raped.

The SlutWalk movement, though controversial, aligned itself nicely with this argument. But the response to Limbaugh’s attack on Fluke, including Sluts Across America, took a different turn. People defended Fluke not because it’s okay to be a promiscuous woman, but because Fluke wasn’t a promiscuous woman (at least not as far as we could tell from anything she said in public). Implicit in all this outcry was the sense that those on Fluke’s side of the aisle privately agreed with Limbaugh that it would be a bad thing if Fluke had actually been a slut. As some pointed out, Fluke, by virtue of her class, race, educational background, and apparent chasteness, was a “perfect victim.”

As are many of those participating in Sluts Across America. “I’m a slut because I am not financially ready to support a child,” wrote one participant. “I’m a slut because I need to regulate my menstrual cycle,” supplied another. These are great reasons to support and use birth control, but they don’t make you a slut. These reasons are also socially privileged behaviors; we applaud women who are “responsible”—another loaded term—about their health and sexuality.

My fear about the race for everyone to self-identify as a slut is that the real sluts—the women who sleep around, who have one-night stands, who engage in arbitrarily ill-favored sexual practices—are being shunted back into the corner where they’ve always been. If our goal is to stand up for women’s control of their own bodies, let’s not stigmatize those who merely choose to use them differently than others do. The vast majority of Americans “use or support birth control”; that moral battle has been won. But plenty of those Americans still aren’t comfortable with the idea of a woman who wants to sleep around. Let’s fight that battle instead.

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