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The great myth of sluttiness

I really don’t like the word slut, but I seem to have been hearing it everywhere lately.

It started when a friend got a bit tipsy and very flirtatious with an ex of hers during a night out. He was flirting back, too. Then his girlfriend showed up. My friend later danced with another guy in order to feel empowered again.  The next day however, and even that night, she lamented how “slutty” she’d been.   “When I get angry, I get slutty,” she told me.

Then a day or two later, I was at an event and one girl was really going all out with some dancing.  Bear in mind, there were no guys at the event. This girl wasn’t trying to impress anyone; she was simply having a good time.  That didn’t stop some other girls from calling her a slut, making assumptions about her based solely on her dance style. I heard about their comments through the grapevine, and they went something along the lines of: “We don’t really know her, so we can’t say for sure, but we think she’s a slut. Look at the way she’s dancing.”

Irritated, I turned to Google in search of some cathartic feminist denouncements of the word “slut.” Instead, I found another story that irritated me even further. Back in September at some MTV awards night over in the US, a comedian made fun of the Jonas Brothers (a boy band connected with the Disney Channel; a modern day Hanson if you will) for wearing purity rings.  This is when host Jordin Sparks (who also happened to wear a purity ring) decided to defend the brothers.  Her rebuttal, however, ended up insulting even more people.  Her exact statement was, “It’s not bad to wear a promise ring because not everybody – guy or girl – wants to be a slut.”

Excuse me? So everybody who has ever had sex outside of marriage is a slut? Even if they’ve only ever slept with one person? Even if they’re engaged to the person at the time? Even if they’re de facto partners and have been for many years?

What also irritates me about this speech is that it also equates purity rings with waiting until marriage. I also know some people who intend on waiting until marriage and they don’t wear purity rings. Does this make their decision any less valid? No.  Does the fact that they don’t wear a so called “purity ring” mean that they’re any less likely to stick to their decision? No.

But I digress. The point is the word slut is being used more and more frequently and in ridiculous scenarios. I hate the word in any context, but what really bothers me is its often blatantly inaccurate and irrelevant uses. The word “slut” implies promiscuity. Therefore, the word should not be used in regards to a person’s style of dress or how they dance. These things do not equal promiscuity. And when it comes down to it, what defines promiscuity? Each person has a different definition. What some may consider promiscuous, others find perfectly normal.

Interestingly there is no male equivalent of the word “slut”. It’s exclusively female territory. I know some women want to reclaim the word, rebrand it and make it empowering. They want to use it to assert our female right to sexuality. I don’t want to “reclaim” the word. I don’t think it’s possible to make it positive- it has already been too derogatory. By bandying the word about, we’re only reaffirming that female sexuality can be pigeon-holed into archaic stereotypes. Sluts, prudes, skanky, frigid… notice how there’s no in between territory here.

Ultimately the important thing is to find a way to make sure that no girl feels like a pariah because of her choices. If you want to abstain, you should not be ridiculed for that. At the same time, no girl should be branded as promiscuous just because she has slept with somebody. After all, we have a right to choose what is right for ourselves, as individuals.

9 thoughts on “The great myth of sluttiness

  1. Hi Victoria,

    Great post, thanks. I think there are a couple other issues to mention.

    1. ‘My friend later danced with another guy in order to feel empowered again.’

    Agreed this is definitely not being ‘slutty’, but it still strikes me as problematic to associate the word ‘empowered’ with dancing with a guy. Feeling like one is sexy to boys is nice, but what actually does it give a gal the power to do? Have sex? Partner dance?

    This, to me, is precisely the problem with our media – that it gives the impression that somehow power is aligned with sexual attractiveness. And no doubt there are ways that it is. Prettier people are more likely to earn more money, get better jobs, be more famous, be treated better. Which is hardlly fair. But on any level that actually involves a person’s skills, talent, initiative, will, gumption, resilience or any other quality usually associated with empowerment, being sexy doesn’t rate. And in some cases can hurt. As you point out, people don’t take ‘sluts’ seriously.

    2. The way you’ve worked your argument seems to indicate that there is a problem with promiscuity itself, and what you are objecting to is non-promiscuous women who are labelled slutty. Aside from your observation about determining what exactly is promiscuous behaviour (and that it doesn’t exist for men) it needs to be emphasized that promiscuity itself is not inherently bad or negative if it is done safely and respectfully. Women should be able to have sex with as many partners as they want without any negative stigma attaching to them.

    For me, the negative judgement has to do with what I mentioned above: the motive. If a woman is sleeping around in order to bolster a low self-esteem, then that’s not good. If she regrets her decisions afterwards or is doing things she doesn’t want to, that’s very bad. If she actually enjoys having sex with different men, then, hey, more power to her.

    In any case, one must be careful not to blanketly think of promiscuous as reprehensible behaviour and think instead abouot the effects, good or bad, that the behaviour is having on the woman.

    I think you probably meant this, Victoria, but I just wanted to clarify.

  2. Thanks for those comments Rachel.

    I didn’t at all mean to give the impression that promiscuity is a bad thing. I believe that as long as you stay true to what you want and stay safe while doing it, it doesn’t matter how many guys you’ve slept with. I would never personally think of anyone as a slut and refuse to ever think of myself as one, not only because it’s an awful word but also because I believe that our value as human beings is wholly separate to our sexual relationships. I feel that our personal value is not affected by whether we’ve had sex or not, so I don’t see how anyone can judge a person based on this. Furthermore, I don’t see how a person can be demeaned by enjoying sex. I really hope I didn’t give the impression of denouncing so-called “promiscuity” as this couldn’t be further from the truth.

    I merely focused on women who can not possibly be called promiscuous by any stretch of the imagination in order to show how utterly ridiculous the word “slut” really is. By realising how ludicrously meaningless it is, perhaps we can go further towards discrediting the word entirely.

    I also agree that “empowered” possibly wasn’t the best word choice. My friend danced with this other guy so that she felt sexually attractive, after being upset by her ex. I’m not saying this is a good way to think. The fact that young women often feel like they need male attention in order to feel good about themselves is definitely an issue that needs to be addressed. My point is that she later felt bad about the way that she acted and consequently deemed herself to be “slutty”. In my view, even if a person does regret something (sexual) they’ve done, that doesn’t automatically render the action “slutty”. It’s just a mistake, something that you regret.

  3. I don’t even know if I’m meant to be replying on here, as I just realised it’s a girls magazine :P (I got linked to it from uni).

    This probably the last time you here from me I promise ;P

    Anyway, you both raise great points. I also really hate the stigma attached to woman based on their promiscuity. Yet guys don’t seem to get it, I don’t know why. The whole thing is irrational.

    It really just shows we haven’t gotten over our archaic Christian past, as you hinted at.

    I’ve found though, that the word is usually used by people when they are feeling deeply insecure. For example a girl might wear something showing off a bit of her body, and to some other women or even men, she is suddenly a slut.

    Why is this? Well maybe they aren’t brave enough to publicise their sexuality, they aren’t comfortable enough with themselves to “flaunt what they have”. Maybe they also see you a threat to any relationships they might try initiate. From my experience the people who tend to use such words, also tend to be sexually repressed, bitter and lonely.

    However, you might be interested to learn that it’s not just females affected by this sort of negative behaviour. The common “pretty boy” or supposed “alpha male” tends to also cop a lot of crap from guys, although it tends to be a bit more physical. Some guys don’t like it when you challenge them and make them work for “their woman”.

    I think it mainly stems from some deep seated evolutionary-territorial fear. Alpha/Beta Males and Females etc…

    I’ve also, seen the word used by woman to beat down on themselves, as you talk about. Which I guess indicates a moment of weakness.

    And sleeping around, to find validation is a bit sad. I have no problem if it is for enjoyment, but there are a lot of people who do it in order to qualify themselves. I think men probably do it more, but I can’t be certain, they at least publicise it more :P

    I guess when people do it to you, realise they are doing it because of their fears and insecurities, this has nothing to do with you, so don’t take it personally. Just continue to enjoy yourself :D

    I hope that helped a bit,

    Cheers,
    -Ian

  4. I think when it comes to these kinds of debates it is important to recognise the contradictory nature of our so called “sexual freedoms”. The concept of the “double standard” (the slut/stud gender divide) is only the tip of the iceberg. Accusations of both sluttiness and frigidity are used to undermine women. The only reason they do undermine women is because sexual desirability (note this is NOT the same as sexual agency, or even sexuality) is seen and felt to be one of the ultimate indicators of women’s worth in our society. Women can be either successful or unsuccessful as objects and both are punished in different ways. Thankfully some of us fight back and create spaces where we dare to imagine and try and live out something far more interesting!
    I’ve noticed how easily people locate “sexual repression”/uptight Christian morality as the primary target of “sex positive feminist” wrath. Obviously conservative morality is still fighting fit in certain corners and is often not far from the surface. But I’d contend that it is not quite as pervasive as the constant sexual objectification of women across all media and consumer culture- it is so normalised many people don’t even notice. Both conservative Christian values and pop culture sexually objectify women in different ways. Until we see these things as two prongs of the same fork (that uncomfortable fork I keep having to remove from my arse over and over again) women will continue to be set up in opposition to each other as either sexy/slut or uptight.
    It isn’t enough to say “yay for sex” and “more sex = less repression”. That is not “sex-positive” feminism except in a pretty piss poor pop version of a body of feminist work that is politically committed and far more sophisticated in its analysis.
    I’ve found though, that the word is usually used by people when they are feeling deeply insecure. For example a girl might wear something showing off a bit of her body, and to some other women or even men, she is suddenly a slut.
    Well maybe they aren’t brave enough to publicise their sexuality, they aren’t comfortable enough with themselves to “flaunt what they have”. (hey why is “flaunting” seen to be the direct consequence of being comfortable with yourself??) Maybe they also see you a threat to any relationships they might try initiate. From my experience the people who tend to use such words, also tend to be sexually repressed, bitter and lonely.
    Ian, Is it not probable that for every woman who is “publicising her sexuality” because she feels good about herself, there is another who is doing the exact same thing because she feels insecure? And of course these different motivations can manifest in the same woman at different times, sometimes at the same time.
    If women are insecure….is it any wonder why? ???
    One thing we can do is make sure we don’t become complicit in the cultural machinery of sexual surveillance. We can refuse to set each other up as sluts and prudes for a start. We can try not to act out of insecurity.

  5. I think it’s about time we invented a word to define a male “slut”. Or better still, let’s get rid of all those horrid words that so degrade us females! Especially the C word and the P word which used to be used to describe a much loved pet!

  6. I’m definitely with you there Zelda. I hate those words. At uni, one term that gets used quite a bit is swamp donkey, and it doesn’t seem bad in the way that slut does, mainly because of how humourous it is. No one ever uses it in a serious manner but rather to jokingly inquire if a friend got up to any “swamp donkeying” last night, i.e hooked up with someone in a very public place in a way that they perhaps not have in non-alcohol related environment. While some people may joke about being sluts, the word slut is ultimately a degrading term. The same conversations injected with a humourous phrase somehow become more benign. Perhaps we just need to replace all the words we don’t like with ones that don’t act like barbs.

  7. I have heard the term “manwhore” used many times, and sometimes my friends have talked about mutual male friends as being slutty, but it never has the same connotations, and is almost always said with an appreciative chuckle, rather than disdain/disgust/jealousy(?)

    I disagree with the promise-ring wearers calling anyone who has had sex outside marriage a “slut”, purely because i dont’ like the word either. but at least there’s someone out there in the celebrity world telling kids it’s okay to wait and it’s not social suicide to be a 14 year old virgin.

    it’s also about time women stopped turning on each other in such nasty ways. if we collectively take a stand against other people’s judgemental attitudes maybe it could get better.

  8. I refer to anyone with inconsiderate sexual behaviour or extra promiscious behaviour as being slutty but would only use the word as a noun if I was describing a man. I don’t like slutty guys, mega slutty ones becuase I would like to be someone’s special one and trust in them if I was dating them. I also don’t want to catch an STD. HOwever, women, go for it. You can’t win anyway so you might as well have fun. (Very sexist, I know).

  9. Great article, Victoria – this issue has been bothering me for some time now. The word “slut” is used as a weapon nowadays. A lazy, bitchy weapon. Disappointingly, I hear more women calling other women sluts than men using it. And you’re right – it’s very often used improperly.

    I remember a big fight within a friendship group in high school because Girl A called Girl B a slut. Girl B was actually a virgin at the time! Girl A’s argument was that Girl B dated a lot of boys (and was admired by many of them). Girl A was not being facetious – she quite seriously thought that serial dating meant promiscuity. I don’t think she knew much about sex…

    Which brings it all back to your point that people’s ideas of promiscuity are different, and it’s unfair to use the word against others. And anyway, people shouldn’t judge others based on their sex lives.

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