Slut: How Do We Explain The Word To Our Girls?

Posted on June 9, 2011 by

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mae west

Mae West, The Original Slut

With all of the slut talk in the past month—from SlutWalk, a protest in response to an police officer who said women most at risk of sexual assaults were women “who dressed like sluts,” to talking head Ed Schultz who called right-wing gabber Laura Ingraham a “talk slut”– I’ve wondered more about the word and what it means to a 40-year-old slutty, divorced mother of two like me. (Though, now that I’m remarried, my husband’s the only recipient of my sluttines.) More, I’ve wondered what it means to my daughter, who though is only two years old, certainly has some slutty days ahead of her.

But it was one particular 21-year-old blogger, Allison of Always Always Something, who insisted she didn’t want to be called a slut, like ever. Is this a word of maturity? You know, a word that should be embraced only by sluts in Manolo Blaniks—a.k.a., Sex in the City-aged women? Is this a word we should be discouraging our daughters from using?

First, let’s agree the word “slut” has a variety of definitions. In her essay last week, “What Does Slut Mean, Anyway?” Salon writer Tracy Clark Flory reminded me that the word’s subjective nature—some women think it’s a turn on, others feel it’s a demeaning label, some high school and college girls use it as a term of endearment–is exactly why wields such power.

With that in mind, I went to my daughter’s 24-year-old babysitter (A feminist like me. Getting her master’s in child psychology.) She’s not exactly a teen, but is closer in age to teen than I’ll ever be in my lifetime again.

“I thought you girls were past the hurt of this word,” I said. “Why is this young blogger so anti-slut?”

“The problem with slut is when it comes to young, young girls,” she said. “Once that name gets attached to you. Like to a girl of 12? Boom. It ruins your life. You’re spending years getting over it.” But she said more. Slut also means that you’re nothing. That any guy can have you. That you have no self-worth.

I’ve been called a slut. (I’ve also been called a prude.) None of the name-calling really bugged me too much. Maybe this had something to do with my wise mother’s own advice: Have sex with who you love. Sex is a beautiful thing. There was no fear of sexuality in my home. My mother had gorgeous breasts and she nude sunbathed in our yard. So there’s that.

When my husband Andy and I first met, I was a divorce slut. Sure, baby. I’m so glad to find someone to connect with. But I’d like you better if we slept together. I had taken a year off from men after my divorce. I had a two-year-old son and I needed to concentrate on me. I was alive after my year off, finally, and my body wanted sex. Straight up, banging sex. Don’t mistake horniness with sluttiness—they go hand in hand when you’re single. If you’re willing to sleep with someone on the first date, you’re a slut. But slut is seen differently when you’re stuck in the confines of a judgmental, critical, bullying universe otherwise known as middle school and high school.

I asked Andy what he thought about my embracing of the word slut. “What do you think if Elke used it?”

He didn’t take it so lightly: “I don’t want anyone using that word.”

I retorted with my sexual freedom argument.

“What if it’s Elke?” he said. “What if she’s the one taking on all sorts of sexual partners in high school because she’s embracing her inner ‘slut.’ Because that’s not going to fly with me.”

Ask any feminist-thinking guy about his stance on his daughter’s sex life—you’re going to get a protective cave man. It really wasn’t my point anyway—I don’t necessarily want my daughter sleeping with the whole football team. But I do want her to feel comfortable with her decisions and her sexual partners. I don’t want her carrying any shame with any of her sexual choices.

I discovered there is delineation here about age and sex, just as there is with most things  in life. Maturity factors in and most girls under the age of 16 don’t have quite as much control as they’d like to think. But you can’t NC-17 the word slut. So what do you say to young girls about it? How do you take the shame away? How will I explain one night stands if she asks? Multiple partners? But this is not my point! I am not here to judge. This is about name-calling. This is about a word. In the 80’s, we had bathroom walls. Now we have widespread assault tactics like Facebook.

As a poster who commented on the IMBD page of the movie “Slut,” said, “Embracing language that puts us down, reduces us to our bodies and sexuality is, in my opinion, masochistic and self-destructive. But maybe I think this because I’ve been a therapist for over twenty years and have seen the deadliness of this language.” Has the language changed? Has the definition changed? It seems yes, but how much of the pain attached to the word runs deep?

Diana Joseph details this struggle with the word in her book I’m Sorry You Feel That Way: The Astonishing but True Story of a Daughter, Sister, Slut, Wife, Mother, and Friend to Man and Dog. In her essay, “The Girl Who Couldn’t Say No,” she discusses how her teenage son deemed a girl in his yearbook a “slut.” Joseph—who writes of having many sexual partners and even used the word “slut” in the title of her book—took great offense to her son’s labeling. “I could try and change his minds about sluts, like me, like the girl in his eighth-grade yearbook, like so many girls he’s yet to meet,” she wrote. “I could tell him that the shouldn’t call a girl a slut because someday she might be somebody’s mother. I could tell him maybe she’s a slut because she’s lonely, she’s sad, she’s hoping someone or something will make the lonely and sad go away… But nonetheless, there’s not a girl who’s more hopeful than a slut, more optimistic. She may give in but she doesn’t give up. She keeps looking, she keeps hoping, she’s always waiting for that someone who will say it: I love you, too.”

We know that’s not only reason a woman or girl sleeps with many men. In my own personal experience—I was looking for the pleasure, not the I love you. It’s not just about anyone saying it back, I also learned, but it’s about the right person saying it back. The kind of slutting around I’m talking about encompasses a woman making her own choices about who she is having sex with, and how many men she wants.

Of course, there should be no policing whatsoever when it comes to sexuality. This is what I will tell my children. But people will label. And if that label is slut, I hope my daughter will be in charge of it. “That’s the thing about reclaiming such a potent slur,” writes Clark-Flory. “Sometimes you feel completely in control of it; other times it controls you — and women are far from the only marginalized group with experience in this realm.” And that’s not a new lesson, is it? But it doesn’t make it any less crucial.

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Posted in: Sex, Slut Talk, Teens