At the end of Mean Girls, when all the junior girls are gathered in the gym dissecting the insults found in the Burn Book, Tina Fey’s character says to the audience, “You all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it okay for guys to call you sluts and whores.” Who could forget that climactic moment? The message that Tina Fey is relaying is sound: when it comes to the way girls relate to one another, the things we do and say can be as bad as the misogynistic men we complain about. We call each other sluts and whores and we laugh it off like some kind of joke, thinking it’s not sexist when we say it. However, women are just as capable of perpetuating sexism against women as men are. And that’s what we’re doing.
Now, I know what some of you might be thinking. “But I don’t mean it in an insulting way! I’m just trying to reclaim the word slut!” That might be fine in certain context. The Slutwalk Movement, for example, was created after a Toronto Police officer told a group of college students at a campus safety session that they could avoid assault if they stopped “dressing like sluts.” This victim-blaming birthed a movement. One of the main ideas behind Slutwalks is to shed light on the hypocrisy of these words, because rape and assault predate the fashion of short skirts, and clothing choice is not an indicator of sexual consent. It’s very common for those who attend a Slutwalk to dress in clothes considered to be “slutty” in order to demonstrate they are not asking to be raped by doing so.
Image courtesy of PUBlication
The movement goes beyond an attempt to “take back” the word slut; it’s about women taking control of their own sexuality. Besides, the word slut never belonged to us in the first place.
The term slut can be dated back all the way to the Middle Ages. It was used to describe a sexually promiscuous woman in a negative way. It was an insult — a slut was portrayed as something dirty. Women in charge of their own sexuality were considered to be unclean. Today, the meaning of the word has expanded.
From the beginning, slut was a word meant to punish women for having a lot of sex; now we use it to punish women in other ways. A girl (not just adults, but younger girls as well) who wears clothes that are considered “too revealing” are also “sluts.” Female Halloween costumes, for example, tend to be “slutty” versions of whatever a woman is trying to dress as, with manufacturers shortening the hemlines and tightening the seams. Yet, despite the clothing industry making it increasingly difficult to find anything “modest,” women who choose to wear these clothes are being punished for it. We get called sluts for daring to step outside what is considered proper social behavior, even though society is simultaneously encouraging us to do so. We are being set up to fail.
This is all sending us a damaging message: that girls are objects defined by their sexuality. Society tells us to reveal more of our bodies, then chastises us for it. Words such as “dumb” or “dirty” are often used in conjunction with slut, implying that a “slutty” woman ought to be discarded, disregarded, or even loathed. It takes just one misstep for a girl, even one who chooses to abstain from sexual activity, to suddenly become a victim of slut-shaming. Any sort of “devious” behavior on a woman’s part, be it falling asleep at a male friend’s house or choosing to wear shorts and a crop top on a hot summer day, can be seen as indicators of a “slut.” There is no winning.
It’s important to note that slut is a gendered term. There isn’t a word in the English language used to punish men for having sex or showing too much skin. Men who have lots of sex will occasionally be described as pimps or man-whores (which is a whole ‘nother matter, but suffice it to say that you probably shouldn’t use the word “whore” either). However, it is commonly seen as natural, impressive, sometimes worthy of congratulation when a man sleeps with multiple partners. The music industry is filled with this double standard: male singers glorify the promiscuous lifestyle while simultaneously insulting women who act the same. Men are “supposed” to have a lot of sex, but women are not. Those who do are “sluts,” and any hint of sexuality can lead a woman to fall under this category.
The word slut tries to shun women back into the confines of a patriarchy where we were supposed to remain “pure” until our fathers married us off. It’s a very outdated way of thinking, a relic from a time when a woman’s entire value came from her virginity and when our voices were silenced.
When women call each other sluts, we become implicit in this idea that there is something wrong with a woman who expresses her sexuality — and there isn’t! Just like choosing not to express ones sexuality is also okay. We call each other sluts, and we imply that we’re okay with people seeing us and treating us as sexual objects. We let men continue their misogynist behavior, because we’re doing it, too. By calling each other sluts we let society continue to define our worth by whether or not we conform to the invisible standards of what is or is not too much sex, or what is or isn’t an appropriate expression of sexuality.
So let me tell you something, world. I am not a slut, and not because of what I wear or whether or not I have sex. I’m not a slut because I refuse to be punished by society for failing to behave the way you want me to. I am not a slut because men and women should be held by the same standards, especially when it comes to sex. What I am is a person and a woman. My defining quality is not how I dress or behave sexually. It is my mind and how I use it, even if I use it to decide to sleep with someone.