So, I’ve been annoying my brother recently by challenging his usage of the word “slut”. (And no, that doesn’t mean I think my brother’s sexist, hold on for a second!)
Interesting, he’s actually using the word in a gender-neutral way, (ie. he’s also calling men sluts, and applying it to other habits than sexuality) which almost makes it seem okay to me. I’ve thought about this a bit since I last discussed it with him and I think I’ve hit on what’s bothering me, despite the obvious reaction of “calling men names is not the way to fix the fact that women are called names.”
The problem is that when we use the word “slut” to describe men, even if we’re using it as a term meaning they’re not appropriately careful with who they do the deed with, we’re still not using it consistently with how the word is used in regards to women.
When we “reclaim”1 the word slut to use it against men, it tends to get used to criticise a habit. But when we use the word slut to describe a woman, it’s almost always understood as a dismissal of what she’s saying, what she’s doing, or even of her worth to the speaker as a person. There is no such undertone for men- if men have “bad” sexual habits, that’s mostly viewed as some private failing. (Unless you’re a politician and you get caught at it)
When women have “bad” sexual habits, (much like when they have “bad” appearances) it becomes a standard by which we can judge their entire character and use to denigrate or dismiss them as we wish. The problem is not so much the word as the power we as a society have granted to the idea behind it- and this is something I’ll discuss more as we go along- that it carries with it the connotation that all women are either virgins or whores2, and as a slut, you fall into the latter category, and can thus be mistreated.
1 Really, I don’t think turning around a sexist insult counts as reclaiming a word, so much as turning the patriarchy back on itself. While perhaps useful as an object lesson for men particularly hypocritical about their own sexual habits, I don’t really want to see this happening on a wider scale.
2 This is why “Your mother” jokes are so powerful- motherhood is a positive female image, (thus making us view our mothers as if they’re virgins) but it clashes with our view of women who have sex* as whores- creating cognitive dissonance and challenging our expectations about society. Yeah, humour can be deep sometimes.
* Yeah, okay, I know it’s possible to be a mother without having had sex- but it’s vanishingly unlikely, as most mothers who are artificially inseminated, or who are do-it-yourself-non-sexually-impregnated are still likely to have had sex beforehand, whether with a man or a woman. The point is that motherhood, one of the coolest things in our society, is a result of women who have sex. Therefore, women having sex can be a positive and beautiful thing beyond just the self-gratification involved.