Why “Slut” is still sexist

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.

Let’s talk words (in which I am apolitically correct)

Words are powerful things. While the origin of the quote is disputed, back in the annals of history, several people opined something along the lines of “among great leaders, the pen is mightier than the sword”, referring to how the best leaders recognise the power of ideas before they recognise military power. Words fuel discrimination in huge ways, whether we dismiss this fuel or not. And words are one of the most insidious ways we disrespect and disclude women, transsexual, intersex, and homosexual people, even beyond the fact that words are largely classist due to the fact that you need a very good education to understand even half of them. Maybe thousands of years later, we’ll be arguing about who said that words determine the way we think.

There’s nothing political about political correctness- you don’t need to be left-wing to value social justice. It’s about taking away the power of words to dictate the way we think- have you ever wondered why talking about doctors gets people to assume you’re talking about men? Possibly because you’re used to having other subtle indicators in people’s language point out the gender of the person they’re talking about for you, which are largely absent with doctors. Possibly because the way many people use English assumes that male is the norm or default. One of the most wonderful things feminism has brought with it, to my mind, is the idea of English as a language that’s no longer normative, where there are a lot less assumptions about what a word, and therefore a sentence, means.

A prominent example of sexist words is that our pronouns are gendered and binary. Some people insist that you’re a he or a she, or if you’re lucky, a (s)he. (even if you’re intersex or transgendered or genderqueer) Recently we’ve been getting retro and using “they” as a nice ambiguously genderless pronoun, but it’s not catching and the more inflexible grammarians are rioting over plural ambiguity.1

There’s also the whole issue with -man and man-. Mankind? No, I think you mean humankind. Fireman? No, I think you mean firefighter. Chairman? No, I think you mean chair, or maybe chairperson if you like long words. Manpower? I think you mean labour. Manhours? I think you mean workhours. I’m still working on manhole2, however. 🙂

normative sexuality versus pluralistic sexualityThen there’s sexuality- our labels for sexuality are mostly normative, even though our society is becoming a lot more pluralistic on this matter. I think here the teenagers have it right- we like boys or we like girls, or we like both. Saying that we’re gay or straight, hetero or homo, feeds into heteronormativity. Two wonderful new words should make your acquaintance: gynosexual and androsexual, respectively meaning “attracted to women” and “attracted to men”. Not only do these words not assume a norm, they can’t even identify gayness or straightness without you knowing who they’re being attached to. They also join bisexuality in uniting sexuality by the object of attraction- drawing attention to the potential similarities in what women and men are attracted to about men, and what women and men are attracted to about women. The mere existence of terms like this offer a subtle challenge to our ideas about sexuality.

It’s even more illustrative of how easy this type of thinking is that “Maori” can be translated as “normal”, and “Pakeha” as “different”. But I’ll leave the concept of pluralistic racial language to someone much better equipped to deal with it.

1If you’re one of those grammarians, I suggest to you that you attempt to resurrect the second-person familiar pronoun otherwise known as “thee” before you complain about us copying respected literary figures like Jane Austin in adding some general (and not just gender) ambiguity to our pronouns. And if anyone starts talking about gender being a grammatical term and having its meaning stolen by feminism, I’ll whack them over the head with my over-sized German dictionary (it comes with three genders included) as a way of introducing them to the idea that a term can have multiple contexts. Try mentioning the word “jerk” to a group of teenagers, then to a group of physicists, and you might see what I mean.
2Personholes have thus far failed to catch on, especially as they’re often taken to be innuendo. Product development is hard at work fixing this issue. 😉


So, I saw this link while commenting elsewhere about the whole Fritzl debacle. (yes, I’ve got another post on the burner on that one) It’s a wonderful little term about a certain tactic of lying. As a former sneaky bastard myself, I’m quite familiar with the general idea, (never act guilty, guilty people don’t get away with things) but it’s really elucidating to see it laid out in such clear language.