January 23, 2019 | ° F

FOWLER: Society needs to reconsider connotations behind word “slut”


Opinions Column: Sex and the City


It seems fair to assume that almost every woman has been called a slut at some point in her life. In my own life, an acute awareness of the term came in middle school, when my best friend was called a slut after she had her first kiss in seventh grade. In the weirdly charged environment that is early pubescence, where everything is new and everyone compares “firsts” — when you had your first kiss, when you first “hung out” with someone romantically, the list goes on — it felt like the word slut was thrown out a lot more. There was constant judgement and jealousy, a need to equate one’s lack of sexual experience or prowess (often by choice) with a character default in someone who perhaps was sexually active or more romantically interested. I had thought that the use of this language had subsided, but I am not sure that that is true, and lately I have heard the word slut used by women to describe other women more than I have heard it from men. Do women feel more entitled to use a term that has likely been used on them? When a woman calls another woman a slut, is it more okay? What are the implications?

I recently read an article by Time which referenced a study done by Social Psychology Quarterly about slut shaming. The study followed 53 college-aged women who lived on the same residence hall floor. The study made a distinction between “high-status” and “low-status” women. High-status women were “primarily from upper-middle class backgrounds and achieved peer status through their participation in the greek scene.” Low-status women often did not participate in Greek life and were from less wealthy families. The study concluded that the “high-status women signaled to those trying to break in to their social groups that they did not fit in ... by engaging in public ‘slut shaming.'” It is interesting to consider slut-shaming as a form of gatekeeping or policing the actions of other women. Undeniably, being called a slut has a negative connotation, despite its vagueness — women are not only called sluts for “deviant” sexual behavior (like casual hookups), but also for things like how they dress or pictures they post online. This allows for lots of room for a woman to criticize the actions of another woman for infringing upon a space which feels like her own without acknowledging jealousy or insecurity or the like. 

Being called a slut effectively reduces a woman to her sexuality or whatever critique of her sexual expression the term is being used in reference to. This is significant power for a word to hold. We do not think of being called a slut as a term which has room for nuance or a word complementary to other descriptors of personality in the way that someone might be, say, a slut and a pre-med student. Rather, being called a slut works to reduce other factors of a person, almost as if to say, I disagree with whom you sleep with/what you wear/the way you act in sexual situations, and that sort of disorder or divergence is the most important thing. Women have been fighting for comprehensive and nuanced representations of themselves for a long time — it is all too often that women are painted in this vein of pure or dirty, slutty or prude — and the use of the term slut inherently forces women into this dichotomy. 

But what if a woman is slutty? What if you would like to put a woman down, specifically because of the way she expresses her sexuality? Sometimes we want to be hurtful, and calling a woman a slut can certainly do the job. But perhaps we should first consider why we make such quick judgements regarding the sexual lives of women — sexual lives which, often, are private. We should think about the ways in which we view female and male sexuality. Obviously there is not a male equivalent to being called a slut or a whore, and so we should work to silence our critique of women who seem “slutty” only because they fall outside of perhaps typical conceptions of a sexual woman — a woman who is often passive, who is not the pursuer but the pursued, etc. Perhaps it would be worth considering if we want to call women sluts in order to police their behaviors, and why that might not be our place. Women are working to reclaim the term slut, and I have heard it used in positive ways, but certainly negative usages still outweigh the good. We should be critical of our language and its implications, and it is worth considering the words we use and motivations behind them. 

Ashley Fowler is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in English. Her column, “Sex and the City,” runs on alternate Thursdays.

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Ashley Fowler

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