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Should we really reclaim the word 'slut'?

Clementine Ford
Published: February 20, 2015 - 12:00AM

When I was 16, my uncle came to stay with us. He was pottering around outside one morning when he noticed something scrawled on one of the white poles on our fence-line.Clementine is a slut, it read. He called my father, and the two of them worked together to scrub it off so that I wouldn't see it. But like most children, I had been called many things and had called others many things in return. 'Slut' was just another word available in the arsenal of childhood cruelty, particularly among the girls who adopt the weapons of misogyny in order to ingratiate themselves with patriarchal order.

Still, even though I had discovered feminism by the time my father told me of this event and even though I rejected notions of sexual propriety and gender, I felt the sting of injustice. At 16, I had never even kissed a boy much less done anything that could warrant the label of 'slut'. Surely there were better, more accurate words to call me?

In 2011, the first 'Slutwalk' was held in Toronto, Ontario. The rally was organised after a Toronto police officer delivered a talk on safety to a group of college students and advised women to 'avoid dressing like sluts' if they wanted to protect themselves from victimisation. Understandably, the constable's advice caused outrage among the women on campus. On April 3, over 3000 people marched through the city to protest the continued use of slut shaming and victim blaming to remove responsibility from perpetrators of sexual assault. All around the world, other cities and women's groups followed suit.

Slutwalk has not been without its detractors, even within feminist circles. Some people feel that the message is too broad, and that this leads to a confusing lack of cohesiveness among participants. Leora Tanenbaum is one of these critics. Her new book, I Am Not A Slut: Slut shaming in the age of the Internet, argues that the power of the word 'slut' to demean women and their sexuality is too deeply ingrained, and that the message (and purpose) of reclamation still too inaccessible for the large numbers of people still uncritically moving through a patriarchy. In Salon, she writes:

Today, teenage girls are young women pressured to dress and behave in an overtly sexual way, despite the conventional understanding that a "slut" is a woman who does just that. In this context, calling oneself a "slut" doesn't allow a girl or woman to wrest the term away from those who would use it to judge her. Rather, it just confirms negative stereotypes of what it means to be female. She is merely adding ammunition to the arsenal.

While I don't agree with every part of Tanenbaum's argument, I do agree that the physical and linguistic violence of gender inequality makes it difficult to truly embrace terms that are still used to degrade us. Can we truly take back a word - wear it proudly, even! - when that same word is so frequently used to remind women we are literal dumping grounds for the world's garbage? Indeed, as Daven Hiskey writes here, "In the 19th century in England, slut still retained something of its original meaning, even so far as garbage cans being called 'slut-holes', meaning a hole for rubbish.  This can be seen in a Saturday Review snipped from 1862, 'There are a good many slut-holes in London to rake out.'"

And this is where the reclamation of 'slut' falls down for me. Words like 'slut' and 'whore' and 'skank' and 'ho' actually have very little to do with sex or how much of it anyone's having. Instead, they're about the destruction of women's personhood to justify other people's entitlement. Hate speech is used against women so that other people can deflect responsibility for their own base desires to indulge their own secret (and sometimes overt) misogyny. I didn't have to respect her or seek consent for these acts, the internal reasoning goes, because she's just a slut. Or even, I don't need to bother speaking to or about this woman as if she were a real person with real feelings because she's just a whore and she doesn't deserve respect. And the even more benign and day-to-day, Well, I'm not saying that what happened was right...but what else can you expect if you dress and act like a slut?

I understand the inclination to take back words historically used against you. But surely for this to work, there has to be a reciprocal horror felt by those people who believed it their privilege to use them in the first place? The problem with a word like 'slut' is that, with the exception of a few people, there's still no embarrassment felt at using it as a slur. Radio hosts can still happily use it on-air to demonise women advocating for accessible birth control and not experience any kind of real world consequences. Conservative pundits can use it to urge chastity in women's dress and behaviour, and this is still held as 'sensible advice'. 'Slut' is still considered an appropriate measure of a woman's worth, her rights to bodily and sexual autonomy still apparently rising and falling with the length of her skirt.

And so I find myself largely in agreement with Tanenbaum. Rather than reclamation, what I would rather see is the shame of its use turned on those people who use it to disempower women. The use of hate speech to dehumanise women needs to become a point of deep embarrassment, not a battleground over linguistic ownership.

Eventually, when society has progressed as it surely must, we may come to a point where the word itself doesn't elicit shame OR triumph but merely confusion; bafflement that such a concept - a woman empowered, with control over both her body and her choices - would possibly be considered a target for such ridicule or violent disdain.

"Slut?" they'll say. "But what does that even mean?"

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