WHAT CONSTITUTES A SLUT?

How many times have you, or someone you know, turned to a friend and asked, “Does this make me look like a slut?”

The question usually comes when a girl’s getting ready to go out, often in the frantic throes of last-minute wardrobe decisions. Friends, ever loyal, scramble to answer, “No, of course not!” Sometimes it’s not even a question you ask, but rather an accusation: “You look like a slut.”

But what does this thing called ‘slut’ look like? Why do we need reassurance that we don’t look like sluts? Is there a slut uniform? How do you know how much sex a woman has by looking at her? And more importantly, why does it matter?

Some may shrug their shoulders and wonder what all the fuss is about – I mean, we’ve got the vote! Tinder! Birth control pills! Sexting! The right to own property! What more could we possibly want, we hysterical, bra-burning women of the world?

Loose Language

The idea that a woman’s choice of clothing might say anything about her sexual behaviour is a strange cultural construct with its roots in patriarchal rules of society. Many shy away from the word ‘feminism’ because it calls to mind an image of the man-hating madwoman. This is not feminism – it’s ignorance. Man-hating and rooting for a world without men is essentially living in the same neighbourhood as full-blown misogyny. Feminism is about the fight to make things fair. It’s about getting to a place where you can expect equal rights across the board, no matter what genitals you happen to have been born with. To get a glimpse of this inequality in action, we need only look at a basic dictionary definition of the word ‘slut’ and its supposedly male counterpart:

slut (noun, derogatory)
1. a woman who has many casual sexual partners
Synonyms: promiscuous woman, prostitute, whore; slattern…
player (noun, informal)
1. a confident, successful man with many sexual partners

There’s a lot that’s wrong here. Why is ‘slut’ derogatory while ‘player’ is marked informal, with a clearly positive description? A language is quite a telling reflection of the society that creates and uses it – so it’s certainly worth taking a closer look at these two terms used to describe the exact same situation. The definition of a slut as ‘a woman who has many casual sexual partners’ and equating her to ‘a prostitute, whore’ is born out of an archaic assumption that women are destined to be virginal beings until stepping into the world of marriage, where they must then bow to the needs and wants of husbands. It presupposes a pure, virginal ideal and its opposite – the devilish slut, the fallen woman. The Virgin Mother or eternally-repentant Mary Magdalene – these are the only options. It defines a woman in terms of her ‘value’ to men. It assumes that a woman’s sexual aspirations should start and end with men and marriage.

Language is a powerful thing when it comes to shaping society and how we interpret the world. The way we speak about women who own their sexuality and refuse to be ashamed of it reveals a cultural assumption that women can either be virgins or whores, and there’s nothing in-between. It reveals a ridiculous level of societal concern (and nosiness) about the sheer possibility that a woman might be promiscuous; religion and state are so concerned about female sexuality that it creates rules, unreasonable dress codes, and even legislation protecting this sacred, purely feminine purity.

Words like ‘slut’ or ‘whore’ are weapons in ways that words like ‘asshole’ and ‘jackass’ are not. Slut is meant as an identity rather than a label you can shrug off. It’s disempowerment. It means you’re dirty, undesirable. It means you’re worth something less than the other ‘untainted’ women around you. It means you’re defined solely in terms of what you can do for men, and what you might have already done for them.

Shame, shame, shame

I live on a small, Mediterranean island called Malta. If you’re visiting, it’s a stunning little gem – especially during the summer months; our majestic capital city is the 2018 City of Culture, and we recently won the run for EU Presidency. We’ve got countless great beaches and centuries of history to boot. Some citizens love the history so much, they’ve decided to stay firmly in the Dark Ages. We’ve only recently (and just barely) made the morning-after pill available in Malta. This island was dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. Women were given the right to choose what happens to their bodies only under fire, with anti-choice groups and religious zealots doing everything in their power to prevent that power to choose and working as hard as possible to intensify the shame already associated with female sexuality. Top comments from the witch-hunting crowd included: “this will just encourage rape”, “women should take responsibility for having sex for their own pleasure”, and “you’re killing babies”. There was also an overwhelming amount of ignorance surrounding the topics of conception, how contraception works, and the fact that condoms might fail sometimes. Anti-choice commentators portrayed those in favour of emergency contraception as mad, single women loosed upon the world with an empty bottle of vodka in one hand and sign that says “asking for it” in the other. Good, responsible women don’t need access to this contraception; they’re pure – or at least that’s what the medieval-minded believe. Some pharmacists still think they have the right to refuse to sell it on moral grounds, feeding the shame machine. This might sound like a bad joke, but it happens. Women are made to feel shame for having sex, and some more shame if and when they need access to emergency contraception.

A female with the same sexual appetites as a male is a slut. A woman wearing a tight dress is a slut. A woman who refuses to sleep with a man is, according to him, a slut. A woman who gets a Brazilian and goes braless is probably a slut. A woman who buys the pill is definitely a slut. There’s no such taboo placed on male sexuality – it’s only female sexuality which is thrust into the shadows, spoken of only in whispers, during a full moon. Male promiscuity seems to be something society encourages; it’s met with a slap on the back and a smile. Fine – but why is the same so unacceptable for women? Why does society feel it has a right to constantly police the female body? This distorted view of sexuality is part of a larger cultural tapestry, woven together with slut-shaming, victim-blaming, female genital mutilation, anti-choice groups, and unreasonable female-specific dress codes.

 

Asking for It

We see sex as something more important to men than it is to women – this needs to change because it’s not true. What is true is that women have been conditioned to feel shame when talking about it. It doesn’t help matters when a woman is raped and is met with questions like, “What were you wearing? How much did you drink? Were you flirting with him? You were alone in a room with three men, what did you expect would happen?” The rapist is often let off with little more than a slap on the wrist, depending on how well-connected daddy is or how badly his promising future could be damaged by the inconvenience of going to prison for rape. That adds humiliation and abysmally low self-worth to the shame.

Many see this as something trivial – and that’s precisely the problem. The world is completely obsessed with sex, but in reality, it’s been reduced to a weak shadow of what it is. Our culture needs a healthier understanding of sexuality. Whether a person identifies as male, female, or neither of those two culturally-constructed genders, sex is about an individual’s relationship with the self and with their senses. It’s central to physical and mental health and essential to sex education and awareness about what counts as consent. Everyone should grow up with an understanding of what kind of touch and treatment is right, and what feels wrong. That, in turn, creates the confidence we need to speak about it at all levels, and gives people the freedom and intimacy to experience their sexuality in the best possible way for themselves, whether it’s more sex, better sex, no sex, or exploring their curiosities in a healthy way.

Oh, and we really need to stop using the word “slut”. Sluts don’t exist.