27 May 2002

So, What Is A Slut?
(and what's wrong with that?)

I had this conversation with a friend about a mutual acquaintance who'd apparently managed to sleep with several different people during a four-day house party. My friend didn't approve of her behavior -- he admitted that this was more of an emotional reaction than anything else, attributing it to lingering aftereffects of his Catholic upbringing. He's used that explanation in talking about other situations too, and it got me thinking.

Premarital sex is largely accepted as normal among adult Americans. Though most churches are officially against sex outside of marriage, almost none of the religious people I know follow that particular rule. So the idea from 19th-century novels that one becomes a "ruined" woman through one incident of sexual intercourse without a marriage has lost its sway. That was a nice simple definition, if harsh and sexist -- nothing so obvious has sprung up to replace it.

As Leora Tannenbaum notes in her book Slut: Growing Up Female With A Bad Reputation, the label "slut" really judges "the extent to which a girl fails to conform to the idea of 'normal' appearance and behavior." This can mean that the girl in middle school or late elementary school who hits puberty before the rest of her classmates can get tagged with the label just because she happens to have a more adult body. The "Southern Ladies Up to Something" (S.L.U.T.S.) point out the sort of things, like chewing gum in church, that could once get a female tagged by her elders as a slut at some time over the past several decades. Even now, "slut" continues to be applied as an all-purpose insult, even though people who hear someone described as a slut only draw one meaning from it; they don't think of it as meaning anything nonsexual. And it's a description that clings and spreads -- despite being a quiet person who was out of all the gossip circles at my high school, I knew what girl had a reputation, even if I never heard about anything in particular she did to acquire it.

Rape victims also may be labeled as sluts. This probably wouldn't happen to the rape victim whose attacker injures her physically -- but many people won't accept that sexual battery can take place without leaving evidence of physical battery. The rape survivor who tried to avoid further physical hurt may end up being put through more emotional hurt later, as people assume that not being one of Charlie's Angels and fighting her way out of the situation is equivalent to consent.

But in the teen years, guys aren't called sluts. The idea of a guy who isn't sexually active being called names by others who think he is would strike most people as absurd. Having had sex with lots of women isn't something that would ruin the reputation of a high-school guy (and if it's men he's sleeping with, people will make their judgements regardless of whether it's one lover or many.) Once past the teen years, "slut" might be applied to a guy, but straight or gay, "he's such a slut" is an affectionate joke or a comment on his indiscriminate taste rather than a real put-down.

The worst of slut-bashing is now during the adolescent years (though both Slut and Florence King's Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady confirm that college and even graduate school used to be as bad as high school in that respect). But the label doesn't disappear at graduation -- everyone's heard it to often to stop thinking it about others or wondering if it could be applied to them.

So what is a slut to adults then? I never heard the term used about my acquaintance, but she herself has said that "fake sluts" are one of her dislikes -- does that mean she is, or likes, the "real" ones?

Love. Romantic involvement. Commitment. Monogamy. These are things that would "justify" sex, to the minds of a lot of people. Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" puts it this way: "Givin' yourself to me/Can never be wrong/If the love is true." (Frankly, that song always seems as stupid a line as "If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?" despite having better music.) People lie to themselves and each other about the depth of their feeling just so they can get sex. If sex is so important, why not dispense with "I love you" and "You're the only one" as prerequisites? It would take training, unfortunately, before many people could be honest and say what they want. Women, particularly, are brought up to expect to be Swept Away by romance, not to plan for sex. (Not that men are immune to going with the moment.)

It depends on your upbringing and social circles, of course. For some, you can rack up as many lovers as possible, as long as your times with each one don't overlap. For some, having sex with someone you were previously involved with (but are no longer) is fine, while a sexual encounter with someone you just met is unthinkably trampy. Others could fine a one-night pickup to be find but refuse to have sex with people they know but aren't romantically involved with for fear of making their friendly relationship awkward. And then there's the scenario from the movie Chasing Amy -- anything this woman has done with women is fine with her new boyfriend, but finding out what she's done with men in the past sends him into emotional crisis. (Still, whatever your standards for "wrong" sexual behavior are, it's likely you will judge a woman more harshly for violating them than you will judge a man.) The message is always there -- looking for "too much" sexual pleasure is bad, unless you luck out and find one partner of the opposite sex who you can keep monogamously having wonderful sex with for decades. The proliferation of "how to have hot married sex" manuals suggests that even these committed couples can have problems reaching that ideal.

I don't think anyone would call me a slut unless they completely disapprove of non-marital sex. But my not having earned that label comes more from my shyness than a lack of desire. In almost ten years of being sexually active, I have had four lovers -- it's just that for most of those years, I've been sexually involved with two or three of those guys at any one time. I don't do well at monogamy. I've never quite achieved many polyamorists' ideal of multiple concurrent romantic relationships with the knowledge and consent of all concerned, though. I have usually had a boyfriend, my Best Beloved, and one or two friends who I sleep with on occasion, and my Beloved has also had sex outside of our relationship since he and I got involved. The only guilt I feel is that I have more outside-the-relationship sex than my boyfriend does (but my ideal remedy for that would be to find him a friend-with-benefits).

However, having sex with no romantic attachment has seemed to make two of my lovers feel like I should always be willing and ready for sex. (And once or twice I've gotten explicit propositions from men who'd read some little piece of my site and seemed to think "polyamorous" meant "never turns anyone down.") Going outside the norm invokes people's stereotypes, even if they are nice people who intellectually try to judge each person on their own merits. Dividing women into "sexually available" (anytime) and "not sexually available" (never ever) hurts both groups -- it puts too much pressure on the supposedly available to never say no, and either deprives the supposedly unavailable of the chance for pleasure or puts them into the equally undesirable categories of "tease" and "prude." It hurts men's (and women's) chances of seeing both genders as people with feelings. And it allows some men to put themselves down by assuming there's nothing about themselves that could attract a woman, unless it's a woman available for anyone.

Some sex-positive women want to reclaim the word "slut," to make it a positive, self-applied term in the way that "queer" can be used within gay communities. Dossie Easton and Catherine Liszt's The Ethical Slut, a book on polyamory, says they chose the title because they "are proud to reclaim the word 'slut' as a term of approval, even endearment . . . a slut shares his sexuality the way a philanthropist shares her money -- because they have a lot of it to share, because it makes them happy to share it, because sharing makes the world a better place."

Sexual philanthropy! Do people go around insulting monetary philanthropists, saying they're immoral, untrustworthy, low-class? Nope. Usually we praise philanthropists for making other people's lives easier; we approve of volunteers for donating their time and labor to others, and in both cases, people try to promote these kinds of helping by emphasizing that it is fun for the giver. But if it's sex being given, in most people's minds there must be something wrong with getting pleasure from giving pleasure. To me, this just means that most people are nuts. How anyone who enjoys sex themselves could possibly put down someone else's enjoyment of sex is really beyond me. (As for those who don't enjoy sex, I just pity them.)

Yeah, there are people out there who don't care about their partners' pleasure, who use sex for other purposes. For example, the main characters of the novel and movie Dangerous Liaisons. But the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil weren't unethical because they had a lot of sex -- they were unethical because they were willing to break up others' happy relationships and do other things only to cause harm. That's being mean, not being slutty, and "mean" certainly does not describe everyone who has lots of sex.

So the reclaiming effort for "slut" is worthwhile, however difficult it may be to take a label that has been an insult and make it as relatively value-neutral as "brown-haired." Certainly some people have their hair-color preferences, but you don't put someone down for being brunette even if it's not your preference. "Slut" already is fairly value-neutral for men -- why not for women as well? The double standard should be as much a thing of the past as plantations full of slave labor, and thinking about the way we use words is one step toward making that standard the historical curiosity it should be.

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