MR Round Table: The Word “Slut”

What does it mean? Do you use it?

11.07.14
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Leandra Medine: The reason I wanted to have a conversation about the word “slut” is because of the Halloween story we published last Friday and the response it garnered. Readers seemed to be frustrated with our liberal use of the word. So I wanted to know how everyone feels about it, whether or not women should feel comfortable using and what it means to everyone.

Kayla Tanenbaum: Whenever I hear the word “slut” I think of what Tina Fey said in Mean Girls: “Women need to stop calling each other sluts because it gives men permission to call us sluts.” I guess my own issue with the word “slut” is that I’m sick of politicizing people’s sexual activity. Part because that happens to women far more than it happens to men, but also in general, it’s 2014.

Cristina Couri: Right. Making them feel inferior for something that gives them pleasure.

KT: It takes two people to do something and usually only one person gets the “blame.” I think sexuality and morality are not the same thing but we just have this obsession with conflating them.

Amelia Diamond: I think I have a double-sided point of view here. Similar to when we talked about the word “bitch,” the word “slut,” for me, and how I react to it, depends on context and who said it. I think I’m far more likely to be offended if a guy uses it than if a girl does, but I’m also quite liberal about what offends me and what doesn’t. I think I have a higher threshold for being offended, and I personally err on the side of, “If it’s funny, it’s funny.” I know that’s not always a popular POV to take, and also that online, things can be misconstrued if you don’t know someone’s personality.

“Slutty Halloween costume” has become such a part of our vernacular. I’m not sure in the case of this story that it was only including just women. I think men can have “slutty” Halloween costumes. A guy can wear a thong, he’s wearing fewer clothes, too.

LM: But that’s always considered funny. That’s not considered sexy.

AD: I’m just saying that in the context of this article it was semi-opened ended. For me, that’s not a place where I’m going to get offended, or where I’m going to choose to get offended. I always talk about the fact that I think in this day and age, everyone is hyper politically-correct, and I think that’s opened the table for lots of good and positive discussions, but at the same time, I think people get riled up about a word that doesn’t have to rile them up.

Charlotte Fassler: I think there’s also a difference between using “slut” to describe a manner of dress versus describing a person’s actions. I found people were much more liberal to use the word when they’re discussing clothing or dress rather than behavior. That’s an important distinction to me.

AD: I agree, and I know that one of the commenters said something along the lines of, “Isn’t the MR ethos supposed to be whether it’s a bra and a thong and a pair of hiking boots or a turtleneck and sweatpants, you do you?” Yes. Wear what you want. There shouldn’t be rules placed on how women dress. I understand that, but I agree with what you’re saying too: there’s a difference between saying someone’s dressing slutty and someone is a slut.

LM: In rereading the story, I took issue with her saying, “If you want to unleash your inner slut for the night…” because the word used outside a descriptive costume that’s been co-opted a million times over isn’t easy on me. It’s sort of like the word “cunt” in that I cringe at it.To be a slut is to have loose sexual morals, right? I find it hugely inappropriate for a man to call a woman a slut.

AD: It means to have loose sexual morals and that there’s someone wrong with that.

LM: The fundamental problem is the connotation.

KT: It’s a gendered word as much as we want to be “liberal” about it.

LM: If we’re talking about “slut” relative to a term like “pimp,” even though I know pimp does not mean the same thing…

AD: Or player, but I think guys get called sluts all the time.

LM: It’s complimentary

KT: I think calling a guy a slut and calling a girl a slut have very different consequences. As much as we want to say, “Men can be sluts! Woohoo!” It’s just not the same conversation. It’s not equal. It doesn’t have the same repercussions. Calling a man a slut, however you mean it, even if you mean to say he sleeps around, is just not as heavy, not as big of a deal as a woman who sleeps around. It’s interesting that you bring up the word “cunt.” I recently read this article about groups of people reclaiming slurs used against them — I think women can take back “cunt.”

CF: I think that’s an interesting conversation because that point has tried to be made. Like, “bitch,” there was this feminist reclaiming of bitch.

KT: As a feminist, I can reclaim “cunt.” I really hate the word “slut.”

CC: I’ve heard both of you, and I’m not sure if you’ve even realized it, but it’s been said that it’s okay for a woman to say it, and that for one of your girlfriends to call you a slut bothers you less. I think that right there is problematic because that makes it acceptable for men.

LM: I don’t like calling other women “bitches” either. I think it’s a silly term. I think there are other words that we should learn to use to properly characterize our emotions. “Bitch” is not an all-encompassing word; it shouldn’t be treated that way. I feel that’s true of “slut” too. It’s become so ubiquitous that it’s taken on so many different definitions. The problem is we are not necessarily properly identifying the descriptions we’re trying to convey. That’s my thing with slut. I don’t like the word, I don’t like the use of it.

CC: I feel like you could just as easily use the word “promiscuous” to describe an item of clothing or an outfit.

KT: But that implies that in some way what you wear makes certain activities acceptable or unacceptable. If a girl is dressed “promiscuously” and goes to a club, she can hook up with no one, she can have sex with two people. The outfit shouldn’t make a difference.

CF: “Promiscuous” is an action. It’s a descriptor. It connotes a certain sense of values.

Esther Levy: I’m not put off by the word “slut” at all. I don’t know if it’s because of the reclaiming of it or maybe subconsciously I’m just desensitized to the word. I feel like “slut” now is used so playfully, if someone called me a slut, obviously I don’t think I’m a slut; I don’t do things that would qualify my being a slut, but I wouldn’t be offended. I don’t know… I don’t think calling someone a “slut” necessarily means that they do promiscuous things or that they’re dressed in that way.

LM: Here’s the thing about a woman owning the term “slut”: to own that term would mean that you are sexually promiscuous, and if you’re comfortable with that, that’s totally fine, but think of it this way: I’m comfortable as a Jewish person but I am certainly not trying to reclaim the term “kike” because the connotation is always going to be hugely vulgar. I feel like a woman trying to recapture the term slut is almost regressive.

CC: It’s a label, like anything else.

KT: The problem with the word is that it still means, at its core, that a “sexually loose” woman is somehow wrong. It’s not. It’s not wrong for men, and it’s not wrong for women. I feel like you could apply it to whatever you want and say it’s not what you mean, but it is what the word means. I don’t think it can ever be separated from that, and that’s why I’ll never reclaim the word “slut.”

EL: Why is “cunt” different?

KT: To me, “cunt” is a horrible word for a body part.

AD: It’s a demoralizing word for a body part.

KT: It’s a horrendous word, but “slut” is not a thing that exists. It’s a behavior. And what does it even mean? How many guys do you sleep with before you’re a slut? Five? Eleven? Five in two years but not four? It doesn’t mean anything.

CF: It’s kind of a term that girls discover in high school. I think, as girls get older, to a degree, it feels passé to hear women calling each other sluts.

EL: It feels silly.

KT: This might be an angry feminist thing to say, but when women call each other sluts they’re agreeing with the patriarchal morality and it implies that you are okay with the way that a woman’s sexuality is perceived and controlled.

AD: I think there are words that, because of the context in which we first heard them, really resonate with us. Each word is personal and I think that’s what makes this hard for me, especially as someone who has to edit stories. It can be completely opinion-based. I think what’s so hard online is that so many opinions are put forward for public consumption, and you hope that the one you put forward is the “popular” opinion.

I have a friend who wears the lesser side of clothing in Halloween costumes. She has a banging body; she’s confident. She feels good when she does it. She has so much fun with it, and she respects herself. You have to agree that there’s something about women and Halloween. I remember when I was in college, there was a girl who walked around in lingerie, and put on wings…

Sometimes there are words that get lost in translation and for better or for worse, they are softened.

LM: It’s funny that a word like “asshole” which by definition is gross, is a funny, descriptive noun to use on your friends. Is this because it’s not a gendered word?

KT: And “douchebag.” There’s an article in GQ this month about how “douchebag” can only apply to a man and “bitch” can only apply to a woman. I thought it was interesting.

AD: I would totally call my friend a douche, but that’s what I mean. I’m not calling you a feminine hygiene product that doctors don’t approve of because it gives you yeast infections. It’s taken on a new definition. It means you’re being a douche. But then again, it’s hard to offend me, but when you do…

LM: Again, that’s you not using words to appropriately appraise emotions.

CF: People’s word-choices are a bit over-scrutinized. But at the same time, there’s no restraint. Anyone can say anything and post it on the Internet. Words have less meaning but people are letting them carry more weight.

EL: Because everyone can be a critic.

KT: But I don’t feel like the slut thing is an issue of political correctness. I wasn’t offended by the Man Repeller article, I think she was making a distinction between women who were having fun with it for themselves and women who were just doing it because it’s a thing that is done. Without being dramatic, I think it’s bad for women to call each other that. It’s bad for the cause.

CF: But what about websites like Slutever, which is run by a feminist?

KT: That website is empowering, though.

EL: In reclaiming the word, you’re saying that to be slutty, to be promiscuous, is whatever. It’s not a big deal. It can be empowering, but also, like Amelia, I think to be PC all the time is exhausting.

AD: I always think that with these words and with these discussions, what we should be paying attention to—the word is there, it’s not like we can ignore it—but the larger issue is the context. The word slut pisses some people off, some people think it’s hilarious, some people can’t even hear it. What’s important is behind the word, there’s the issue and the conversations that the issue presents. The emotions and the implications.

KT: It’s funny because I’ve referred to myself on multiple occasions as a “bronzer slut” because I always buy bronzer. I have no problem with that, when you attach the word to mean that you’re always doing something or doing something excessively. My issue is when you problematize women having multiple sexual partners.

AD: So it’s not the word for you, it’s the association.

CC: To take it a step further, it’s that men never want to be with a girl that has slept with a certain number of other men. Why? What’s at the root of that? Men don’t want to be where several men have been before?

KT: There’s this poem written by a nun in the 16th century, which says, “Men, you hate women because they give you what you want, and you resent them if they don’t give you what you want.” We’re fucked either way. To think that a nun wrote that so long ago and we’re still sitting here thinking, “Is a woman a bad person if she’s slept with a certain number of people?” blows my mind.

CC: It’s interesting how differently we all seem to feel.

LM: How do you feel about it being attached to a mode of dress on Halloween?

CF: It’s interesting that Kayla brought up Mean Girls because for me “slutty” is tied to “slutty Halloween costumes.” You know how they say, “Halloween is the one time of year a girl can dress like a complete slut and no one can say anything.” It’s kind of a two-fold thing.

KT: And it’s such a weird phenomenon. Are women doing it because it’s the one night of the year they can get away with it and they secretly want to do it all the time? Or is it not empowering but because it’s expected that it’s what you do.

LM: I’m voting #2. My inclination is to never wear anything tight and short. Never, ever.

CC: I know, I actually saw your body for the first time on Halloween.

AD: How did you feel when you wore that?

LM: Unusual. I wouldn’t have gone out like that. I don’t feel like myself. I feel the most me when I’m in clothes that are sized too big. I wonder if we were to abandon our convictions all together about the term “slut,” and never let these conversations occur, never feel offended by the use of the term, if our problems as women and among feminists would still exist. Our story on basic bitch dressing elicited a similar conversation — if no one had taken issue with the term, if no women were to take issues with these terms at all, would we be better or worse off?

KT: I don’t think the word is the problem. I think it’s the misogynistic attitude that the word contains. If the world weren’t already sexist, “slut” wouldn’t be as much of a problem.

AD: Do we institute a Man Repeller Mandate? No more use of the word “slut” in any context?

LM: That’s a good mandate.

CF: There’s never an instance where the word “slut” needs to be used.

LM: That’s the point I was trying to make earlier — figure out what you’re trying to say. This is my problem with the word “bitch,” too.

CF: There’s just never a context where that’s the only word that can be used.

KT: But that’s making it seem like our issue is with lazy writing. My issue with the word “slut” is that you should have a much more diverse lexicon.

CF: But by not using it, you are taking an issue with the word.

LM: No more slut on Man Repeller. The community spoke, and we’re listening.

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