“Slut, skank, whore, sleaze, tease, ho, asking for it…”
This language is used to describe women – women who have garnered criticism by participating in sexual relationships, dressing themselves, drinking alcohol, being attractive, asserting their opinions, or a host of other behaviors. The term ‘slut-shaming’ defines the act of making, or attempting to make, a person – especially female, feel guilty or inferior for certain behaviors, circumstances or desires that deviate from traditional gender expectations. The labels used in slut-shaming are subjective in the sense that they can be punitively applied for a wide range of behaviors and the application could be motivated by many reasons including contempt, attraction, frustration, jealousy and competition.
Slut-Shaming Is Sexist
Though the term “slut-shaming” is relatively new, the act is based in sexism, which has a long history and has been the subject of feminist research for decades. Leora Tanenbaum, a feminist author and researcher, explains that slut-shaming is sexist because “only girls and women are called to task for their sexuality, whether real or imagined; boys and men are congratulated for the exact same behavior. This is the essence of the sexual double standard.” As noted by Tanenbaum, the recipient of the slur does not need to have actually engaged in any sexual behavior or to be any more sexually active than her peers. Due to the double standard and social valuing of restricted female sexuality, only an implication of impropriety is necessary to undermine her worth or value.
Slut-Shaming Is Part of Rape Culture
Slut-shaming is not only sexist but is also integral to rape culture. Rape culture refers to an environment in which rape is prevalent, rape-supportive myths are pervasive, and sexual violence against women is generally normalized and excused as a natural and uncontrollable response of men when women “ask for it.” A firmly entrenched tenet of rape culture is that victims of sexual assault provoke their own victimization through their choices of what to wear, what and how much to drink, where to go, etc. In her Ted Talk about rape culture, Clementine Ford, a feminist, activist, speaker and blogger, refutes victim blaming and argues that “…the only thing we can say causes rape is … a rapist.”
Unfortunately, in the United States it is becoming socially common and acceptable to not only victim blame but also slut-shame (especially via cyberbullying on the internet) and the two go hand in hand to perpetuate violence against women. By labeling a woman as slut for her dress or her actions, we attach the attribution that she is always interested in and available for sex and thereby undermine her right to refuse consent. This attribution is then construed as an invitation to be raped by those who commit assault and an invitation for blame from others who look on victims of assault without sympathy. By slut-shaming and victim blaming, we also remove scrutiny from those who committed the assault and thereby enable them to go unpunished. Thus, sexual assault continues to occur.
Re-Claiming the Term Slut
In an effort to reduce the power of slut-shaming, some activists have made attempts to reclaim the word. For example, Heather Jarvis, a queer feminist activist and co-founder of the SlutWalk campaign, began exercising the term slut as an empowering term to describe her control over her sexual life and over the body she has. By using the word with a positive connotation, these activists hope to not only remove the negative definition associated with slut but also shift social attitudes such that expression of female sexuality could be normalized. The SlutWalk campaign was first organized in 2011 after a Toronto police officer was cited saying, “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” Consequently, a primary goal of the campaign is to challenge victim blaming and shift social focus from the victims of assault to their assailants.
However, others are reluctant to reclaim the word. For example, after interviewing girls and women who have attempted to reclaim the word on an individual level, Tanenbaum has concluded that it may open up new opportunities for harassment and assault for all women and expressed concern about it being used as a large-scale social strategy. Her concerns are shared by Black Women’s Blueprint, a Black feminist organization which issued an open letter criticizing the reclaiming of the word slut as well as the SlutWalk campaigns. They pointed out that slut has different associations for Black women and they would not want to reinforce perceptions of women’s identities as sluts among their fathers, brothers and sons by normalizing the term on t-shirts, buttons, flyers and pamphlets.
Though it may seem harmless to casually refer to oneself or another person as a slut, by doing so you are normalizing the activity and thereby perpetuating gender inequality and consequently assault. By slut-shaming and denigrating women and by justifying sexual assault and harassment we communicate through those actions to our mothers, sisters, and daughters that they are the root of their problem and have no right to search for justice. It is important for us to change this message we are sending by combating slut-shaming and victim blaming. The next time you find yourself or another person casually attacking a woman for her sexuality (or confidence), ask whether you would make the same accusation if she were a man, and whether she truly deserves to be denigrated for stepping out of the norm.
Lauren Scott is a recent graduate of Indiana University with a degree in Exercise Science.