Adventures In Sluttiness: Sluts, Slut Culture, and Slut Shaming

I wrote an entire essay breaking down my thoughts and opinions on sluts, slut shaming, and how I think young women should want dress.

Then I remembered a quote from Lena Dunham’s show on HBO, Girls, said by the character Jessa. She said “I don’t like women telling other women what to do, or how to do it, or when to do it.”

Damnit, Lena Dunham. Alright, so I have opinions. That doesn’t mean I’m right all the time, and who the hell am I to tell people how to dress? I can barely dress myself!  So, below I’ve tried to organize my thoughts the best I can, but since this is such a diverse and complex topic, I’d really love to hear what everyone else thinks about this down in the comments.

Let’s try to break this down. The word “slut” is a word I do not like. It’s not a word I think we as women should want to reclaim. It’s never been used as anything but an insult, to shame and embarrass women as a way to control their sexuality.

I also believe that the idea of “slut” being a “woman who is empowered” is too easily misinterpreted, especially by younger women, tweens, teenagers and college students. I think even if a woman calls herself a slut and claims “she owns it” the message is still a lot different than if she said “I’m a woman who enjoys sex.”

I also believe that women should to be able to dress provocatively and be explicitly sexual without being punished for it is incredibly important. Go Slut Walk. Yes. A woman should be able to walk down the street naked, and not have to assume she should expect to be raped.

I think if what you’re wearing makes you feel confident, and respected, and sexy, and projecting an image of yourself that you want to project, then you should wear whatever the hell you want. Wear a bikini to the bar. Dress like Cat Woman at comic-con. Wear a potato sack. If it makes you feel good about yourself, and is saying what you want to say, then yeah, I agree, that’s true empowerment. Understanding why you are dressing the way you are is an important part of that self-empowerment.

Yet, when we get into the idea of the “slut,” this is something different. From here on out, I will be addressing sluts and the idea of “slut culture” from the definition of the word as it is used most commonly: a woman who dresses provocatively and is sexually promiscuous.

I’m going to share a story from my not-so distant youth-ier youth, a story that I feel is probably a very common experience among young women.

I’ve always been a more conservative dresser (i.e “sexy” would not be a word I would use to describe my fashion sense.) Yet, in my first year of University when I would go out to the clubs or bars with my girl friends, I would look at the girls the boys wanted to dance with, and I looked at myself. Those girls, to use base language, looked like sluts. I looked like me. Apparently me wasn’t good enough.

Part of me wanted to be like them. I wanted to feel sexy. I wanted boys to want to dance with me and buy me drinks. So, next time we went out, I “went for it.” Tight jeans, low cut top, makeup galore. I pretty much followed “How to trick people into thinking you’re good looking” step by step. Looking at myself in the mirror, I knew I would finally fit in with the hot girls at the club.

When we got there, I felt pretty exposed. I felt like people could see ALL of the things. Yet, low and behold, there were so many different boys trying to grind their dick against my ass that I felt like the prettiest girl at the ball!

No. I didn’t feel pretty at all. I mostly felt gross. I may not have had to pay for any of my drinks, but when I thought about that I felt grosser. I was exchanging beer for being a dry humping post.

I don’t know what I expected. I suppose this was the type of attention I thought I wanted, and I guess it took getting it to realize that this kind of attention isn’t about you.  It’s purely how you look- and the look is saying “if you’re lucky I might sleep with you.”

Here are the facts: I didn’t dress like that to empower myself, or to project self-respect, or to “own my body.” I was dressing like that because I thought I had to if I wanted to fit in with this crowd and to get boys to notice me. Some girls will argue that they like this kind of attention, it makes them feel sexy and in control. Maybe for them it does, but not for me. I know for a fact I’m not the only young woman out there who feels this way.

I’m in a much different place than I was 4 years ago. I’ve grown up a lot, I’m more confident, and more comfortable with myself, so I’m not embarrassed to share this story. Nobody is immune to peer pressure, which is why I think it’s so important to talk about what expectations we put on young women, at an age where they are still trying to figure all this dumb life stuff out about themselves.

This is what I would describe as “slut culture.” Slut culture is almost universally subscribed to these days, so the question comes down to why this societal pressure exists in the first place.

The pressure to dress like a slut is prominent in every high school and university campus across North America. It’s relentless. Movies, TV shows, magazines.  Young women are told they aren’t worth anything if they don’t dress and act a certain way. Boys don’t want smart girls. They want sluts. And sluts are cool. If you don’t dress “sexy” then you’re probably a nerd or a prude, and don’t bother going to any of the parties because nobody wants you there. And there is no room for discussion on “what is sexy, exactly?” because there are very specific guidelines for what “hot” means.

This body image, peer pressure, wanting to be sexy thing isn’t new. But what is really freaking me out about this is that there is this really horrific pattern emerging of slut shaming, date rape, and humiliating and abusing these young women who fit into the slut category.

But… we wanted them to be sluts. And then we punish them for it.

This is so unbelievably fucked up I can’t even handle it.

This article introduced me to the concept of slut dropping, and also the terrible realization that while all young women are being told to dress sexy and be sexy, and to have sex, but we all also want to mock and humiliate them.

And before you argue that this isn’t true, remember Amanda Todd. She was pressured into showing her breasts on the internet when she was in 7th grade. Not her idea. She was told she should, so she did. She spent the rest of her young life paying for that one moment, because the man responsible for distributing the picture, and her peers that pressured her into it, felt the need to humiliate and punish her for it. This isn’t simple bullying. This is a direct result of a slut culture targeting young women at younger and younger ages, and the inevitable slut shaming that follows. In this case, the consequences were terribly tragic.

So, this is why I don’t like the word “slut”, and I don’t think we should be encouraging young women to BE sluts. Slut culture teaches young women to be objects, and teaches young men to treat them accordingly.

To reiterate, I’m not saying don’t dress sexy and express your sexuality if you are confident in yourself and how you want to present your image. To me, that is not describing a slut. That’s describing a strong, empowered woman. No matter how hard we try, the negative connotation of the word “slut” will always be evident, and it sends a mixed message to young people and how they should be expressing and experiencing their sexuality.

What do you think?

12 thoughts on “Adventures In Sluttiness: Sluts, Slut Culture, and Slut Shaming

  1. I do disagree with your comments about the term slut and slut culture, especially the ones quoted below:

    This is a direct result of a slut culture targeting young women at younger and younger ages, and the inevitable slut shaming that follows.

    This is a direct result of a slut culture targeting young women at younger and younger ages, and the inevitable slut shaming that follows.

    Firstly I think what you describe is ‘raunch culture’ which is different from slut culture as I understand it from a privileged feminist viewpoint. Raunch culture is the sexualization of young women in an exploitative manner. There is a news article from the Australian which I think neatly encapsulates the culture you are talking about: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/nation/feminists-in-anti-raunch-culture-revolt/story-e6frg6nf-1225840212908

    Slut culture, as I understand it, is far more sex positive and emphasizes that a woman should be able to wear whatever she likes without repercussion and emphasizes that a woman should be free to express her sexuality and possibly one of the more practical demonstrations of this is ‘Slutwalk.’

    • Aha, good point. Raunch culture would probably be a more accurate term for what I’m talking about. Also, great article. Thanks for the link!

      I suppose I was looking for more of an umbrella word to take in the club culture, as well as peer pressure/ media. But since I’m currently in the middle of reading a book on raunch culture, I probably should have considered what terms I was using.

      But the term still does, based on the definition you’ve provided, fall into the reasons I don’t like the word “slut.” Though obviously slut and raunch culture can be too different things, the visually present themselves similarly, which can be confusing.

      • I think it’s a little like saying or trying to say shibboleth, it’s a tiny difference in pronunciation that makes a difference. Also whilst I do agree with attempting to reclaim ‘Slut,’ I can see how it would be problematic for some. I think Slut needs to be reclaimed because I do believe that we need to stop insulting women over their sexuality and to do that I believe one of the best ways is to change the meaning of the insult. If that makes sense.

      • Really good points. I totally agree that we need to stop insulting women over their sexuality, but I think Mreebs comments below on challenges reclaiming words really sum up how I feel about it. Women should express their sexuality, but do we really need a word for it? There isn’t a word like that to describe men’s sexuality.

  2. I agree. Reclaiming an insult isn’t going to change the way the rest of the world sees that word, although I wouldn’t stop people from doing Slut Walks or dressing however they like!

    I also agree with the problems with going out and trying to fit in! I don’t look dress like anyone who goes to a normal club does, and so when I go out with my friends I try to dress a bit like them but it never works and I feel uncomfortable and out of place.

    I wanted to be one of the girls who got drinks bought for her, and got hit on but it’s not me and not what I want from life. That said, it may be what other people like. I think that the club culture has had a massive impact on ‘sluttiness’ – you are expected to spend every weekend out clubbing and dressed up in high heels and short dresses.

    • The club culture has a HUGE impact. There is a lot of pressure to fit in, and so many different messages we’re sent. I mean, if dressing a certain way (like how most girls dress to go to clubs) makes you uncomfortable, we’re told it’s because “we just aren’t confident enough.” So, again, by saying you don’t want to dress a certain way, it can’t possibly be because you just don’t like it. There is clearly something wrong with you if you don’t want to participate.
      It’s interesting how limited you feel your choices are when it comes down to whats okay to wear to the club.

  3. Great post! I hated all the reports on how Amanda Todd had been the victim of ‘bullying’, with no mention of the sexism inherent in it. Her suicide was the direct result of slut-shaming, a practice that is SO common, not just with young girls, but grown women too. But no, let’s just paint it as kids being bullies instead of examining sexist trends in our society. Sigh.

  4. I pretty much agree with you about the term “slut.” There’s nothing about the word, in theory, that should be offensive (“I’m a woman who enjoys sex” or “I’m a woman who dresses in revealing clothing” or “I’m a woman who has sex often / with a lot of different people”), but it’s a word that was specifically designed to shame women (where’s the male equivalent?). Women who fall into the definition of “slut” are called that as an insult in order to shame them. By eliminating the word, we go a long way in the right direction to eliminating that practice of slut shaming.

    That said, I understand the desire to reclaim it since, as I said above, there’s nothing wrong with any of the three definitions I offered if you take away the negative connotations. If you stop finding the word offensive, you take away its power over you. That can work fine on a personal level. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple on a societal level. Anyone who has had that word used against them is going to have personal baggage, and society in general has their own definition they’re going to apply to any use of the word, no matter what the intention. I don’t think we’re at a place yet where we can use it in our day-to-day lives in a way that’s empowering.

    I do, however, think it is possible to reclaim words, even if those words weren’t ours to begin with (ie: have always been used as a weapon against those trying to reclaim it). Slut Walk worked as reclamation of the word because of its context. It was very clear that the name of the march was drawing attention to the absurdity and damage of shaming and blaming the victim based on what she wears. The reason behind the march was very public. (Though, of course, YMMV on how effective the name was, but I thought it worked great.) It’s through large demonstrations like this, where the point is pretty difficult to misinterpret , that we move towards reclaiming words.* That said, we’re not at the point where this works on a smaller social level. Slut means something very different to most people, and we can’t ignore its baggage either, leaving the “should we even try to reclaim it?” question open.

    It is possible to reclaim words that have only meant something negative. “Queer,” for example, no longer has the negative connotations it used to for a lot of people and is openly used as a sexual orientation to identify with. Staying with the orientation comparison, trying to reclaim something like the f-slur for gays would be really hella difficult and uncomfortable for a lot of people (including me) because there is a LOT of baggage attached to it, both for a lot of people personally but also on a larger societal level. So where does “slut” fall on this scale of reclaimability? This is not a rhetorical question. I just honestly don’t know.

    * There is a danger, however, that these big movements can make young women think they need to dress a certain way (reinforced by the media in a way that could cause a plausible misinterpretation) and that dressing modestly is a sign of how uncomfortable they are with themselves instead of just a personal fashion choice. I think, if we’re going to get somewhere here, we need to fight both the traditional terms of “slut” and “prude” simultaneously. YES I JUST PUT A FOOTNOTE ON MY OWN COMMENT please don’t judge me.

  5. What I wonder is this: isn’t there a point at which we, as a society, get to decide that certain clothing is inappropriate?

    Does it have to be slut shaming to tell a woman to put on some pants? Or not show her cleavage?

    I mean, where do you draw the line? Is a woman walking naked through the mall ok? Should I offer that woman my coat? Or is it slut shaming?

    I just…I get what slut shaming is and why it’s bad. I tell my students, you know, don’t ever let someone tell you that you’re wrong to like a boy. You have that right, I say. But there has to be a point where we are allowed to tell someone, “Those pants are too damn short, what is wrong with you?”

  6. ” but it’s a word that was specifically designed to shame women (where’s the male equivalent?)”

    This is one of the stupidest things feminists say online, because the answer is very, very simple: “virgin.”

    And, yes, “virgin shaming” is the male version of slut shaming, and it is very real, though probably not as big a problem in society as slut shaming.

    The thing that gets me is the fact that feminists CONSTANTLY use the phrase, “Where is the male equivalent?” as if men never, ever have to put up with X or Y or Z. As if, oh, gee, our lives are so fucking great just cuz we have a penis.

    No. I don’t know about other guys, but I was virgin shamed for about a decade of my life, and to this day, I am horrified of telling people how old I was when I lost my virginity. Oh, and the virgin shaming pushed me into doing things with girls that I’m not proud of. Oh, yeah, and being virgin shamed for nearly ten years has obviously made it hard for me to enjoy healthy, happy sex with my wife, because I internalized that pressure and that hatred. Don’t know if it happens to a lot of guys, but it happened to me, and I absolutely fucking hate being near white people to this day because of it.

  7. Pingback: The Naming of Women | Francis James Franklin (Alina Meridon)

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