“Aimed at those who were sexually promiscuous, be it for work or pleasure, it has primarily been women who have suffered under the burden of this label. We are tired of being oppressed by slut-shaming; of being judged by our sexuality….”
The SlutWalk is not about daring men not to feel sexually attracted to women whose fashion sense can induce sexual desire. One of the points of the movement is to dare a patriarchal society to create an environment that accommodates and respects women’s desire to look however they want in spite of other people’s sexual desire.
Photo Credit: asteroidz (deviantART)
Furthermore, the SlutWalk wants to call out the use of “slut,” not merely for describing women in “revealing” clothing, but for implying an insensitive assumption that if a girl was sexually victimized, it must’ve been because she dressed like so.
To reiterate the argument, the appalling logic behind “risk management” by clothing perpetuates the myth that women experience sexual violence because they’ve managed to provoke — deliberately or otherwise — uncontrollable sexual desire for them in their sexual predators.
Although the SlutWalk was not about rape per se, I want to take this opportunity to identify instances of rape that remotely concern the sexual appeal victims exude.
- Rape in rigidly hierarchical systems and cultures: military rape, prison rape, and clerical rape
- Corrective rape: against LGBT to cure their supposed “gender disorder”
- War rape a.k.a. “spoils of war” as in the case of comfort women during the World War II
- Genocidal rape: sexuality as a symbol of reproductive potential and continuity of an ethnic community
A slut by any other name would still be as slutty.
Germain Greer, in her article on the SlutWalk, gave her readers a fascinating history of the word:
Historically, the primary attribute of a slut is not promiscuity but dirt. The word denotes a ‘woman of dirty, slovenly, or untidy habits or appearance; a foul slattern.’ A now obsolete meaning connects it with a kitchen maid, whose life was lived in soot and grease. […] The corner she left unswept was the slut corner; the fluff that collected under the furniture was a slut ball.”
Greer isn’t sure how dirty eventually became associated with promiscuity, but the relation between the two can be found in various expressions. “Dirty mind” suggests promiscuous thinking, while “dirty jokes” describe promiscuous jokes.
Perhaps it began with a similar relation — the link between cleanliness and virginity. (Well, not so much “clean” as “immaculate,” which came from a Latin word meaning “not stained” or “spotless.”)
Anthropologists using a functionalist perspective to explain the value of virginity would point that some cultures — most probably, the patriarchal ones — might value a woman’s virginity because her sexual inexperience assures her future husband that the child in her womb doesn’t belong to any other man.
Patriarchal cultures usually don’t allow the woman to be stained by any one else but her husband, and marriage is the ritual that sanctions the staining of the woman. I’d also think that virginity is a much more important issue in women than men, since the failure of men to remain chaste doesn’t carry the risk of bearing a child, a burden to the resources of a group of individuals.
Western history, which had a long struggle with Judeo-Christian sexual repression, valued virginity in the same way. As I was looking up the definition of “immaculate” in the Oxford Dictionary — a term used to describe the conception of Jesus Christ by Mary — late Middle English actually used the term in the sense of “free from moral stain.”
It turns out, not only are slut shamers conforming to patriarchal logic, they’re also conforming to Judeo-Christian conservatism.
This is why the word “slut” needs to be reclaimed: it needs to be reclaimed from originators of its derogatory connotation.
Promiscuity need not be interpreted as a negative behavior.
Greer said it best:
“If women are to overthrow the tyranny of perpetual cleansing, we have to be able to say: ‘Yes, I am a slut. […] I could be without sexual fantasies… – pure as the untrodden snow – but I’m not. I’m a slut and proud.’ The rejection by women of compulsory cleansing of mind, body, and soul is a necessary pre-condition of liberation.”
Reclaiming a word with heavy historical baggage will be a long and arduous struggle. But we have to start somewhere.
1. Diluting derogatory effect. Reclamation of a word begins with overuse. The principle is simple enough: have many people use it and have these people use it to describe the same things but of lesser degree — in fact, use it as casually as possible. Eventually, speakers will adapt to using the word for these lesser purposes.
People may not agree with me, but I think the overuse of the word “bitch” has managed to dilute its derogatory effect. Being called a bitch in the nineties is not the same as being called a “bitch” in 2010s, especially when you have people who greet their friends with, “What’s up, bitches?”
Pioneering a word’s dilution requires a steadfast spirit of resistance and a conviction in the ethics of reclaiming it. It is a purposeful exercise in political incorrectness. You must be willing to take the risk of offending people.
Conversely, cultural (and even legal) restrictions to the use of a word regulates who gets to say it and how it is applied, thus preserving not only the definition of the word but the weight it bears as a derogatory, sacrosanct, or heinous term.
When it comes to the word “slut,” do we want to preserve the patriarchal (and even religious) intent to offend women who are promiscuous?
Well, I don’t.
God forbid, an LGBT slut. (Photo Credit: CEJoly on deviantART)
2. Reconditioning (female) response from shame to pride. Overusing the word “slut” will be useless if women don’t develop the courage to embrace the possibility that promiscuity can be empowering. No word is objectively offensive, and any word can be tailored to offend as any speaker can desire.
The objective to offend will fall flat on its face if the one being addressed is not insulted. I’m a slut, and I’m loving it.
It won’t always be the case that being called a slut won’t hurt. People are missing the point if they treat the issue of reconditioning responses as a goal rather than as sustained practice. Treat each situation as a challenge to respond with pride instead of shame. If you can summon pride most of the time, you’ve personally reclaimed “slut” from your offenders. If most women have managed the same transformation, they have, as political subjects, reclaimed “slut” from male chauvinists, misogynists, and sexists.
Ultimately, if the larger cultural community has managed the same transformation, its culture bearers have, as historical subjects, reclaimed “slut” from their patriarchal traditions of thought and language.
To reclaim or not to reclaim? The freedom to use and reclaim symbols should be exercised with caution and discernment. I don’t want to put out rules on when to reclaim or not, because there will always be exceptions to these rules. Instead, I want to cite examples and give my opinions on why I think certain strategies are ethically valuable or not.
“Nigger” is arguably stuck in a phase of reclamation where it’s typically okay for African-Americans to address themselves and each other colloquially as that, but it’s ethically revulsive for everyone else to address members of the cultural group as so. I can’t say whether it will come to a point where African-Americans will spurn its use for anyone and everyone or whether even out-groups will be in a comfortable cultural condition to use it.
This is one of those words where I believe it’s better that nobody — and I mean, nobody — should be comfortable about using it, because I cannot possibly conceive of a positive reinterpretation of slavery, a human relation historically associated with the word “nigger.” It’s just wrong, and nobody should ever be treated as one.
A problem I see with the in-group/out-group dichotomy the word creates is its inability to engage all political and cultural stakeholders in addressing a deeply violent history of oppression.
Although it’s not a word, the swastika benefits from the current restrictions placed on how it’s used. There is no positive reinterpretation of ethnic cleansing. The word “Nazi,” on the other hand, has lost its general ability to incite “moral horror” because so many people compare every single thing to being a “Nazi.” (Read: feminazi) It’s a tired metaphor, but maybe it shouldn’t be.
For something culturally relatable, I finally want to talk about “overseas Filipino worker” (OFW). I think this is a label that Filipinos should rid from their vocabulary altogether, so they can replace it with expatriate. OFW is a modification of the term “overseas contract worker,” which carried notions of contractual/temporary workers engaged in unskilled or manual labor, and it is a half-hearted attempt to lessen the discrimination Filipino expatriates experience whether they are at home or abroad.
I cringe at the term OFW also because of the tendency of politicians to valorize “OFWs” and thus legitimize their martyrdom. I don’t want people to suffer for the economic progress of the “motherland,” especially when it’s run by pricks like the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration. Why can’t people just earn a living without having to give up their human rights or have we forgotten this as a viable option? Expatriate, however, is “politically neutral” when it comes to the relationship between being a working migrant and a hero for the country. The sooner the national government realizes that they are not heroes but individuals needing protection from discrimination, exploitation, and state violence, the sooner they might realize that local employment opportunities need to be improved, especially outside Metro Manila.
The most reasonable argument I’ve heard against reclaiming “slut” is the one put forward by Gail Dines and Wendy J. Murphy:
“The term slut is so deeply rooted in the patriarchal “madonna/whore” view of women’s sexuality that it is beyond redemption. […] Women need to find ways to create their own authentic sexuality, outside of male-defined terms like slut.”
I like their article because it is the only criticism I’ve read which is conscious of mainstream media or pop culture’s hypersexualization of women:
“These students have grown up in a culture in which hypersexualized images of young women are commonplace and where hardcore porn is the major form of sex education for young men.”
Supporting the SlutWalk shouldn’t mean that we’re forcing women to be promiscuous or to express openly their sexual identities. We’re saying instead that if they wanted to have those rights, we’d be there to fight for an environment that accommodates these desires. No judgments.
But in the age of global capitalism, patriarchal logic, as reworked by media and pop culture, has insidiously found its way back into the minds and hearts of unwitting women who’ve grown weary of feminist struggles for equality.
In an age where people are made to think that the right to consume is a fundamental human right, women are made to think that if they have the right to buy whatever they want to look however they want, they’re free and equal to men.
I admit. Women now consume more images of hypersexualized and hyperfeminine women, and the overwhelming exposure of these images to the exclusion of, well, other types and subjectivities of women promotes a narrow sense of femininity and womanhood to people, especially children*.
The trouble with contemporary culture is that more women are exposing their bodies precisely because they want to be sexualized by men. Women want to be dirty, because it pleases men to become so. And if they want it, there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s girl power. It’s Girls Gone Wild. In this way, being a “slut” ends up reproducing the patriarchal logic we set out to diminish.
But the great thing about the SlutWalk is the fact that it’s a grassroots gender and sexual movement. Unlike mainstream media which tends to privilege only particular types of women to put on a “slut” identity, the SlutWalk opened the opportunity to women to put on a “slut” identity no matter how they looked**.
Finally, the desire to expose the body is not about patronizing patriarchal logic; it’s to ridicule it. It’s to shame those who gaze with misogynistic eyes at women who expose their bodies. It’s to cause discomfort in those who might unconsciously still cling to patriarchal myths about women’s desires and sexuality.
The feminist struggle is fought on many fronts. As women struggle against cultures that force them to dress up, they struggle against cultures that force them to undress. Because of this, I cannot hold one movement responsible for resolving all the problems women face.
Image of “I ♥ Sluts” from Wikipedia
*, ** (From “Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls“) – “Healthy sexuality is an important component of both physical and mental health, fosters intimacy, bonding, and shared pleasure, and involves mutual respect between consenting partners (Satcher, 2001; Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States [SIECUS], 2004). In contrast, sexualization occurs when:
- a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics
- a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy
- a person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or
- sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.
- The contribution by society—that is, the cultural1 norms, expectations, and values that are communicated in myriad ways, including through the media. A culture can be infused with sexualized representations of girls and women, suggesting that such sexualization is good and normal.
- An interpersonal contribution—Girls can be treated as, and encouraged to be, sexual objects by family, peers, and others.
- Self-sexualization—Girls may treat and experience themselves as sexual objects (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; McKinley & Hyde, 1996). If girls learn that sexualized behavior and appearance are approved of and rewarded by society and by the people (e.g., peers) whose opinions matter most to them, they are likely to internalize these standards, thus engaging in self-sexualization.
For individual women, findings across several studies indicate associations between exposure to female beauty ideals and disordered eating attitudes and symptoms, such that greater exposure to thin-ideal media has been associated with higher levels of dieting, exercising, and disordered eating symptomatology (e.g., Abramson & Valene, 1991; Harrison, 2000; Hofschire & Greenberg, 2001; Stice, Schupak-Neuberg, Shaw, & Stein, 1994;Thomsen,Weber, & Brown, 2002).
Indeed, a recent meta-analysis testing links between media exposure and women’s behavior and beliefs related to eating reported a small (d = .29) but statistically reliable effect of media exposure across 8 experimental and 12 correlational studies (Grabe,Ward, & Hyde, 2008).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Liz studied anthropology, international relations, philosophy, and French. She quit graduate school (for now) to pursue journalism. She still maintains that she isn’t a feminist, but watch out for more posts on gender issues in the coming weeks.