Can the Word ‘Slut’ Be Reclaimed?

In a recent interview with Racked, Karley Sciortino, the blogger behind Slutever and Vogue.com’s “Breathless” sex and relationships columnist — the closest thing we have to Sex and the City‘s Carrie Bradshaw IRL — explained that the word “slut” is something she’s trying to reclaim. “I like the idea of saying the word ‘slut’,” she said. “I recently tweeted that I’m redefining slut now to mean a sexually successful female… We need more slutty role models.” For Sciortino, we live in a sex-negative society, and her use of the word slut, in her blog and in her sex writing, is an attempt to take away all the silly, society-based shame around sexuality.

In the past four years, it has felt like a new generation of women have grabbed onto the word “slut,” repurposing it for their own art. There’s pop culture examples, like in Brooke Candy’s aggressive single, “Das Me“: “It’s time to take the word back, ‘slut’ is now a compliment/ A sexy ass female who runnin’ shit and confident.” Politically, the SlutWalk protest marches went around the world in 2011, women reclaiming their right to be on the streets, wearing what they want, in response to a Toronto policeman suggesting that the best way for women to fend off sexual assault is to “stop dressing like sluts.”

slutFor writer Leora Tanenbaum, the author of 1999’s Slut! Growing Up Female With a Bad Reputation, and the just-published I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet, the word has more nuance. “Forgive me, sisters,” she writes in I Am Not a Slut, regarding her feelings around the impossibility of reclaiming the word. It’s not just something that can be wiped off and reclaimed, in her opinion: “In a culture where females are hypersexualized, embracing the word ‘slut’ does not seem like a radical protest. It seems like a capitulation.” She comes to the conclusion that even though women reclaiming the word are coming from a place of well-meaning and libreration, in a patriarchy where “slut” still has negative connotations, “the weight of this contradiction is too much for the word ‘slut’ to bear.”

Coming after pages of smart commentary and research on the heavy weight that women — particularly our young women and girls — bear regarding their sexuality, and what society expects and wants from their sexuality, Tanenbaum’s words have weight. I Am Not a Slut is a fascinating (and depressing) read, wrestling with the question of a girl’s reputation, still relevant and increasingly vulnerable in a time where a phone can be wielded as a weapon.

It is absolutely infuriating to read how social media and the Internet — at some point a promise of liberation, right? — can be used aggressively against young women, keeping the sexual double standard of “he’s a stud, she’s a slut” alive and well. Tanenbaum is smart and succinct in the ways that high school is a jungle, and the horde uses people’s differences against them. She points out that “slut” is, most often, used to “other” a girl, and many times they fall into three categories: “different,” envied for their beauty/sexual development, or the survivor of a sexual assault. This categorizing is applicable to any young woman, and any girl is a potential target.

Tanenbaum is especially thorough on the ways that a girl, once targeted, can be bullied through the internet. It makes her computer, her twitter feed, her Facebook page, her phone into an anonymous voice slinging insults. As part of the generation lucky enough to be pre-Internet regarding this state of things, and generally befuddled by it, my eyes were opened to just how the bullying and misery could be perpetuated. Tanenbaum writes about high profile cases of teen suicide, and because of the research that she’s done into the social behavior of high schoolers, it’s easier to understand what led these women to this point.

But it’s not as if I Am Not a Slut is merely a Reefer Madness, warning us about the ways in which sexual stereotyping is bad. Tanenbaum lays out what the world is like right now for teens, what reputation means, and how the decks can be stacked against people trying to survive (sanely) in a patriarchy. It’s a necessary tool for a world that has a lot of confusing messages for women, and Tanenbaum’s clear-headed writing and reporting should make a difference in the lives of women and girls. After seeing just how the word “slut” can be brandished against women and their sexuality, according to Tanenbaum, it is hard to think of it as a word that can be fully liberated from its plethora of meanings quite yet. I Am Not a Slut gave new insight into the minefield that women and girls step into these days, and for that, it’s a book that many women could benefit from reading.