I’ll never forget the first time I called someone a slut.
It was a Sunday afternoon, and I was in the park with my friend Kate, who was telling me all about the party she had gone to the night before. I hadn’t been invited, and I wanted to be caught up on all the new gossip about our classmates and friends.
“You should have seen how Bridget was dancing with this guy,” Kate told me, her face screwed up in judgment. “His hands were all over her butt.”
“What a slut!” I said. We were 13.
I remember being surprised to hear the word coming out of my mouth. And I remember how Kate responded, agreeing with me, as we sat speculating about Bridget. She had probably made out with that guy. She had probably made out with lots of guys. No wonder he had his hands all over her butt, when her skirt was barely covering it. Bridget was a slut. I remember how good the word felt rolling over my tongue, and how talking about Bridget that way made me feel closer to Kate, as though she and I were in some club together – a club that Bridget wasn’t allowed to join. Because Bridget was a slut.
“Slut” is a powerful word. And thanks to a wave of feminist protests that has become a worldwide phenomenon, the word has been getting a lot of press lately.
Anger over a policeman's words
The SlutWalk protests were born out of anger at the words of one Toronto policeman, who earlier this year told a group of students that if women want to avoid being “victimized,” they should avoid “dressing like sluts.” Cut to a few months later, and protests against this kind of reasoning – that it’s women’s responsibility to avoid rape, rather than men’s responsibility not to commit rape – are being held all over the world. SlutWalks were recently held in Los Angeles, Chicago, Sydney, and Cardiff, Wales. Soon, Edinburgh, New York, Johannesburg and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan will follow suit.
Almost every woman out there has been called a slut at some point in her life. She’s probably called another woman a slut, too. Because so many women know what it feels like to have that word thrown at them, the SlutWalk phenomenon has caught fire, leading my colleague Jessica Valenti, co-founder of Feministing.com, to call them a model for what the future of feminism could look like. So many of us know how it feels to be shamed, ridiculed, or cast aside because we violated another person’s definition of acceptable sexual behavior.
The catalyst for the original Toronto protest was a comment from a law enforcement official, a man charged with enforcing laws against sexual violence. His words revealed an ugly truth: Even the people whose job it is to protect women believe that some of us – ones who dress “like sluts” – bring violence on themselves, while other women – those who dress appropriately, whatever that means – deserve our sympathy when someone hurts them. Just as ugly, however, is the truth of how the word “slut,” and the attitude it represents, is used among women.
When women use the word “slut” to describe another woman, the word serves several functions. Firstly, it demonstrates a disapproval, or a disgust, for another person’s sexual life, or for her choice of clothes, or for her tendency to flirt, or for a host of other things I don’t have the column inches to list here.
But secondly, and more disturbingly, making the distinction between “sluts” and ourselves creates a false sense of safety. “Sluts,” we tell ourselves, are women who invite violence, and often, that invitation is answered. When “sluts” are raped, police officers suspect they must have done something to deserve it. So as long as we aren’t sluts, we are safe. We won’t be raped, and if we are, the justice system will take care of us. We won’t be raped, and if we are, our friends and family will be sympathetic. We won’t be raped, and if we are, no one will say we deserved it.
Unfortunately, this simply isn’t true. Though some protesters at SlutWalks are wearing “provocative “ clothing like fishnet stockings, corsets, and short skirts, others are wearing what they wore when they were raped – decidedly un-provocative jeans, sweatpants, school uniforms, or pajamas. For those women, and for the 213,000 people who are sexually assaulted every year in America, toeing the line and avoiding dressing “like sluts” didn’t guarantee safety.
When women hurl that word at other women, we aren’t just buying into the lie that some of us deserve violence more than others. We’re also lying to ourselves about our own safety. We’re pretending that rape could never happen to us – that it’s something that happens to other women, women who bring it on themselves. And by endorsing that myth, we make it easier for men like that Toronto police officer to pick and choose who sees justice and who doesn’t.
I couldn’t have understood all this at 13, when I called Bridget a slut. I didn’t understand the power of the word, and more importantly, the power of the idea that some women deserve protection and sympathy, while other women deserve what they get. I didn’t understand that building that clubhouse for me and Kate, and locking Bridget out of it, wouldn’t just hurt Bridget – it would hurt me and Kate, too. I understand that now. This summer, I’ll be marching in the New York SlutWalk, to demolish the clubhouse and strip the word “slut” of its dangerous power. I owe it to Bridget, I owe it to Kate, and I owe it to women everywhere. And if you’ve ever called someone a slut, you do, too.