Kit Steinkellner
February 05, 2015 11:30 am

“Slut” is one of the most loaded slang terms in our culture. For so many years, it’s been used to put women down, to shame girls, to victim-blame in cases of sexual assault and harassment, and to ridicule and oppress female sexuality in general. More recently, it’s been reclaimed—through activists and organized events like SlutWalk—as a way of taking back the term and turning the tables on those who’ve tried to use terminology as a form of oppression and scapegoating. Still, reclaiming a word doesn’t always redefine it, and in the Internet era, the word “slut” has been co-opted—on a whole new level—by anonymous harassers.

It remains a complicated cultural term and if you’re looking for someone to help you understand the ever-evolving meaning of it, Leora Tanenbaum is your woman. The author of two books on the topic, “Slut!” Growing Up Female With A Bad Reputation” (2000) and “I Am Not A Slut!: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet” (which just came out this week), Tanenbaum has some very strong, and well-researched opinions on the word. So, we enlisted her to give us a crash-course in the history and complexities of “slut”—what it means today, and how to dismantle its potential for harm.

Hello Giggles: You have written two books focusing on the culture surrounding the word “slut.” Your first book was published fifteen years ago, your second book was released this week. How has the word “slut” changed over this time period?

Leora Tanenbaum: In the mid-1990s I did my first round of research. I interviewed 50 girls or women enrolled in middle school and high school, all of whom had been labeled “slut” (or a synonym of the word, like “ho”).  In the book, I coined the term slut-bashing and I used it in a very specific and limited way and that was to describe experience of being labeled a slut over time repeatedly by one’s peers who had a hostile intent in using the word.

The experience of the “slut” back then was that the victim knew who was harassing her. The harasser didn’t have the anonymity you have today. It was this raw and immediate experience of being harassed, and it was primarily verbal harassment. People would say things right to the subject’s face.

What’s different today is that we still have slut-bashing, but in the 1990s and previous to that, every middle school and high school had one to two girls singled out and labeled a slut. Now, in 2015, the word is everywhere. Almost every girl has had the experience of being labeled a “slut.” I have yet to meet a girl under the age of 25 who has not been called a “slut.”

HG: So what is the difference between slut-bashing and slut-shaming?

LT: I did a whole new line of research in 2013, and what I found is that slut-bashing absolutely continues to exist, we still have girls in middle and high school bashed in this ugly way, but we also have other layer which is called slut-shaming.

Slut-shaming is the experience of being called “slut” in casual way. It’s not a repeated thing, a girl being slut-shamed can be called “slut” only once or twice. The shaming could be conducted online by people you don’t know or who don’t know you. The intent isn’t necessarily hostile, it could be neutral or even positive, the word “slut” can be used in a friendly way by friends. This is a whole new layer I did not see two decades ago.

So, if the intent is positive, why do I include it under shaming? It’s because even if the intent is positive, the affect is always negative. The word “slut” is always about policing a woman’s sexuality.

HG: Do you believe the word “slut” can be reclaimed?

LT: I’m so divided over this issue. I wish we could reclaim this word. The impulse is to embrace the word “slut” and turn it on its head and refuse to capitulate to the definition of “slut” as an out of control sexual woman, instead flipping the word and wearing it as a badge of honor.

I love that impulse so why am I rejecting it? I have two concerns. The first was pointed out by an organization called Black Women’s Blueprint. They released a statement in response to the “SlutWalk” movement that pointed out that the ability to take a word and play with its meaning, that ability comes from a place of privilege. You need to have racial privilege in order to do this because of the racial history of “sluttiness.”

Historically, white women were expected to be minimally sexual, whereas black women were extremely sexualized [through institutionalized racism]. Because of this history, it may be a different experience for black women to extricate themselves from this context and reclaim the word in the same way as white women. A lot of “privilege” is required to reclaim the word “slut” safely.

I also wondered if it’s a good strategy, from a social movement point of view, I worry about the personal risks involved in reclaiming the term. Every woman I spoke to for my [most recent] book who attempted to wrest control over the term and take it back, every woman who reclaimed the word regretted it. . . I don’t think it’s coincidence that there is a rise in slut-shaming and a rise in reporting sexual assault. I don’t have the data to prove this connection, but I see a correlation. I don’t think this is the time to mass reclaim the word.

HG: So are you saying the word shouldn’t be used at all?

LT: I’m not trying to censor anyone or tell people not to use the word. I do recognize that the are individuals for whom taking back the word is comforting and empowering. I’m not telling them not to.  My argument is a macro argument. I’m not about the individual experience. I’m talking from a strategic point of view. Is this something we should be doing writ large? I just want us to step back and think about this and see the problems with reclaiming word.

HG: If reclaiming the word doesn’t feel like the best strategy to combat slut-bashing and slut-shaming, what strategies do you advocate?

LT: The first line of defense is to not use the word “slut” anymore. I strongly encourage feminist conversation in school, extracurriculars, clubs, and organizations centered around feminist conversation. It’s best to have an adult facilitate and guide discussions. It’s the girls’ voices that need to be heard, but they need to have an adult who can show them the tools that exist in their environment that will help them deal.

That’s from the girls’ point of view. From an adult point of view, right now we just started a new congress—in 2015 we have so many lawmakers trying to take away access to women’s sexual healthcare and sexual education. I genuinely believe in organizations like Planned Parenthood, where I am employed [as a senior writer and editor], that provide women with sexual education and health care. They are normalizing women’s sexuality and doing that, in my opinion, chips away at this culture of slut-shaming. I would encourage supporting organizations like these, and voting for lawmakers that support women’s health care. That’s something everyone can do.

Image via Reuters/Guardian

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