Let’s Stop Calling Women Sluts

23 Jan

by Erin Riordan

The word ‘slut’ sucks. So do ‘whore,’ ‘ho,’ and ‘trashy.’ These words are all feminized terms, and they are words that are used to punish women who enjoy sex. Historically, sex has never been about women. Women, until very recent history, and even now in many parts of the world, were considered property, owned by their fathers and then their husbands. Prior to the business transaction that transferred a woman from father to husband, women were expected to be virgins.  When sex happened, it often produced children, and many attitudes around sex were centered on the idea of procreation.  Values of purity and chastity were valued above all else in women, and even the white color of wedding dresses was meant to celebrate a woman’s virginity.

In modern times, the context around sex has changed. Women are no longer property. (Congrats on becoming people, fellow ladies!). Dramatic historical shifts, including notably the second-wave feminist movement in the 60’s and 70’s, changed attitudes around sex and the intentions of people having sex. Sex was no longer only about procreation. Sex was (and is) about pleasure. But this was not a full revolution of sex and all sex can be. Sex became concerned with pleasure, but men’s pleasure. Though casual sex is now more common than ever and hook-up culture is a well-defined phenomenon, society at large still holds archaic and highly problematic attitudes around women and sex.

It is still taboo for women to enjoy sex. We have invented and established words in the English language that specifically pass judgment on women who enjoy sex, or enjoy sex with multiple partners. These are terms that almost explicitly apply to women, and there are no male or masculine counterparts. Slut is specifically defined as ‘a slovenly or promiscuous woman’. It is a word often directed at women who have a lot of sex (‘a lot’ as defined by society’s standards), or are perceived to have a lot of sex. There is nothing wrong with having a lot of sex. If contraception is used and steps are taken to protect against STIs, there are no seriously increased risks that come with having ‘a lot’ of sex versus what society considers to be a ‘safe’ amount of sex. Safe sex is a normal, healthy, and happy part of life. But with women, we act like sex is wrong and dirty and bad.

In my own life, slut was introduced to me as a curse word, in the same category as asshole or bitch or shit.  It was not a word that was said out loud, and it was a slur. And it was a slur directed exclusively at women. The position of the word ‘slut’ in society, and other words like it (whore, ho, etc.), reflects a general attitude in society around women and sex. We punish female celebrities for enjoying sex, even if they star in T.V. shows or movies that depict sex, and frequently at that. Taylor Momsen, who starred on Gossip Girl as a young teenager (Gossip Girl itself was a highly sexualized show that often depicted young teenagers engaging in a variety of sexual acts) was once slandered as a slut and ho after she gave an interview with some “controversial” quotes. In an interview she gave when she was 17 she mentioned, “My best friend is my vibrator…I don’t date anyone so why not? Guys can masturbate-why can’t girls? I don’t understand why it makes people so uncomfortable. Sex is part of life-it shouldn’t be scandalous.”[1] Despite this seemingly healthy attitude towards her own sexuality and sexual needs, this quote created a huge controversy, and many publicly criticized Momsen, using ugly slurs such as ‘slut’ to do so. While it was considered scandalous that a 17-year-old young woman might masturbate, male masturbation is not only presumed, and rightly seen as healthy and normal, it would be considered strange if a 17-year-old young man did not regularly masturbate. Momsen’s words in fact highlight a hugely pervasive double standard in society: that men’s sexuality and need for sexual gratification is healthy, normal, and expected, but that women’s sexuality and women’s sexual needs are either nonexistent, or when recognized are labeled as dirty, immoral, and wrong.

This is not a healthy attitude, and it sends harmful messages to women, especially young women. When women who talk openly about their sex lives, or practice safe sex with multiple partners, or wear high heels with short, tight dresses when going out at night, are labeled as sluts, we teach women that their sexuality and sexual needs are something to be ashamed of, something to hide. This is not a healthy attitude for anyone to have around sex. If we as a society are legitimately concerned with encouraging the practice of safe sex, we must stop using ugly, outdated language to punish women who express an enjoyment of sex. We need to open up a dialogue around sex, and around what safe, healthy sex looks like. Safe sex is sex that involves the use of protection to limit the transmission of STIs and safe sex is sex with consent. These goals are best achieved when we talk about sex as a positive, healthy experience rather than a shameful one, with a cloud of negativity floating around it.

How we treat women’s sexuality and sexual desires also has an impact on how we treat women as people. If women are to achieve true equality their sexual needs and desires must be respected, and their sexuality regarded as their own. Words like ‘slut’ prevent this progress from happening, and disempower women. In calling a woman a slut, we take away her ownership of her own sexuality and own self. This is detrimental, and has a ripple effect felt across a culture that treats women as ‘less than’. To bring about justice and equality for women, and for everyone, we need to stop shaming women for their sexuality and sexual needs, and we need to strike ‘slut’ and like-minded terms from our collective vocabulary.


[1] “Taylor Momsen: “My Best Friend’s My Vibrator”” MTV UK. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Jan. 2013.

10 Responses to “Let’s Stop Calling Women Sluts”

  1. Gabriel January 23, 2013 at 8:19 pm #

    I agree that women’s promiscuity and sexuality in general is scorned by society much more than men’s. However, I think that today’s super-sexualized hookup culture is a bad reaction. In your post, you reduce sex to a wrongly stigmatized and gratifying experience that can be enjoyed safely (“Sex was (and is) about pleasure”). Where’s the intimacy, the emotional connection that is part of sex? You talk about sex and masturbation in the same breath, but there is a fundamental difference — one is with a human partner. I am certainly not anti-sex, but its sacredness has been defamed. I would argue that the promiscuity of today’s hook up culture only creates parity by objectifying men, not by de-stigmatizing women’s promiscuity. Everyone has sexual needs and contraception allows sex to be practice sex without pregnancies or STIs, but just because it’s possible to have sex with no commitments or consequences doesn’t mean that it’s healthy. Sex is a physical manifestation of compassion and love, which is not to say that it is absolute or for all of eternity, but there should be a human connection that goes deeper than simply fulfilling each other’s physical-sexual needs. In conclusion, in the same way that sex isn’t inherently “dirty, immoral, and wrong,” I would argue that it is not inherently “a positive, healthy experience.”

  2. jc January 23, 2013 at 11:21 pm #

    not seeing a connection between the labeling of women as such and the practice of safe sex…. engaging in safe sex does not mean your a slut and vise verse.
    encouraging safe sex is already being done today, as a college age student I have yet to come across anything or anyone saying to skip on condoms and ever get tested. Form another argument for abolishing the word slut, because the safe sex campaign is its own issue of physical health.

    the “slut” is going to continue to have sex often with multiple partners, safe sex or not. Why not ignore the “ugly, harmful” aspect of the word and embrace it, after all, it appears that all modern feminists agree that sex without emotional attachment is the next big thing for women, why let a collection of words evoke a emotional response when an act that is intended to conceive a child, consummate a marriage, etc, does not.

    Lastly your 2nd sentence is flawed, imho. A woman who enjoys having sex is called a woman. A woman who does not enjoy having sex is called unfortunate. A woman who enjoys sex more so than most other women as well as having sex often is called a nympho. A woman who has slept with enough individual partners to be deemed unfavorable by society is called a sult.

    Also +1 for Gabriel

  3. Jenna January 24, 2013 at 12:43 am #

    JC, I find the arguments in your last two paragraphs offensive. You tell women to “embrace” the ugly and harmful aspects of the word slut–would you tell an ethnic group or race to embrace the slurs used against them to demean or dehumanize them? Further, one of the biggest benefits of contraception is that sex is no longer just intended to conceive a child. That is why the sexual revolution, which beyond beginning to normalize sexual relationships before marriage also allowed women to enter the workforce in large numbers, coincided with the rise of the birth control pill. Women could control their own contraception, thus they could engage in a regular part of human life (whether in a relationship or not) without negative consequences.

    You also say “all modern feminists” advocate for sex without emotional attachment; that’s plain false. It is a sweeping generalization of a very diverse group. Rather, what “all modern feminists” advocate for is the ability of women to choose when, if, and how they have sex.

    Finally, your last paragraph. A woman who enjoys having sex is actually called a woman who enjoys having sex. A woman who does not enjoy having sex is called a woman who does not enjoy having sex–maybe she is asexual. Maybe she is a survivor of sexual assault or rape who is in the process of taking back control of her sexuality, which can be a long and difficult process. Maybe she’s just tired. Nymphomania, is, in fact, a psychological condition so no, not every woman who enjoys sex a lot is a “nympho.” Women who have the particular chemical imbalance that leads to an addiction to sexual release are “nymphos.” And to finish, please tell me what number of sexual partners is deemed “unfavorable” by society? And why should that be deemed unfavorable, if the woman is enjoying herself and taking necessary precautions to avoid STIs or pregnancy (if she does not want to become pregnant)? Sex can absolutely be the best way to physically express a deep emotional connection. However, it can also be an (extremely) enjoyable activity to fulfill a biological need that the vast majority of humans–especially college-aged young adults in their physical and hormonal prime–have, without any emotional attachment beyond attraction. The choice of which type of sex to have should be left up to the individual man or woman.

  4. Tegan January 24, 2013 at 1:44 am #

    JC- regarding your paragraph that reads “Lastly your 2nd sentence is flawed, imho. A woman who enjoys having sex is called a woman. A woman who does not enjoy having sex is called unfortunate. A woman who enjoys sex more so than most other women as well as having sex often is called a nympho. A woman who has slept with enough individual partners to be deemed unfavorable by society is called a sult.”

    As a woman, the double standard becomes incredibly apparent. In particularly as a sexually active woman. When women talk about sex, are proud of their sex life and sexuality (or not even proud, just not coy) in the way that men often are, they are condemned, their language and behavior considered inappropriate, and they are called names such as “slut,” “cunt,” “whore.”

    And thank you Jenna for pointing out that you can not classify “all modern feminists.” Actually, I am part of a female leadership fellowship, and we had a long debate recently about “hook up culture.” While I am of the opinion that it can be very liberating and empowering for young women, if it is their choice, many other self-identifying feminists staunchly disagreed, and very much so agreed with Gabriel.

    As with most things in this world, it comes down to the importance of choice. What is right for one person, is not necessarily what is right for everyone.

  5. jc January 24, 2013 at 10:01 am #

    “Why not ignore the “ugly, harmful” aspect of the word and embrace it…..” I am refering to the embracing of the word(s) not the emotional responces of adjectives with which they are associated with here. I realize that my arguments come off as offensive and I do not apologize because these are words on a page and I am not demoralizing or harming anyone. In fact the case is that I am attracting attention to your campaign.

    Secondly , sure let’s go a head and use the word nigger since you seemed to be hinting at it(maybe that is an incorrect assumption) It is no longer a term permanently associated with slavery, oppression, etc. Sure it does remind us of those things but the use of the word today has become like “brother”. More often than not I hear the word being used in an endearing manner than a disrespectful one. (maybe its because of my geography) but why couldn’t today slut shaming words take a similar path, also excuse me for comaring apples to oranges, the word nigger has, and always will have the potential to be a much more powerful word than “slut”.

    As far as sex and contraception and the sexual revolution, sex is the only way to naturally procreate a child without the interfernce of another person, thing, so on, think you get my point. I am just trying to stress the imporance of sex in a biological sense to the survival of humanity, and to the emotional aspect of love. The word slut (by itself) on the other hand does not have the power to take/create a life and it is nowhere nearly as important as the act of sex is to the feeling of love/partnership. So why champion its destruction so heavily? Why not leave it as it is?

    I quote,
    “You also say “all modern feminists” advocate for sex without emotional attachment; that’s plain false.”
    Yes obviously that is false I would never say that, also your prior statement to that is false, i said “it appears that all modern feminists” I said appears. This is a perception, and since I am not in a feminist group, I agree that this is a unfair broad label. Thankyou for bringing up the fact that there are some that think otherwise. I also said “modern feminism” as opposed to “feminism” because it was my understanding that modern feminism is more intune and forward with supporting the hookup culture.

    Finally I am going to ignore your last arguments partially because I cannot respond but more importantly because they are aimed at what I wrote, quote “imho” which means, In my humble opinion. I would never base an valid argument off of these opinions as they are unique to me and do not hold any water when applied to an argument.

    I may have blurred tegan and jennas’ responces a little in my reply, my apologies for that as you are two completely different people

    As a side note, the word cunt to me has nothing to do with slut or whore, other than its literal use, I associate it with bitch, but far more demeaning and offensive.

  6. Kristy January 25, 2013 at 6:55 am #

    Gabriel – I feel that you missed the point of this article a bit. Erin isn’t advocating for the “hookup culture” or saying women should be promiscuous. Rather, I think the point of the article is that there is no “right” or “wrong” way for a woman to express her sexuality. Sex does not have to be “sacred” or a “physical manifestation of compassion and love” – it actually can be simply because women love orgasms. Such an approach to sexuality can be problematic, but it can also be healthy and pleasurable, and it isn’t our place to tell women that having sex simply because they like sex is wrong, or inferior to having sex for love. We should stop telling women how they should and shouldn’t enjoy sex, and we should stop telling women that some forms of sexual expression (those that are “loving” or “committed”) are more valid, more moral, and more acceptable than others. It’s not up to us to determine how a woman should have sex – it’s up to her.

  7. taracmonroe April 28, 2013 at 9:04 pm #

    I loved your article. Eloquently written. There needs to be more concrete steps to shun this word , and its counterparts, from our vocabulary. These words are anti-woman.

  8. broadsideblog May 16, 2013 at 5:30 pm #

    And here’s a wacky idea — women were having lots of meaningless (i.e. no strings, no babies, no ring, no husband, no fiance) sex in the 1970s, as well. I was in college 1975 to 1979 and one major difference between casual sex then and now is that we did not yet know of — or fear or have to protect ourselves with every new partner — AIDS, which, in the 1980s was a killer.

    So there was a “golden age” then of sport-sex among women who just enjoyed sex for its own sake and, in Canada (where I grew up) had ready access to birth control and abortion and the morning-after pill. This whole compulsion to shame women who have a lot sexual partners (safely, not wrecking others’ relationships and marriages, preferably) is absurd and pathetic.

    If women spent 1/10th the energy now wasted on shaming and labeling one another on political activism, maybe we wouldn’t be fighting Neanderthal politicos who want to force transvaginal sonograms upon us. Progress? Really?

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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