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