I have one, very simple answer to this seemingly complex question, which has recently been hotly debated on the forum known as Georgetown Confessions.
My answer is no one.
I remember when, freshman year, being called a slut was one of the most shameful things that could happen to you. It has happened to girls ranging from my friends who were virgins who made out a lot, to girls who were sexually active and happy about it, to girls who were lonely and turned to sex as a source of companionship, to girls who lacked confidence and found sex reassuring, to girls who have sex they’re afraid to say no to, to girls who are proud of their bodies and like to show off regardless of whether they want to have sex with anyone.
I disagree with all of these definitions. I think that the word slut could be removed from the English language, and everyone would be better off. The word, its implications, and its effect do not, ever, add value.
Sex is complicated. People have a vast range of reasons for having it or not having it, from love to loneliness, from pleasure to pain, from reconciliation to rebounds, and sometimes just for fun.
College, for many of us, is a process of figuring out which of those do and don’t work, and hopefully finding the ones that do and embracing them. It still very much matters that process does not cause others harm, question or demand their consent, or put the sexual health of anyone involved at risk. Given these very important conditions, which are not factors of slut-hood but simply issues of human respect, it is the business of absolutely no one but the person involved (and their partner) to judge how good or bad any of those reasons may be.
Very few of us will make the perfect choices right away. This is why a support system and ongoing conversations about consent and safety and the importance of valuing yourself and your own boundaries is so, so important. I find it so exciting that resources, the space for these kinds of conversations, and an environment that fosters comfort saying yes when we want to and no when we don’t are being developed. These are the kinds of positive, active steps that foster the changes that people who slut-shame might think they’re encouraging when actually they only contribute to the problem.
Calling someone a slut IS NEVER part of fostering sexual safety, agency, or honesty. The more people shame others for acting in a way they deem “wrong,” the more they encourage fear of the conversation and discourage anyone from being honest with themselves or others about what they do and don’t want.
Shaming people for their choices does not invite those people, or anyone else attentive to the conversation, to come forward with uncertainties, insecurities, and questions.
Telling people they aren’t valuable because they haven’t valued themselves does not send them the message that they deserve value.
Calling someone a slut for acting out of low self-esteem WILL NOT help her recover from it.
If you look at someone you know, and are genuinely concerned about his or her sexual behavior for the sake of his or her well-being, that is a conversation worth having. Where we are still calling people sluts, we need to be asking people where they are, what they need, what their questions and confusions and hardships are.
We owe it to one another not to shame, but to support, helping each other cultivate healthy relationships to ourselves and our own self-worth and sexual agency. Make it OK to talk about where you are, regardless of where it is, so we can all move towards places that allow us to value our own sexual preferences, whatever they may be.