Sluts, Man-sluts, and Other Fun Words

I’ve really got to hand it to my generation for our collective progressiveness. Maybe the “hope” and “change” Barack Obama promised us in 2008 has inspired us. Because my generation of teenagers and twenty-somethings is steamrolling the way our people think about sexism, social behavior and sexual expression.

A growing number of current high school and university students are behind burgeoning equality for all races and all genders. Over the past few years, especially, we’ve been responsible for more progressive dialogue and language.  I’m referring in particular to one word that symbolizes equality between the sexes:  man-slut.

The term “man-slut” (and its brother “man-whore”) is analogous to the term “slut”, only instead of describing a promiscuous woman, it refers to sexually indiscriminate men. This relatively new term is gradually paving the way towards equal-opportunity critiquing of our peers’ trashy behavior.

Just playing.

I was not serious about the term “man-slut” as a building block to gender equality. I would actually go so far as to say the term hurts everybody, especially women. It’s a problematic concept for many reasons, but I’ll focus on the biggest problem associated with the “sluttiness” of our men: the word simply perpetuates a long-standing tradition of slut-shaming. End of story.

I’m lucky enough that I have never been called a slut.  At least, to my face. But seriously, has that word followed me around for years.

I learned the word “slut” when I was ten. At that age, I couldn’t conceive of holding someone’s hand, let alone holding someone’s penis (or any other sexual organ). Already I was being indoctrinated with someone else’s notion of morality, purity. In 1999, billboards in my suburb were splashed with posters of demure-looking teenagers captioned “Not me, not now. What smart kids say to sex”. This abstinence campaign convinced my ten-year-old mind that when I became a teenager, boys would try to have sex with me and I was supposed to say no.

Sex was something all men wanted, and women gave grudgingly. This notion never made sense to me, but I didn’t say anything, because girls didn’t (or weren’t supposed to) think about it. I kept my mouth shut when I was fifteen, and an article in Cosmo taught me how to “look sexy without looking slutty”.  At the time people at school called my friend a “skank” for kissing a boy she wasn’t dating. I was kidding myself when I thought people would be more “mature” when I got to college.

It was easy to pretend sex didn’t exist while I was in high school. The all-girls Catholic environment rather encouraged it. When I got to college, though, sex was in the air like the smell of Axe Body Spray “masking” the scent of marijuana in the dorms. But people didn’t become more open-minded about sex just because they were having more of it.

Over the past four years, acquaintances have tried to set me up with friends in need of a rebound. People have tried to spread rumors about my so-called “shady past.” Friends and relatives have told me (out of concern, of course) that girls who sleep around have low self-esteem. I’ve been asked about my “number” as if my sense of self-worth is directly correlated with my libido.

And there have been a few times that people have used their perception of my sexuality to gauge my strength of character. Or put me down. There have been instances that I have been deeply wounded by people’s words.  Sometimes, it took real fortitude to remember that sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me. It hurts to feel judged, because, well, that’s the point of having words like “slut”. To hurt women.

By definition, “slut-shaming” means to perceive an individual as promiscuous, immoral, and to use that perception to attack, humiliate or put down that individual. Slut-shaming can be achieved through direct personal attacks, or without even uttering the word “slut”.

Unfortunately, slut-shaming always hurts women.  The problem lies in the fact that the word “slut,” by definition, refers to a woman. It has etymologically referred to “loose” or “slovenly” women since the 15th century, and it does not look like that’s going to change any time soon.

“Man-slut” will never have the same meaning, even though some of my friends would argue it does. For one thing, equal opportunity sexual humiliation hurts everybody. The evidence is all in the semantics. The fact that we have to make the distinction between a regular “slut” and a “man-slut” means that there’s unequal distribution of judgment.

Words like “trashy” and “classy,” when applied to private sexual behavior, create a dichotomy between what we should and should not do in the bedroom. That same power is vested in the word “slut.” This illusion of authority over others’ sexuality gives us the impression that we can punish people we envy or disapprove of.

As I said, at age ten, I began a complicated relationship with the word “slut.” I spent my teenage years trying to avoid becoming one. Eventually, though, I found that my peers in college have as much authority over my choices as my mother does about keeping my dorm room clean. But if it took me a decade to realize that “words will never hurt me,” then who am I to dispense that judgment to others? And what about the rest of us?  If we learn to think before we speak, that would be genuine progress.

About Veronica Glab

Veronica Glab (CAS '11) is the Feministka writer for the Quad. "Feministka" means "feminist" in Veronica Glab's native language, Polish. There are few things Veronica loves more than eating pineapple, taking long walks on the beach, and thinking about Rasputin's beard.

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