Are all women sluts?
This article was published in Living Ethics: issue 86 summer 2011
All Women are Sluts was one of the topics at this year’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas that interested me when I saw the program. It’s a catchy title, but what does the word ‘slut’ mean? The Macquarie dictionary defines it as “a slovenly or promiscuous woman”. However, as the three women panellists for the session agreed, most men and many women are unaware of this definition.
According to panellists, Samah Hadid, Clem Bastow and Catherine Lumby, the word ‘slut’ is used extensively to define women on many levels and these can be much more than in relation to what they wear, how they speak and how they explore their sexuality. For example, Samah Hadid, human rights advocate and 2010 Australian Youth Representative to the United Nations, has even been referred to as a slut for expressing political ideas.
“Women are not meat”, said Hadid referring to comments made by controversial cleric Sheik Taj al-Din al-Hilali who in 2006 compared women to “uncovered meat”.
The use of the word ‘slut’, the panellists claim, is a means of dehumanising women and it is their right as feminists to claim this word back. Are these women’s views unique? No. Women around the world have begun to claim what they believe is rightfully theirs.
The movement to fight back the ubiquitous use of the word ‘slut’ began in Toronto, Canada, in April 2011 when a police officer claimed that to remain safe “women should avoid dressing like sluts”.
Consequently, hundreds of women took to the streets in a ‘SlutWalk’ to defy what they saw to be patriarchal oppression. Their stance was simple: to call for an end to victim-blaming, that is, the idea that victims of sexual assault or rape could somehow be blamed for their attackers’ actions based upon what the victim was wearing or doing at the time.
Was the victim dressed skimpily? Were they intoxicated? Did they have a large number of sexual partners? Yes? Oh well, that explains why they were attacked. The notion that women must dress a certain way in order to avoid sexual violence is anathema for many young women around the world. “Why is it that what we wear puts us in jeopardy of rape?” they ask.
Rape was not the only topic debated during the lively panel discussion. The focus of the evening was on semiotics. If the dictionary definition of the word ‘slut’ is “a promiscuous woman”, then why does it hold such negative connotations? What reason is there for denouncing a woman who is sexually active, when men are just as, if not more, promiscuous?
Panel member, Clem Bastow, one of the organisers of Melbourne’s SlutWalk, described those who walk as people seeking to reclaim the word ‘slut’ and thereby emptying it of its power to criticise and judge a woman’s sexual expression.
One woman who argues strongly against reclaiming the word ‘slut’ is Professor Gail Dines, a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock college, Boston, who believes that young women today feel intense pressure to be sexually available, on demand. Dines blames a culture in which hypersexualized images of young women are commonplace and where hardcore porn is the major form of sex education for young men.
Women, Dines argues, have been told over and over that in order to be valued in such a culture, they must look and act like sluts, while not being labelled a slut. This is because this label has dire consequences including being blamed for rape, depression, anxiety, eating disorders and self-mutilation.
Why, asks Dines, would anyone want to reclaim a word that is such a strong symbol of patriarchal oppression? Perplexed by the aim of the SlutWalk, Dines argues that women instead need to find ways to create their own authentic sexuality, outside the word ‘slut’. Dines’ views, when put to the panel, provoked discussion about the continued conflict between old and new feminism and the tendency for older feminists to disrespect and misunderstand the actions of younger women.
There is no doubt that the word ‘slut’ is problematic for many, including myself. Its affect is to immediately degrade and create insecurities about the choices women make about the way they dress, their sexuality and their general behaviour.
As a young woman, all of these issues strongly resonate with me and I find the debate about the broader meaning of the word ‘slut’ fascinating. Like so many other woman my age, I have been denounced as a slut. This experience has been hurtful and shaming to me. However, the word ‘slut’ is not one I would wish to reclaim. Instead of being denounced for my sexual ambitions, I would prefer to be called nothing. Rather, I seek to have my freedom of sexual expression left, as it is with men, alone.