In Today’s Alternative Advice Column, What Lies Behind “Slut”

A while back, Chloe wrote a terrific piece about the gap between increased awareness about unhealthy beauty standards in the media, and the unhealthy messages they’re actually internalizing. I think a similar gap exists regarding sexuality; many of us are able to articulate pride in our sexuality or pontificate about sex positivity, but we’re still internalizing harmful messages about sexuality and what these messages says about us and our value. We still buy into the Madonna/whore complex. We still believe purity and goodness reside with virginity, and dirtiness and badness reside with sex. We still feel shame about our desires, and feel less and less proud of ourselves as our “number” climbs higher and higher (and I’m not talking about age). Yes, there is a cognitive social gap between our knowledge of our sexuality and our experience of it.
That’s nowhere more clear than in this Frisky advice column, entitled “Dear Wendy: Everyone Thinks I’m A Slut.” A 21-year-old girl writes in with a relatively common problem for young women to have these days–she’s being called a slut.
What insight did our neighborhood advice columnist Wendy have for her? Why, of course, it’s her fault for talking about her sexual partners so damn much:

“What I don’t understand is why so many people are thinking it’s standard practice to share the number of sexual partners they’ve had with anyone they go out with a few times…I do have to wonder if, under your expressed bravado, you feel a tinge of guilt about some of the choices you’ve made. It may explain the incessant need you have to share your number with people despite the stigma you feel attached to it.”

Ok, I got it. It’s not a question of whether or not she’s a big ole’ slut, but who knows about it. So what does she recommend her advice-seeker do? She really needs to quit her braggin’!

“Quit making a big deal of it — quit sharing your number with people; quit making your private life public; and quit choosing partners who have big mouths if that’s what you’re doing — and you’ll find that no one else really cares about your sex life as much as you do.”

Hmm. So…it’s her fault for not keeping all that sluttiness to herself? I’m not sure I’m buying it. Here’s what I would have said:


Dear Sexually Active in Vermont,
Slut. What a word. It simultaneously describes and dominates, classifies and corrodes its subject. Its most basic use is to describe someone who is sexually promiscuous, but it has come to entail so much more these days–worthlessness, dirtiness, even the very state of being a woman.
Who is it used by? It’s used by men to justify their insecurity about the power they see in women’s sexuality. It’s used by women to establish their own superiority over other women. It’s used by rich people to hold onto and exercise their privilege. It’s used by poor people to grasp at having value in a society that often makes them feel invisible. In other words, it’s used by people with an agenda. A self-serving agenda. You know, that thing they’re accusing you of having by being such a slutty slut? In the real world, the “dirtiest”, “easiest” thing anyone can do is degrade another person by feeding into the social and cultural oppression that already exists against them.
So their intentions aren’t exactly “pure”, but…are they right? Let me set the record straight, right here, right now, for good: People who call other people “sluts” are always, inherently, insufferably wrong. No matter the sexual history of the person they are addressing. Because people who buy into the concept of a slut- that someone who has more sex is worse than someone who has less sex- are fundamentally, logically, morally, spiritually erroneous. Having sex doesn’t make you a bad person. Having sex doesn’t make you a bad person. Having sex doesn’t make you a bad person. (Yes, I’m going for a Good Will Hunting moment here!) Having sex doesn’t make you anything other than a person who has sex. The end. I promise!
In reality, purity is a myth. You are not weaker, or stupider, or less important, for each time you choose to have sex with someone. That’s not to say there aren’t universal social truths about good and bad behavior that you should be accountable to- there are. But these “positives” and “negatives” don’t correspond with numbers of sexual partners- that would be ridiculous and meaningless. They revolve around things like kindness, intelligence, compassion, and wellness. These things matter inside and outside the bedroom. Having sex does not define who you are or what you do in any arena other than your sex life! There is no simple dichotomy where more sex equals bad and less sex equals good. There is only you. Your state of mind, your experiences, your health and well being, your contribution to this world. It is a more complicated, more nuanced, more evolved system of valuing people. Which should tell you right there it is probably right.
But that voice. That voice inside and outside your head is saying “I know what you’re saying is right, but deep down inside I don’t believe you. Why would the whole world keep telling me I’m worth less because of my sexual history if it weren’t even a little bit true?
That is a good question. Why do people call other people sluts? In my experience, I have found that it is because they are scared. They are scared that they won’t be able to find a partner that they love who will love them back, and they would like to be able to have someone else to shoulder that terrifying responsibility. They are scared of their own sexual desires, and what those desires say about their true selves. They are scared of living a life based on a value system that will be proven by time to be false, cruel, and unjust, so they work even harder and more ferociously to justify and reinforce it, to prove to themselves that they, their parents, their grandparents, are on the right side of history (they are not). They are scared of women who are free, because it reminds them of the ways that they themselves are not. And of course, they are scared of their own mortality, and so they grasp at anything that could guarantee them immunity, moral superiority, or holy benevolence in the face of the ultimate terror- death.
This fear drives them to great extremes. Fear is powerful, and many people’s lives are completely dominated by it. Women, in particular, are an easy target for people who are very scared, because there are already social checks in place to make women less threatening, less powerful, less scary. So they latch onto this, and contribute to it, and perpetuate it. They actively degrade women. They take satisfaction from putting them in their place, and from taking away their power. They remind them over and over that their bodies, their sexuality, their autonomy, their choices, and their power, are not their own. They exert control- over their own lives, and over the behavior of others, as well as they know how- by perpetuating fear and pain.
I have been called a slut many times in my life, along with many women, but never by someone who I suspected was genuinely interested in my well being, nor by anyone who was very brave, or who loved themselves very much.
Ok, you are saying, even if I am convinced of this myself, it still hurts to operate in a world in which not everyone is on the same page as this. Being viewed as a slut by others still hurts, and still has real negative ramifications for me in this world. How can one find comfort, truth, and transcendence in such an unjust system?
Love yourself, love others, find feminism. In that order!
Thank you for writing.

For more on the term “slut” and the double standard with which it is used, check out Jessica’s book!

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26 Comments

  1. supremepizza
    Posted April 8, 2010 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Aside from sharing your STD status I really don’t see the harm in keeping your sexual history private. Who’s business is it really? I think its hard to fault “Wendy” for saying that.
    And its hard to think any self-described feminist would argue that we should be sharing our sexual history with casual hook ups.

  2. DeafBrownTrash
    Posted April 8, 2010 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    good post, but you don’t offer suggestions to females what they should do if someone calls them a SLUT.
    for me, if people call me a slut or whore, I just smile and laugh and say, “why, yes I am! and i love it.” Then I ask them what’s wrong with being a slut. After they cite off silly reasons about morals and stuff, I proceed to tell them that their morals do not apply to me, that my God does not judge me, and that at least I’m open and honest about my life, unlike them, and lastly, I’m very happy with being a “slut.”
    That usually shuts up about 95% of them.
    how about you ladies, what do you guys do if someone call you a slut?

  3. Comrade Kevin
    Posted April 8, 2010 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    I find being honest and vulnerable to be the only way to address issues like this. We associate vulnerability with setting ourselves up to be an easy target, but in reality, the only way we can really grow and make progress is by being this way. When we can brave this, we realize our similarities.
    There are some small-minded people who will take our statements of vulnerability and try to mock us for our courage, but most people I find expect everything BUT that sort of expression and are utterly dumbfounded to see it on display.

  4. zes
    Posted April 8, 2010 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    Well done.
    I will offer one caveat for a not-totally-negative reason why someone might feel legitimate angst about another person’s “number”, high or low.
    I think it can be about compatibility. If you are the kind of person who hates to have sex outside of a monogamous, exclusive, loving relationship, then you might reasonably be concerned if you find yourself dating a partner who has previously had sex with everything that moves. Not because they are morally below you (assuming they were honest with all their partners, which is nothing to do with sex, just with, well, honesty and being a decent person). It’s because you might be afraid that you just aren’t compatible with one another – that they need more variety of partners, that you need more intimacy, and that there won’t be any way to satisfy you both.
    However that’s someone whose sex life is tied up in your own, hence you have a right to know and care about it – and even then it’s not about anyone getting to feel superior, just a concern about difference. It’s the same as if they wanted to decorate your shared home all minimalist and you want it to look like a French chateau – you have to be able to live with the end result. I think the real problem is that people have a very hard time forgetting that just because something is different doesn’t mean it is better OR worse.

  5. Maya
    Posted April 8, 2010 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    Beautifully said, Lori. I agree that, even when we know better, too many of us internalize this bullshit too much.
    “Love yourself, love others, find feminism.” Word.

  6. doviende
    Posted April 8, 2010 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    Aside from possible “moral” judgment from religious types, I think that men are more likely to use the “slut” label as a reason to treat a particular woman unethically. It gives them an internal justification to lie or otherwise try to convince that woman to have sex with them, and then they can tell themselves that it’s ok because she’s a slut.
    Calling someone a “slut”, “dyke”, “fag”, etc, is usually a way of justifying some sort of unethical conduct towards them. They are made to be an outsider through labeling, and then they may be cheated or abused because they are not one of “us” to the perpetrator.

  7. allisonjayne
    Posted April 8, 2010 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    I somehow managed to get tagged as being a huge slut in high school, before I’d even made out with a single person. I still don’t really quite understand why, though I suspect it has to do with being the combo of being openly bisexual, having lots of guy friends, and wearing ripped fishnets a lot (hello, it was the 90s! riot grrrl!).
    With regards to the question of how to respond when someone calls you a slut….I don’t know, I think I said some version of “if by slut you mean someone who isn’t afraid of sex, then sure, I’m a slut, and that’s rad”. Or, you know, put my fingers in my ears and say “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you over the sound of how awesome I am”. :)
    It didn’t (and doesn’t) bother me, since it’s definitely more indicative of the state of mind of the person saying it than it was about my actual sexual history or practice (obviously, since at that point I didn’t even HAVE a sexual history!).
    What DOES bother me is that someone having a reputation for ‘sluttiness’ is probably less likely to be believed if she is sexually assaulted. I’ve experienced that, and seen it happen to way too many women.

  8. genericjanedoe
    Posted April 8, 2010 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    I think the real problem is that people have a very hard time forgetting that just because something is different doesn’t mean it is better OR worse.
    So true. All too often individuals try to position their lives as RIGHT and everything else as wrong. Maybe you can’t imagine yourself sleeping with someone after knowing them for a very short amount of time. That’s ok. YOU don’t have to do it, but it doesn’t put you in position of looking down upon someone else.
    It’s a lesson I’ve had to learn for sure…and one I keep trying to teach myself and others.

  9. Kessei
    Posted April 8, 2010 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    “In my experience, I have found that it is because they are scared. They are scared that they won’t be able to find a partner that they love who will love them back, and they would like to be able to have someone else to shoulder that terrifying responsibility. They are scared of their own sexual desires, and what those desires say about their true selves. They are scared of living a life based on a value system that will be proven by time to be false, cruel, and unjust, so they work even harder and more ferociously to justify and reinforce it, to prove to themselves that they, their parents, their grandparents, are on the right side of history (they are not). They are scared of women who are free, because it reminds them of the ways that they themselves are not. And of course, they are scared of their own mortality, and so they grasp at anything that could guarantee them immunity, moral superiority, or holy benevolence in the face of the ultimate terror- death.”
    Okay, seriously?
    I hope you didn’t realize you were doing this, but this paragraph seems to be using the madonna/whore complex, too. People are attacking those who have “too many” sex partners because they “aren’t sexually free,” are “scared of their sexual desires”, don’t want “responsibility”, are worried too much about religious morality …
    Why don’t we just put Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” on repeat and call it a day?
    You can’t claim on one hand that the number of sexual partners is irrelevant, and then on the other hand say that those who slut-shame are secretly jealous prudes who are upset that they’re not enlightened, liberated, and on the right side of history. No, you never used the word “prude”, but you used code-words for it.
    Seriously, if somebody wrote a column on this site which suggested that women look down on others who don’t have sex because, as “prude-shamers”, they are intimidated by others’ self-possessedness and convictions, or they had bad relationships with their fathers and don’t know how to have a good relationship with men, or because they lack self-esteem, or because they’re afraid they won’t get a good long-term relationship, or because they’re uncomfortable with their body/sexuality and this is how they’re trying to overcompensate, or because they’re scared that they made bad choices and don’t want to admit it…I’d hope, frankly, that it wouldn’t even be published, because anybody could smell the judgmental slut-shaming from a mile away.
    Respect, yo.

  10. tophersez
    Posted April 8, 2010 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    Something I would add to this – if the “slut” labeling is primarily coming from a particular group of people, you may be being bullied. This has nothing to do with the amount of sex you’ve had or haven’t had; it has to do with that group trying to control you.
    Handling bullies is different from handling misguided friends or classmates. Remember there’s nothing wrong with you or what you’re doing; this group is on a quest for dominance, and they’re trying to hurt you. You are going to either fight back by yourself or with allies, or find a way to make them unable to hurt you. It’s not about changing your behavior or changing their minds. If you’re not sure what to do, try to find someone to talk to – a mentor, a friend, even a counselor – and ask for help.

  11. genericjanedoe
    Posted April 8, 2010 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    I know of many girls in high school who were labeled as sluts before even making out w/ anyone by simple virtue of having large breasts.
    Because, you know, you’re ultimately a trashy person if your biology dictates you have a D+ cup.

  12. Emily H.
    Posted April 8, 2010 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    “You can’t claim on one hand that the number of sexual partners is irrelevant, and then on the other hand say that those who slut-shame are secretly jealous prudes who are upset that they’re not enlightened, liberated, and on the right side of history.” Well, you can if you want to — since those two things aren’t actually opposites, & it’s perfectly possible to be a “prude” with repressive or anxious ideas about sexuality, & still have had many sex partners. The people calling others “sluts” aren’t necessarily the most inexperienced or virginal (and, as some of the comments above indicate, it’s possible to get called a slut when you’ve never even kissed a guy). So I took this comment to be saying that the slut-callers have fears about relationships/sex/women’s role in life that they’re trying to tame — not that they’re lame and fucked because they haven’t had enough sex.
    One might disagree with Lori’s advice here, I think — isn’t it possible that these people are just callous and unthinking, that they get more pleasure from branding someone else an outsider than they do from examining the cultural myths that have been passed down to them, rather than that they’re overwhelmed by their own fear? But I think it’s allowable to overstate the case a little bit in a post dedicated to a young person who’s being picked on; the original letter-writer needed to hear that the name-callers are the ones who are fucked up, & this post provides that. In any case I don’t think Lori is really engaging in “prude-shaming” here.

  13. Vasa
    Posted April 8, 2010 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    “People speak of ’sexual morality,’ but…there is no special morality for sex. No matter what you do with yourself, whether you go to bed with girls or with boys, and no matter what it occurs to you to do with them or with yourself, no moral rule applies to that sphere of activity other than the principles that govern… every aspect of life: honesty, courage, common humanity, consideration.” – Jens Bjørneboe

  14. tan
    Posted April 8, 2010 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

    I agree.

  15. nikki#2
    Posted April 8, 2010 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, I’ve tried that argument with the “sex-positives” and they wont take it. According to the conversations I’ve had about this ONLY a close minded sex negative insecure prude would care if a romantic partner had “too many” sex partners. But of course having “too few” or none is a legitimate concern. Seriously. Anyone notice the virgin/”prude” shaming? Which even the OP bordered on in her post.

  16. https://me.yahoo.com/a/EOT606p3odp47o42z60.dwukY4j9h2GOiPMQxg--#4b3c7
    Posted April 8, 2010 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    “I think a similar gap exists regarding sexuality; many of us are able to articulate pride in our sexuality or pontificate about sex positivity, but we’re still internalizing harmful messages about sexuality and what these messages says about us and our value. We still buy into the Madonna/whore complex. We still believe purity and goodness reside with virginity, and dirtiness and badness reside with sex. We still feel shame about our desires, and feel less and less proud of ourselves as our “number” climbs higher and higher…”
    I couldn’t agree more. It’s something I’ve thought a lot about recently–why do I still feel x when I can intellectually believe y? I know better–but I’m still a product of our society and a victim of our culture.

  17. Opheelia
    Posted April 9, 2010 at 1:01 am | Permalink

    Ask what they mean by that. Then ask whether they think their definition is an insult. Then ask if that insult applies to men. Then say, “So, I’m confused. If a guy had my sexual history, that would be a good thing?”
    It only gets more awkward for the labeler from there.

  18. M Dubz
    Posted April 9, 2010 at 1:10 am | Permalink

    I would argue that what Lori is getting at here is not that people who have few sexual partners are prudish and morally dishonest. Rather, I think that the point is that those who uphold patriarchal standards by calling women “sluts” are morally dishonest. Someone can have lots of sexual partners and feel dirty and ashamed of it, and perpetuate that shame by slut-shaming others. Similarly, there can be (and I know this from personal experience) people who are abstinent for a variety of reasons, and who are totally cool with the choices of their friends and loved ones who don’t remain abstinent. The issue here is not the number of partners you have, whether it is few, many, or none. The issue is that people who slut-shame are not secure enough in their own sexualities not to judge the otherwise perfectly ethical and sound sexual choices of those whom they purport to care about.

  19. klompen
    Posted April 9, 2010 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    I agree… to a certain extent. Lori is reacting to those who use a judgmental word by making assumptions about their motivations and judging them for it.
    But it’s a common reaction that many of us employ in politics. If someone calls anyone a slut or a faggot or a midget or a racial slur, my reaction is also to assume they’re doing so out of insecurity about their own issues because those words are hateful and violent, rather than engaging, and hate and violence stem from fear. But what exactly those personal fears are is just a guess and any further assumption risks harboring/justifying prejudice.
    I think Lori could have managed it better by saying that anyone who uses a slur is acting out of fear, and blamed it on our slut-shaming society, but she should have stopped herself before broadly declaring why the slur-users feel threatened personally because she doesn’t know.
    (I know my cousin wears tight pants with “Playbunny” written across her butt in rhinestones because she seriously has no confidence whatsoever in her ability to get attention for anything but her face and body. But I can’t speak for all the other women I’ve seen who wear the same thing, so I won’t.)

  20. Jessica
    Posted April 9, 2010 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Yes, yes and yes. Awesome post, Lori.

  21. nattles_thing
    Posted April 9, 2010 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t see any virgin/prude shaming in the OP, and I’m interested to know what bothered you.
    I have a high number that has caused a few of my partners some angst so I do have an opinion on this.
    I don’t think anyone can vanish away jealousy just by being sex-positive enough, so I understand why a high number could distress someone. That said, there are a number of assumptions people make about me because of my number that aren’t true at all.
    Compatibility is a very legitimate concern, but that’s the sort of thing you can’t really deduce from someone’s number. That’s something you need to actually talk about, regardless of your numbers.
    Me and my ex-boyfriend had the exact same number and we were completely sexually incompatible. Numbers without context mean nothing, and numbers with context don’t mean a whole lot if the person has since grown or changed or moved into a different emotional place, as people are wont to do.

  22. Kessei
    Posted April 9, 2010 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    “Well, you can if you want to — since those two things aren’t actually opposites, & it’s perfectly possible to be a ‘prude’ with repressive or anxious ideas about sexuality, & still have had many sex partners.”
    There are several comments on this thread talking about women who have been called “sluts” when they haven’t even kissed another person. You’re doing the same thing with the word “prude”.
    Prude, just like slut, is a word used to attack women based not just on sexual behavior, but also on attitudes and personality traits. They create a litmus test for how a “good” woman will approach various facets of sexuality.
    Sometimes the madonna/prude is on top; at other times, it’s the whore/slut.
    But when women are trying to bolster their own “camp” at the expense of the other “camp”, it’s only reinforcing the whole mess.
    This is what Lori seemed to be saying in her post:
    “They’re responding this way because they’re threatened by our awesome sexual freedom and self-confidence.”
    Here’s another possible way to look at it:
    “They feel as if they’re being judged because they haven’t had as many sex partners, and aspects of our society equate promiscuity with power and confidence, so they’re using whatever attacks they can think of to put down the people they feel are indirectly critiquing their own lives.”
    Or even: “They or someone close to them had serious negative consequences which resulted in or came out of a period involving multiple partners, and they’re convinced sexual ‘promiscuity’ is a symptom of or creates psychological trauma.”
    Or: “They have religious/spiritual beliefs that suggest people give a part of their soul/essence to each sex partner, and they can’t understand people who would willingly ‘do that to themselves’.”
    See my point? There are a billion ways to look down on “sluts” which don’t have anything to do with being jealous, having an unhealthy sexuality, or repressed, and there’s no need to assume that they are. Making that assumption is hurting – not helping – the cause, because that assumption REQUIRES an already-entrenched madonna/whore dichotomy to even be understood.
    Until we have an honest discussion about the roots of slut-shaming, we can’t even begin to address it.
    This is not that honest discussion. This is somebody lashing out because of hurt.

  23. Cyndel
    Posted April 9, 2010 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    You’re absoolutely right. I was wondering why I couldn’t care less of the sexual history of my female friends (I think the only ones I’ve ever called a slut were males who were trying to add me to their list), but I’d be seriously bothered if my SO had 11 partners ar age 21 (or at any age).

  24. Suki T
    Posted April 10, 2010 at 1:33 am | Permalink

    I think that the problem Lori had with the idea of keeping your number private or public is the whole idea that number=value.
    No one should be able to make you feel bad about having or not having any amount of sexual experience. Keeping the number private can mean that it is a secret, which means that the number has a value.
    If you want to keep it on the downlow that’s cool, but no one should have to feel ashamed.

  25. nikki#2
    Posted April 10, 2010 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    What bothered me were the extremes the OP seemed to see the world in. She seemed to divide the world into those who have sex and those who are viciously jealous. I know she was trying for a certain style and emotional flair, but in the process she lost all nuance.
    “I don’t think anyone can vanish away jealousy just by being sex-positive enough, so I understand why a high number could distress someone.”
    You think the only reason someone would care about their romantic partners number is jealousy? Come on. There are so many reasons why people would care. (and trying to reduce it to jealousy is kind of catty)
    Religious
    Health
    Spiritual
    Compatibility*
    Their meaning of sex
    *Someones number can be a part of compatibility. It obviously isn’t the be all end all factor of compatibility but it can play a part.
    Now obviously there are people who are just slut shammers. We know this. But to paint anyone who cares about numbers and such with that same hateful brush is just not fair.

  26. Tracey T
    Posted April 10, 2010 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

    I agree with you for the most part accept for one thing: I think that while they may not have an unhealthy sexuality, their view of sexuality is unhealthy b/c it still tries to apply a one size fits all standard of sexual conduct. Regardless of their reasoning, I think that view of others’ sexuality is unhealthy.
    Yes, their personal sexuality may be healthy, but by seeking to impose their personal behavioral standards on others, I defiantly think they are displaying a view of sexuality that is unhealthy, even if their personal decisions regarding and mentality about their own sexualities is healthy.
    Just like someone who has a lot of sex can have a positive sexuality with regards to themselves, but once they start saying that people who don’t share their behavior are wrong or hurting themselves, they are showing a negative and unhealthy view of sexuality generally.

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