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!

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is a writer and advocate focusing on race, gender, and sexual and reproductive rights. In addition to her work at Feministing, Lori is an Associate Director at Planned Parenthood Global. Lori has previously worked at the United Nations Foundation, the International Women’s Health Coalition, and Human Rights Watch, and has written for a host of print and digital properties including Rookie Magazine, The Grio, and the New York Times Magazine. She regularly appears on radio and television, and has spoken at college campuses across the U.S. about topics like the politics of black hair, transnational movement building, and the undercover feminism of Nicki Minaj. In 2014, she was named to The Root 100 list of the nation's most influential African Americans, and to the Forbes Magazine list of the "30 Under 30" successful people in media.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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