A few words about reclaiming “slut”

Last Thursday, I was lucky enough to have the chance to speak about the SlutWalk action on KUOW’s The Conversation with Ross Reynolds in Seattle, where I was asked about why the SlutWalk is important and why it’s effective.

I was also asked about the protesters’ use of the word “slut” and whether or not feminists can reclaim that word and use it on their own terms. Here’s what was said:

RR: As you’re aware, some feminists feel that the word “slut” is irredeemable, and claiming it for this protest is just the wrong approach. How do you respond to them?

CA: Well, I understand why they feel that way, but I don’t think this protest is about reclaiming the word, and if it is, that discussion has been going on for years. That discussion about reclaiming “slut” has been going on since Kathleen Hanna scrawled it across her stomach back in the Riot Grrrl movement. What this is actually about is protesting the idea that sluttiness – however you define sluttiness, and as that woman whose words you played earlier said, what does that mean? Does that mean holes in your ears? Does that mean fishnet stockings? Everyone has their own idea of what sluttiness means. But what the SlutWalk is about is protesting the idea that sluttiness causes rape. Because sluttiness doesn’t cause rape. Rapists cause rape.

The organizers of SlutWalk Seattle have posted an open letter objecting to part of my answer to that question. You can read the whole thing here, but their principle objection is to my statement that the SlutWalk isn’t about reclaiming the word “slut.” They rightly point out that the SlutWalk is, in fact, partly about reclaiming the word “slut.” As they write, “reclaiming, or more accurately, reappropriating the word ‘slut’ is a fundamental cornerstone of the movement.”

Here’s their explanation of why using the word “slut” is an important act of political defiance:

One of the most effective ways to fight hate is to disarm the derogatory terms employed by haters, embracing them and giving them positive connotations. This also serves to provide a sex-positive term for women (and men), few or none of which currently exist, and allows sluts (individuals of any gender who have and enjoy frequent consensual sex, especially with multiple partners) to identify as part of a cohesive group for political representation. We feel that offering a place for women who lead such a lifestyle to self-identify as sluts does not disrespect them – indeed, the disrespecting is done by the rapists, the victim blamers who excuse the rape, and the slut shamers who say or imply they are disgracing, degrading, and dishonoring themselves.

Obviously, I shouldn’t have said categorically that the SlutWalk isn’t about reclaiming the word “slut,” because, in part, it is (although, as the organizers of SlutWalk Seattle point out, wanting to reclaim the word isn’t a prerequisite for agreeing with or being involved with the SlutWalk Action).

What I was trying to do in my answer to that question was to put the word “slut” and its cultural power into context. I was trying to explain that, firstly, there is a history of attempting to reclaim the word “slut,” and secondly, that people who object to the SlutWalk action based on its embrace of the word “slut” are missing a larger point. That larger point, of course, is that slut-shaming and victim blaming are unacceptable and need to stop. So, what I should have said is that the Slut Walk is not just about reclaiming the word; it’s also about fighting the worldview that the word represents in its most common usage.

For more on the conversation about the SlutWalk (and there sure is a lot of it, some of which I agree with, and some of which I don’t) you might like to check out these articles.

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Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at chloesangyal.com

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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