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.

New York, NY

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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  • http://feministing.com/members/fuzzyface/ FuzzyFace

    I’m a bit confused on what it would be to “reclaim” the word slut? Change its meaning so that it is not an insult? It seems to me that it would be perfectly reasonable to keep “slut” as a derogatory term which presumably indicates a willingness to ignore social conventions on sexuality. Isn’t the most important point that, even if a woman is a “slut” or a prostitute that doesn’t justify or excuse rape?

    And maybe that means a need to take on the reasons that some people might think it does.

    • http://feministing.com/members/vanessamr/ Vanessa

      I don’t think sexuality outside of the norm (assuming it involves consenting adults) should be seen in a derogatory way, at all. People should be able to choose what they want to do with their own bodies, and reclaiming slut is about challenging the notion that liking too much or the wrong kind of sex is bad.

  • http://feministing.com/members/weenta/ Weenta

    Wow. The organizers of this SlutWalk are kidding themselves if they think women can reclaim the word slut. It’s a derogatory term for a woman who is considered sexually promiscuous, yet as we all know, there is no equivalent derogatory term for men who are considered sexually promiscuous. Attempts to reclaim the word won’t work because reclamation still doesn’t reverse the social conditioning that makes young girls feel as though their worth is based on sexual conservatism which equals piousness. I personally feel that the key to reversing this conditioning is teaching young MEN as well as young women that while their sexual behavior doesn’t define them, that sex is about more than just physical pleasure, it has spiritual and emotional ties as well. The dreamworld where the word “slut” is zapped free of its negative connotation, where being a promiscuous woman would be just as celebrated as being a promiscuous man, isn’t the world of “sex positivity” I would like to imagine, and I think it’s leading the movement astray from the larger point, which is where Chloe and I agree. Sex is much more nuanced than these limited definitions, and I’d like the conversations in this supposed third wave movement to get more complicated than “we’re going to reclaim this word so it doesn’t hurt women.” The meaning of words matter, words hold entire histories of oppression (as we’ve seen with the n-word) and to attempt to neutralize that meaning is to attempt to do the work of reversing those long histories of oppression. Why? “Because we say so.” Well, unfortunately, people don’t have to care about what you say, unless you give them a better reason to care. Part of that better reason is the fact that words like slut and general slut-shaming are making it easier for rapists to get away with rape. That’s what we should be focusing on–which is incidentally why I was so glad Wendy J. Murphy and Gail Dines are a part of this conversation. Murphy, who took part in the interview with Chloe, writes of the SlutWalk:

    The organizers behind SlutWalk are terribly misguided and reductionist about this issue if they think that they can reverse the rhetoric without doing the tedious work of reversing the whole paradigm behind slut-shaming. Maybe feministing should be a bit more critical of protests like these–one whose heart is in the right place, but nonetheless who’s tactics and messaging is problematic.

    • http://feministing.com/members/weenta/ Weenta

      Sorry, for some reason the Murphy quote didn’t show up: “Advocates would be better off exposing the myriad ways in which the law and the culture enable myths about all types of women – sexually active or “chaste” alike. These myths facilitate sexual violence by undermining women’s credibility when they report sex crimes.”

    • http://feministing.com/members/vanessamr/ Vanessa

      I don’t think reclaiming derogatory words is misguided at all. Look at the use of “queer” for LGBT communities. Historically the term was very derogatory, and now it’s been reclaimed to be a powerfully positive term that many people use to embrace the diversity of gender and sexuality in themselves.

      As a woman who enjoys sex and gets tired of being shamed for enjoying sex as often as I want, with who I want, in whatever relationship context I want, I am absolutely going to reclaim the word slut for myself! I want challenge the notion that liking lots of different kinds of sex (including purely physical or so-called casual sex) is bad by challenging the negative connotations of being a “slut”. Changing the whole culture is important, but I think changing how we view and use certain words is a part of bringing about that cultural awareness.

      I’m not saying that every woman-identified person has to use that word, but please don’t knock the perspectives of those who do feel empowered by reclaiming a word like slut.

  • http://feministing.com/members/babysnaakes/ babysnaakes

    I don’t think reclaiming the word slut is the primary focus, but I do not see why it can’t be done, at least for those who wish to claim it. The point is that the word “slut” means nothing, yet can be applied to anyone, because it lacks any true definition. So if you have thousands of women and men all together proclaiming “this is what a slut looks like ” and these thousands of people are so strikingly diverse. Some wearing tight/short/”immodest” clothing, others showing very little skin, some having a sex life which might consist of many partners, one night flings, BDSM and anything else deemed not for nice girls all mixed in with people who could be strictly monogamous and into “vanilla” sex, and the vast array of people who fall everywhere in between.. I think it sends a powerful message. This is what a slut looks like – we look like all the people you know, and all the people you walk by on the streets, we just look like PEOPLE, in all our diversity.
    With the most important point being: You cannot define what a slut is, and you cannot justify abuse based on a word that means nothing, and everyone all at once.

  • http://feministing.com/members/ceylan89/ Rachel

    “When I consider reclaiming pejoratives, I’m often reminded of what communities of color contend with. The use of racial slurs to empower communities of color has been advocated by some for many years. Yet can anyone really point of a single social, political, cultural or economic advance that is a direct result of Blacks, Latinos, Asians, etc. referring to ourselves as epithets? Have young people been given important tools to self-actualize and change their objective conditions by calling each other words racists use? Are communities of color more empowered when white people can ironically use racial taunts as reputed endearments? Does anyone seriously entertain the idea that the shock value once derived by using racial slurs in music and media exists in any other fashion now but one in which the power people thought such actions might take away from institutional racism instead got submerged into selling points of “credibility” to consumers?”
    From Four Brief Critiques of Slutwalk’s Whiteness, Privilege, and Unexamined Power Dynamics : http://peopleofcolor.tumblr.com/post/5542491947/four-brief-critiques-of-slutwalks-whiteness-privilege

  • http://feministing.com/members/ceylan89/ Rachel

    “A problem with initiatives where one’s work is all about everyone defining for themselves what’s best is that, as feminist organizer Jo Freeman wrote, the only ones who ever actually benefit are the connected, the privileged and the cunning..
    Moreover, the SlutWalk drive battles against the social justice basis in which radical feminism has sought kinship by declaring this battle isn’t about institutional violence against women, but one’s right to do a particular thing or two in a society whose anti-woman basis does not change.”

  • http://feministing.com/members/neogaia/ Rocio Hernandez

    I just had a series of discussions of how I think the critiques calling SlutWalk racist are silencing the voices of women of color involved in that organization and how I feel its is counterproductive. I am a woman of color but I did not like the way that that identity was used to criticize a group for not doing Feminism the way one would like. I think it’s casting white women Feminists as this one way and ignorant and women of color Feminists being completely alienated by white Feminists. There are real issues which need to be talked about but the critiques are far too us vs. them and it does disservice to just go and call an anti-slut shaming group a tool of white supremacy off the bat.

    Here’s my post: http://trancegoddess89.blogspot.com/2011/05/slutwalk-and-oppressed-groups-hating.html

  • http://feministing.com/members/anya/ anya

    There is more to Slutwalk than reclaiming a pejorative. It’s inspired a new campaign that goes straight to those in power….