There Is No Such Thing as a Slut
There Is No Such Thing as a Slut
By Melissa Gira Grant / america.aljazeera.com

A slut is useful — or, at least, the idea of her is. That’s what sociologists Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton suggest in their recently published research on sex and status. Their study of party dorms and sorority life on one college campus dramatizes how all women contend with the slut tag from other women — and how it sticks to some and slips off others. What they found is that slut stigma doesn’t correlate with actual sexual behavior but with perceived class transgressions.

When women slut-shame other women, it is not an expression of internalized sexism but rather a calculated move to elevate their own status over others’. As Armstrong and Hamilton noted in their paper, “women are actively invested in slut shaming because they have something to gain.” They found that polished “nice” girls could have as much sex as they pleased and escape the label. “Bad” girls, those who typically came from less economic privilege or appeared less traditionally feminine, actually had comparatively less sexual experience than the “nice” girls. Among themselves, the “bad” girls may have called the “nice” girls sluts, but that didn’t sully the “nice” girls’ reputations.

“This is a form of sexual privilege,” the researchers concluded.

As it turns out, there are no sluts; there are only girls to keep out of the party and, by extension, to remove from social influence. Almost none of the young college-age women Armstrong, Hamilton and their research team followed could agree on what constituted a slut. Without fail, she was always someone else, someone other. 

A label that divides

Sluts take up more space in our imagination than in anyone’s bed. Like its cousin “whore,” a slut is never about what you did there and with whom you did it but rather what is said about you. “Whore” is an older term, but the conceit is the same: A woman’s sexual value is thought to be interchangeable with her social value, power and influence. Armstrong and Hamilton tease these apart helpfully and reveal that slut stigma cannot be challenged by a rejection of the label. That denial is already built in. It gives the label its power. That is, there’s no sense in insisting you aren’t a slut; you’re supposed to do so. No matter what you call that woman — slut, whore, skank, tramp, ho — it’s simply a way of drawing a line.

Nineties-era feminism wanted to reclaim the slut, or at least mess with her image. Defiant kinderwhore style embraced short skirts as long as your makeup was smeared or your boots were steel-toed. Alongside the feminist punk rock movement riot grrrl, some underground eruptions of sex positivity made it to the mainstream — clean, well-lit places to buy your first vibrator or strap-on, pronouncements from the women’s glossy magazines that lesbianism was chic (in this case, as long as your lipstick was perfect). The slut label was a rebellion for some and acquired a new classy sheen for others.

But today’s feminist wave, in its denunciation of slut shaming, can appear contradictory. Do feminists aim to dismantle the power of slut shaming or simply (and superficially) hold the label at arm’s length? Armstrong and Hamilton’s work suggests that our shifting relationship to the slut says less about our attitudes toward sexual license (actual or perceived) than about our class and status anxieties. A slut is always someone worse than you — someone it is thus acceptable to exile from proper womanhood and its attendant rewards. Until more people recognize the divisions that such shaming enforces (and the “good” girls who uphold them), slut stigma will remain.

Pavement politics

Perhaps today’s most visible examples of engagement with (and pushback against) slut shaming are the dozens of SlutWalks that have hit the pavement in cities from Toronto to Sydney to New York. These events, which decry both sexual assault and slut shaming, were launched by college women who wished to resist a Toronto police officer’s dismissive remark that they could better avoid rape by not “dressing like sluts.” SlutWalk wanted to challenge law enforcement’s demands that, in order to deserve protection, women should conform to their standards of sexual modesty. 

"There will be no progress if women maintain their distance from the slut – by reframing the word as a slur when in truth it is a complete fiction." 

Reconsidering SlutWalk through Armstrong and Hamilton’s proposal — that policing acceptable sexuality by doling out and deflecting slut stigma is how women discipline one another — we can also reconsider how slut stigma plays out in more literal forms of discipline: in the hands of police. Here, as on the campus, some women still stand to gain. Not all women can expect police protection, particularly those whose race, gender identity and sexuality make them frequent targets of police harassment — in particular, black women, trans women, queer women and women who do sex work.

The conceptual predecessors to SlutWalk were protest marches led by sex workers, who are likely to suffer far harsher consequences when slut stigma merges with police power. In July 2006 I documented and marched with a group of sex workers from across the United States who had converged in Las Vegas. Their attire would not be out of place at SlutWalk, only there it was a nod to the clichés associated with their work uniform — vinyl hot pants, window-paned fishnet tights, platform boots. We lingered in front of gleaming white hotels and walked the Las Vegas Strip passing out fliers about sex workers’ rights, but once a small cadre ventured into Caesar’s Palace, they were ejected. It was an objection that could be raised only in Vegas: The activists were interpreted as competition to the casino’s own unofficial, tolerated sex workers. (Of course, if the activists had been working, they would have been dressed far more conservatively, so as to pass the corridors like any other businesswoman.)

In this scenario, the casino staff stood to gain from enforcing the line not between good and bad girls but between their bad girls and badder ones who, if they lingered, would likely have been removed by police. Echoing Armstrong and Hamilton’s findings, the casino wasn’t bothered by women selling sex; it just wanted it to be done discreetly and on its terms. 

Illegitimate femaleness

That slut stigma is simply class warfare becomes even clearer if we turn to the wisdom of whores. In the 1990s, the sociologist and social psychologist Gail Pheterson identified its precursor, “whore stigma.” This, she writes in “The Prostitution Prism,” “attaches not to femaleness alone but to illegitimate or illicit femaleness. In other words, being a woman is a precondition of the label ‘whore’ but never the sole justification.” Whore stigma, as I write in my book, “Playing the Whore,” “makes central the race and class hierarchy reinforced in the dividing of women into the pure and impure, the clean and the unclean, the white and virgin and all the others. If woman is other, whore is the other’s other.”

While most think that slut stigma is about sex, as Armstrong and Hamilton have shown, sex in fact has little to do with it. Slut stigma is explicitly about creating — and maintaining — difference. Abolishing it will therefore require more than the ’90s-era reclaiming of sex. Nor will there be progress if women maintain their distance from the slut — by reframing the word as a slur when in truth it is a complete fiction. Challenging slut stigma might look something more like dismantling sexual privilege, as the researchers termed it, to expand opportunities for sexual experience that are disconnected from social mobility or status. Here, core feminist causes such as abortion access and an end to gender-based violence should also be understood as part of attaining sexual freedom. Though they are often pitted against each other, the truth is that the fight for health and equality cannot be won as long as it is divorced from the fight for pleasure and liberation.

Desire and justice are inseparable. But as long as slut stigma persists among women, sexual freedom will be reserved for the few.

Melissa Gira Grant is a freelance journalist and the author of "Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work."

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There Is No Such Thing as a Slut