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."

3.7 ·
2
What's Next
Trending Today
Have You Heard of The Great Forgetting? It Happened 10,000 Years Ago & Completely Affects Your Life
Daniel Quinn · 10,561 views today · (Excerpted from the book, The Story of B) With every audience and every individual, I have to begin by making them see that the cultural self-awareness we inherit from our...
Van Jones: Only a 'Love Army' Will Conquer Trump
Tim Dickinson · 7,712 views today · Though it's important to fight Trump's policies, "it's at the values level that we need to do a reset," says Jones
A Hauntingly Beautiful Short Film About Life and Death
5 min · 7,595 views today · The Life of Death is a touching handdrawn animation about the day Death fell in love with Life.
The Myth of Positivity: Why Your Pain Holds a Mighty Purpose
umair haque · 6,307 views today · Of all the great myths of contemporary life, one of the most toxic is positivity. It says: there are negative and positive emotions, and only the positive ones are worth...
10 Stunning Images from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year People's Choice Award
Natural History Museum · 6,199 views today · These incredible images are a selection from of the 25 shortlisted by The Natural History Museum for the People's Choice Award from this year's Wildlife Photographer of the...
The Problem with Hating Our Enemies
Charles Eisenstein · 5,660 views today · He who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself; and if thou gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into thee. —Nietzsche
How to Expose Trump's Dastardly Bait-And-Switch
Robert Borosage · 4,714 views today · Trump is not an economic populist, he’s just playing one on TV.
Ten Ways We Misunderstand Children
Jan Hunt · 4,337 views today · 1. We expect children to be able to do things before they are ready. We ask an infant to keep quiet. We ask a 2-year-old to sit still. We ask a 3-year-old to clean his room...
David Graeber: We Need a Revolution in the Way We Think about "Work"
4 min · 2,395 views today · David Graeber on the Value of Work. Does the world really need neuroadvertisers, PR researchers and branding consultants? Renowned academic and coiner of the ‘we are the 99%’...
Seven Must-Have Skills for the 21st Century
Tommy Lehe · 2,038 views today · We live in a world that moves faster than we do. Trying to keep up can be an overwhelming task that at times feels hopeless, like we are falling further and further behind—but...
A New History for Humanity - the Human Era
8 min · 2,020 views today · It is time to reframe how we think about our past. We need a new year 0 for humanity. But which one should we choose and why?
Trump: The Illusion of Change
Helena Norberg-Hodge · 1,832 views today · “Only by restoring the broken connections can we be healed.” — Wendell Berry
Why You Should Stop Apologizing for Doing All That You Can
Kelly Hayes · 1,778 views today · I’ve noticed lately that a lot of allies and accomplices I talk to about NoDAPL and other struggles will name what they are trying to contribute to the cause, and then promptly...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 1,295 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
15 Easy Things You Can Do to Help When You Feel Like Shit
Maritsa Patrinos · 1,279 views today · You don’t have to tackle it all at once.
Asylum-Seeker Faces a Dangerous Deportation Back to Afghanistan
3 min · 1,238 views today · After an EU deal with Afghanistan, more than 80,000 rejected Afghan asylum-seekers are facing deportation back to that country. Alim says being sent back to Afghanistan could...
Black on Black Crime Isn't a Myth
Donyae Coles · 1,236 views today · Let’s talk about Black on Black crime. Maybe you’ve heard about it on the news, specifically likely in regards to Black people murdered by other Black people. Perhaps you’ve...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 1,170 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
It's The Damn Police
Walter Fields · 1,098 views today · From an early age Blacks are socialized to live defensively and to absorb the mental body blows that come from the day-to-day indignities that are hoisted upon us by the very...
The Most Powerful Algorithm in the World
Joe Brewer · 905 views today · After the insanity of the U.S. election, a lot of people are blaming Facebook for its algorithms that parse us into ideological bubbles and spread “fake news” and other kinds...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
There Is No Such Thing as a Slut