What Does Reclaiming the Word “Slut” Really Mean?

February has been the month of anti-“slut” reclamation proclamations. The release of Leora Tanenbaum‘s new book, I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet seems to be the occasion for this round of discussion, which was continued in Anna North’s op-ed in The New York Times and Lizzie Crocker’s piece for The Daily Beast. Many other feminists weighed in, but most seemed to concur with Tanenbaum’s long held opinion that the word should not and can not be reclaimed at this point in time, because it is “merely adding ammunition to the arsenal.”

Slut-shaming is bullying directed (primarily) at women for their perceived or actual sexual activity. It is caused by anything and everything — and it’s not only done by men. All feminists know how detrimental the “s-word” is to women and girls everywhere, but when some talk of “reclaiming slut” in articles like those referenced above, what do the authors really mean? As someone who deals with the word in careful, satirical and subversive ways, this is a daily question.

Few feminists out there have the sole goal to make “slut” a household word. The SlutWalk movement may have had its problems, but the Toronto founders had the mission of empowering women and survivors of sexual assault first and foremost — not reclaiming “slut” once and for all.

So who are these rabid “slut reclaimers”? Do they really exist? Do the “anti-slutters” think that feminist activists should not use the word because it can always be flipped back to punish them, or is it actually your average woman who may not identify as a feminist and who isn’t familiar with linguistic and feminist theory who doesn’t have the tactical nuance to harness the word safely?

Some say that using it will give more men permission to use it against us. I don’t believe the kinds of men that use it against us are going to need permission in the first place, so why would women shying away from uttering this conflicted word make us any less targeted for abuse? Since when has forcibly retiring a word ever worked? Are we to make a ladies agreement to police our language so women can suddenly start thriving, because the word “slut” as uttered by women is the only thing that fuels gender disparity, sexual double standards, and sexual assault?

I agree that it’s important to analyze the ways we all approach the word differently, based upon our individual and cultural lived experiences. Tanenbaum and her supporters got that right. Many women of color contest white, privileged folks who use the word, even ironically, because of their experiences with being inescapably cast as “sluts” from birth. Many women of color cannot easily wear and discard the signifiers of slutdom. And yet, there are plenty of other women of color who do not care. This is not a black and white issue. Case in point, the women who are featured as Sluts of the Month on this site. We created that pinup-esque platform to celebrate all types of women in charge of their sexuality to make the point that if every kind of woman is a slut, then no one is a slut.

This anti-“slut” reclamation debate is not really one carefully delineated group against another. There is no monolithic cadre of pro-sluts versus anti-sluts. If you don’t like it, don’t use it. Hell, we’re a site called SLUTIST and I rarely use the word without scare quotes in everyday discussion. But it’s not the word itself that’s the problem, of course. It’s patriarchal structures of power, it’s rape culture, it’s everyday sexism. This is at once about individual empowerment and collective empowerment. Collective empowerment means things like reproductive health care, equal pay for equal work, and laws to protect us from rape and murder and sexual abuse, so closing our own mouths while the oppressors can speak as they please is not going to aid in the struggle.

Words matter and they do shape discourse, but sometimes we can be too caught up in semantics and undercut those working for the same cause just because it’s voiced differently. To every feminist who calls out this site saying we’re somehow “making it worse” out there by mindfully dissecting the term, I say: our tactics may be different, but many of our goals are the same. While we continue to debate the reasons why we shouldn’t reclaim words like “slut,” we can lose focus on working together towards the gender equality we all want to see in the world.

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