Years ago, when I was trying my hand at internet dating, I made friends with a guy from one of those sites, and we’d sometimes talk over the chat function. I asked him whether he’d ever gone out with a girl from another website, and he told me no, because “There are too many sluts on there.”
“WOW, I can’t believe you just said that to me,” I answered. “I don’t like that word. Don’t say that about anyone.” In response, he sent me a girl’s profile photo from the site, in which she was leaning over toward the camera with the word “slut” written across her chest.
Showing me that photo didn’t excuse his calling her (or anyone else) a gendered slur, especially when he was talking to another woman, in my opinion. But it was thought provoking. What does it mean when a woman calls herself a slut, as opposed to when a guy calls her that? How about when other girls are the ones saying it, and everyone involved is 11 years old? Or when it’s the 90s and it’s Kathleen Hanna, and she’s performing on stage and she’s mad as hell?
And what about now? Where do we stand with the word slut? I think it depends on who you ask.
In 2011 the Slutwalk was born. If you’re unfamiliar with that event you can read about it all over the internet, but in a nutshell, a group of women at a college in Toronto were enraged when a cop who had come to their campus to share self-defense techniques with them suggested that women could avoid physical attacks from men by not dressing in a “slutty” way. It wouldn’t have been the first time they’d had that idea run past them, I can tell you that. But I guess they were wishing it would be the last. They organized a rally that they called the Slutwalk, and the idea–and, I daresay, the name–caught on all around the world. We did a Slutwalk here in Philadelphia that year, and I was proud to participate in it. I met up with everybody in a small park downtown, and we marched with our signs and chants through the streets to City Hall, where speakers addressed the crowd.
But I had such complicated feelings about that name. I liked the idea of angrily taking it back–a la those riot grrrl punks who I so admired as a teenager trapped in a Catholic school lockdown–but, I don’t know, I didn’t really want to say it. I surely didn’t want to write it–not on my sign, which bore the slogan “DON’T PARTICIPATE IN GIRL HATE”–and not on my body.
I had to take the subway to the rally because I have to take the subway (or the bus, or the train) everywhere, because I don’t drive. Staying safe in public is something I spend a portion of every day thinking about, and that day was no different. Riding public transportation alone with the word SLUT anywhere on my person seemed like a bad idea.
I’m not mad that the event was called the Slutwalk; I get it, and more than anything I appreciate being asked to think about these ideas in more, and more nuanced, ways. But I was far from the only one who had issues with it. That day at City Hall, one of the speakers was the filmmaker Aishah Shahidah Simmons, who said that she initially planned to skip the protest altogether because of the name, but decided to agree to speak about that very idea. She explained that many Black women in particular felt alienated or attacked by that word because they don’t have the same privilege white women do to “reclaim” it. What I heard was that the use of the word SLUT is one more way in which non-white women are made to feel ostracized from Feminism with a Capital F, which is so often, and so destructively and annoyingly, a white, middle-class, ivory tower sort of thing. Simmons’ talk (and other voices as well) made a big impact on me, and on the rally’s organizers too. The event has been renamed (somewhat clunkily) The March to End Rape Culture, and it’s still going strong. We’ll be marching again on October 3rd, which is why I’ve been thinking about this damn word again.
I’ve been reading SLUT, a play developed by Katie Cappiello, Meg McInerney, and the members of The Arts Effect All-Girl Theater Company. It’s a fictional story about a rape that was inspired by true events (which ought to go without saying) and is told in the realistic voices of girls in high school. In the print edition I’m reading, the play is preceded by several teenage girls telling their own stories of victimization around this word and its ideas. It’s one story after another of bullying, school-administration bullshit, humiliation, confusion, coercion, and sometimes physical attacks. These stories are disturbing because they are so very ordinary. They’re coming-of-age stories, in a way. I’d go so far as to say that no girl gets to grow up without being initiated into the SLUT mindset, and for many of us it’s a violent introduction. It makes me so angry, thinking of older women having gone through this stuff before me, and young women dealing with those same things now, but some days it just makes me feel blue.
But you know, the heart is a muscle the size of your fist: keep loving, keep fighting. The organizers of the March to End Rape Culture have been selling original art to raise funds for the event, so I spent a couple weeks embroidering the words NO, NOPE, and NO SIR! onto pretty floral tea towels. I’m going to make another sign and march again. (I think this year’s one will read TRUST GIRLS on one side and BELIEVE WOMEN on the other.) I’ve got my TRANS-INCLUSIVE FEMINISM ALWAYS badge to wear, and I’ll sew my self-defense patch onto the back of my sweater: It’s a picture of a woman kicking a dude in the crotch. I like it because when I first saw it, it made me smile. Once in a while, though, it makes me cry.