Heather Michon

Heather Michon
June 25
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Editor’s Pick
APRIL 30, 2012 10:30AM

Can 'Slut' Be Reformed?

Rate: 8 Flag

The Mudflap Girl"We might as well own it, right?"

This is the new battle cry of Sluts Across America, a crowdsourcing website that wants to take the steaming cowpies dropped by Rush Limbaugh and his fellow travelers and form a "collective voice of the women and men in this country who use or support birth control, and are sick of being judged because of our desire to be responsible and safe about our sexual health."

"If protecting ourselves makes us sluts, then it's time to redefine what "slut" actually means."

Judging by the number of responses on the site, they have found large and willing audience. It's also on the verge of becoming a part of the wider efforts of groups like SlutWalk, which has made the reappropriating of "slut" a cornerstone of their movement.   

Slut: A Linguistic History

Slut is an old gal, dating back well over a half a millennium old, and her meaning has changed in shape and form over the centuries.  

Most scholars cite Thomas Hoccleve's poem "The Letter of Cupid" in 1402 as the first use of slut in English, but it got its start much earlier. Linguists find its roots all around the North Sea during the Middle Ages: among them the Icelandic slottr, the Swedish slata, the Dutch slodde and the Irish slaodaire.

Slut and its Germanic cousins originally meant things like lazy, dirty, idle, sloppy. It was not sexual, nor exclusively applied to females. ("Why is thy lord so sluttish, I thee pray," asks one of Geoffrey Chaucer's characters in The Canterbury Tales, wanting to know why one of the wealthy pilgrims was so slovenly dressed.) But around the time it arrived in English, it attached itself almost exclusively to women, usually kitchen or scullery maids.

The first known use of slut as a pejorative for a sexually promiscuous woman appeared around 1450. No mystery as to why; by the end of the Middle Ages, the basic Western views of women's sexuality had hardened into a form we might find all-too-familiar today. The veneration of the Virgin Mary and vilification of the sinful Eve defined the boxes into which all women were sorted. 

So it's little wonder that slut was applied to women seen as morally, rather than just physically, dirty. This dual meaning walked hand-in-hand, right into the 20th Century, where its physical meaning fell away and its moral meaning flourished along with the sexual revolutions of the new century.     

Reclaiming Slut

So slut has expanded a bit over time - but does that mean it can be turned into a positive?

Reappropriating derogatory words is not a new concept. From the Roundheads and sans-coulottes of the 17th and 18th Centuries to the queers and dykes of the late 20th Century to the Guidos of the Jersey Shore, there's almost no political, religious, ethnic or social group that hasn't attempted to take the sting out of hate language by turning it into a badge of honor.

Feminists have been intermittently trying to reclaim slut since at least the 1980s.

Oxford feminist linguist Deborah Cameron wrote about it in her 1992 book "Feminism and Linguistic Theory." While she was supportive of the goal of reappropriating language, she clearly saw the net result as futile. "We cannot simply change a word's meaning for the whole community by fiat," she argued. That's not how language works. The meaning is held in the intent of the speaker.

If you hurl the word slut as an epithet, it's a epithet. If you use it as a term of honor or endearment, it's a term of honor or endearment. But at the end of the day, it still means what it means to the person that's using it.

Slut is a particular challenge, both because of its longevity and its ubiquity. (A quick Google search alone finds 480 million hits for the word.) Strip away all the history and you're still left with a word which literally means "dirty." It's unlikely that any amount of protest signs or t-slogans or marches or websites can make it "clean."

This is not to say that the efforts to reclaim it are meaningless. Far from it: slut has spent the last six centuries being used as a rhetorical club against women, and finally women are able to use it to club right back. That is progress. Maybe we can't reform slut, but if we make it a useful tool in our feminist arsenal, maybe we can make all the pain and humiliation the word had wrought somehow more worthwhile.


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Learned here.
At a boarding school when I was 15, in summer, John Barth's THE SOT-WEED FACTOR, it's more scatalogical passages, were spelled out w dorm lights atop a hill and shone over a valley. The Headmaster felt then he needed to give us etymology lessons.

Yours is more fun.

huh....and here i always thought it was a mothers endearing term for girlfriend...whoudda thunk...
Unfortunately, the South Lake Union Transit only goes from the lake to downtown, and not across America. A lot more track will need to be laid down to claim it as you describe above.

Ride the S.L.U.T.!!!
Let's try to reclaim all perjoratives then, shall we? I can think of two that would be as offensive to LGBTers and African Americans as the word slut is to me and should be to all women.
To put a finer point on it: Words matter. The origins of words matter. Reclaiming words, giving derogatory words a "positive" spin doesn't work. Ask Rhianna.
I love this, because it sums up my feelings about the word. I was horrified at first to find that my friend had made me a shirt that said: This Slut Votes, with the word slut in brazen red. I will reclaim the word, but it is one I struggle with.

Is slut related to slattern, which is an anachronistic word for a dirty woman.

Thanks for this.

Lucy, the slut that votes
There's not a damned thing wrong with being a slut. ALL us guys were when we were young :-)

And, even as sickened as it makes me feel for saying this, I'd be willing to bet that ol Rush was one himself. But then it wouldn't be right for an outstading man of the pink-faced biggot community to assume anything as responsible as male conctraceptives, now would it.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've gotta go barf at the thought of all that.
You are too funny, Heather. I can tell you had fun writing this... I had fun reading it.
I think it is always a good lesson in many ways to attempt reclaiming a word, or symbol. It educates people at the very least. We had a visual artist in Chicago, A Holocaust Survivor, do an entire exhibition on reclaiming the swastika...she was met with protests by people who only reacted to the symbol, and did not bother to understand her intent. She, a Survivor, was called a Nazi by groups of people...when the press finally obtained the backbone to interview her, the ruckus died down considerably.

Great essay!
Maybe a better course would be to shutdown the idea that birth control and promiscuity are the same thing. This kind of thing only plays to the choir and gives the opposition more ammo. Why does every issue end up being political theater void of any real and honest discussion.
As a woman who came of age in the 1960's, the idea of sexual freedom ran hard into the shaming ideas of my Sunday School childhood. Freedom eventually won out for me and over time I came to feel absolutely no shame about my sexuality, nor would I take any words that others might want to affix to my experience personally. While I was discovering what it meant to be myself, they were struggling with ideas that were not their own. I became inner directed and would not accept shame-based hectoring. Sexuality develops from within, just as character and morality do. As a sixties girl, I finally kind of felt that they could just as well go take a flying leap over the nearest precipice.

I agree with you that what the word "slut" means is in the mouth of the speaker. I had a longstanding relationship with a man who as a term of endearment called me his "most magnificent slut." But no matter how the person using it might mean it, if the person it is being applied to cannot hear it the way it was meant, then there is likely going to be trouble in River City.
"Feminists have been intermittently trying to reclaim slut since at least the 1980s. "

So, does that mean they want it to mean "lazy, dirty, idle, sloppy" again?

...Okay -- I can see that.
I found this fine essay on Twitter account @OpenSalonPicks, which featured Editors' Picks from the days when OS maintained an Editor's Pick front page. I wonder whether OS's superintendent still reads submissions to this Twitter site and considers posting them for their potential tweetability. Just musing.
well said, rated and shared.