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There Is No Slut. Long Live Sluts!

July 27, 2010

Jaclyn’s My Sluthood, Myself is an instant classic. She posted it both here and at Feministe, and Jezebel immediately asked to repost it, so it’s up there as well.

One of the recurring themes in the comments can be summarized like this: “weren’t we trying to get rid of that word?” Several commenters at Feministe and Jezebel say nothing Jaclyn did should be labelled slutty, while others attack the existence of the term outright. Lots of other commenters embrace the term for themselves and their own behavior the way Jaclyn does. I think the tension between these two approaches, actually, in superficial. They are really consistent, because to embrace the term “slut” is to kill it, at least in the form in which it’s harmful.

Slut (and I could say much the same thing about “whore”, the dynamics of whorephobia are a bit different, but the basic structure is the same I think) is a particular kind of epithet; an abject identity used as a “threatening specter.” C.J. Pascoe explained this dynamic with respect to “fag” in her ethnography of high school masculinity, Dude, You’re A Fag, which I raved about here. I quoted her as follows:

Examining masculinity using Butler’s theory of interactional accomplishment of gender indicates that the “fag” position is an “abject” position and, as such, is a “threatening specter” constituting contemporary American adolescent masculinity at River High.

[Dude You’re A Fag p. 14.]

In Dude, You’re A Fag, the boys police each other’s masculinity by the ever-present weapon of “fag” — it gets assigned to any boy who steps out of rigid, approved gender performance. Likewise, “slut” is an abject identity constantly held over women’s heads and assigned if they express sexuality or engage in sexual behavior outside a narrow, approved norm. (Patriarchy being what it is, there’s no “right” way for women to behave, because in avoiding the “slut” label, women are always threatened with the “prude” abject identity; there is not safe middle ground between the two, and that’s not accidental.)

The threatening specters of abject identities are a form of blackmail. There are two ways they fail; either if the threat is disarmed, or is the subject refuses to be cowed by the threat. Jaclyn’s reaction is to grab the term and give it a big bear hug. It looks something like this:

The other way to disarm it is to insist that there is no such thing as a slut. I’ve taken that approach, most notably in Toward A Performance Model of Sex, in the Yes Means Yes book, using the “music slut” analogy to show how nonsensical the concept is outside a framework where sex is a commodity that a woman trades. Those two approaches are superficially opposite, but I think they actually work together. If a lot of women don’t even treat the word as an insult, and a lot of folks treat it as a nonsensical epithet that can’t be taken seriously, then it ceases to have the coherence and scaring power that it has to have to function as a threatening specter to police women’s behavior.

If the ocean erodes a rock from both sides, it falls that much faster. So, there is no slut. Long live sluts!

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 27, 2010 11:35 am

    I would argue that “slut” is typically an abject identity for any girl who “steps out of rigid, approved gender performance” in any way, not just sexually. Leora Tanenbaum wrote Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation about how that label is used to police all kinds of female behavior. Which is part of what makes both reclaiming it and claiming it doesn’t exist so powerful.

    So yay this post and yay Jaclyn’s original post.

  2. July 27, 2010 12:51 pm

    My very first blog/journal was called “And the sluts, they started a riot.”

  3. July 28, 2010 8:16 pm

    Agreed. And by making girls and women avoid the label, some are suppressing their sexual expression.

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