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Cardboard Cutouts Of Prudes And Sluts

October 19, 2011

Night and day, up and down, prude and slut.  Neat oppositional bookends.  But night and day can be defined and verified against the real world, and so can up and down.  Prude and slut don’t admit of any such reality check.  In fact, while up and down and night and day are really opposites, prude and slut are not really opposites.  If they were opposites, they would be mutually exclusive.  And they are not.  They’re flat, two-dimensional, like the cardboard cutouts of pirates and circus strongmen that people stick their faces in to take pictures, caricatures with only cartoon content.  There’s a reason they’re like that, which I’ll get to in good time.

By way of example, I’m going to use my friend and our founder, Jaclyn Friedman.  It’s a play in two acts, titled The Most Dangerous Woman in America. 

Act I:  The Slut

When she wrote My Sluthood, Myself, it got a lot of attention (it ran at Feministe here, and on Jezebel here).  She admitted *gasp* that she had intercourse with a Craigslist hookup.  (So that’s who it was.  Obviously good girls never do that, but someone did, so now we know, don’t we?)  She said:

Reader, I fucked him.

This admission gave some people the vapors.  Clearly, this brazen hussy was endangering the morals of our the youth — which, I seem to recall, was what they executed Socrates for.  An antifeminist blogger at Hookingupsmart (you can google it, I’m not sending traffic) took up the cause of attacking Jaclyn, accusing her of devaluing the market for pussy.  (I’m paraphrasing, but only just.)  One commenter calling himself Average Joe wrote, “Smart guys don’t wed sluts because we know they have way too many issues. At the very least no husband in his right mind wants a woman, such as yourself …”

It wasn’t the first time Jaclyn’s been called a slut.  In fact, the slut-shaming after she wrote about being raped in college was the generating force for Yes Means Yes, the book (which Ms. readers recently called number 11 of the Top 100 feminist nonfiction books), and this blog.

Not only having casual sex, but liking it!  And defending it as a valid choice!  Well, that’s just case closed, isn’t it?  She’s a slutty slut-ho, and the only thing we really know about her is that she can’t be a prude, because she’s clearly a slut, and as everybody knows, a slut is the opposite of a prude. 

Act II: The Prude

[TW for description of rape]

That is until the hero of fauxgressive boys everywhere, entitled asshole Julian Assange, stuck his cock (sans condom) it the body of a sleeping woman who had already said “not without a condom!”  (I understand she said it in Swedish. I’m paraphrasing.  Naomi Wolf, who sadly was willing to tactically abandon feminism to curry favor with left-leaning misogynist boys and men, called this a model sexual negotiation where he “consulted with the women [and] they reached an agreement”  (video at 42:50 to 45:00. If you have a “Rape Apologist Bingo” card, play along).  Famously, on Democracy NOW, Jaclyn went head to head with Wolf, and Wolf’s position could not be squared with the facts then known.  But many people were unwilling to decouple an opinion about Wikileaks from an all-purposes defense or even worship of Assange personally — just as many people defend Polanski because they like his movies.

The Assange defenders, having no defense, attacked the messenger — pillorying Jaclyn as a prude!  A sex-hating, pleasure-killing OSHA-like regulator of sexual encounters!  The nerve of her, saying that men’s conquests have to be conscious! 

Squaring the Circle, Defining Porn, And Other Things That Cannot Be Done

Define Slut.

Wiktionary tells me this:

slut (plural sluts)

  1. (countable, derogatory) a sexually promiscuous woman or girl.
    She’s a slut, but I love her.
  2. (countable, derogatory) a man with the above qualities, often a gay man.  [quotations ▼]
    • 2005, Adam & Steve
      Before he met you, he was such a whore. No, I’m sorry! Whores get paid. He was a slut.
  3. (countable) a prostitute.
    You could hire a slut for a few hours, if you’re that desperate.
  4. (countable, derogatory) a slovenly, untidy person, usually a woman.  [quotations ▼]
    • 1600 CE: William Shakespeare, As you like it
      Clo. Truly, and to cast away honestie vppon a foule slut, were to put good meate into an vncleane dish. \ Aud. I am not a slut, though I thanke the Goddes I am foule.
    • 1602 CE: William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor
      Where fires thou find’st unrak’d, and hearths unswept, \ There pinch the Maids as blew as Bill-berry, \ Our radiant Queene, hates Sluts, and Sluttery.
  5. (countable, derogatory) a bold, outspoken woman.  [quotations ▼]
    • 1728 CE: John Gay, Begger’s Opera
      Our Polly is a sad Slut! nor heeds what we have taught her.
  6. (countable, archaic) a female dog.  [quotations ▼]
    • 1852 CE: Susanna Moodie, Roughing it in the Bush
      ‘Bete!’ returned the angry Frenchman, bestowing a savage kick on one of the unoffending pups which was frisking about his feet. The pup yelped; the slut barked and leaped furiously at the offender, and was only kept from biting him by Sam, who could scarcely hold her back for laughing; the captain was uproarious; the offended Frenchman alone maintained a severe and dignified aspect. The dogs were at length dismissed, and peace restored.
  7. (countable, archaic) a maid.  [quotations ▼]
    • 1664 CE: Samuel Pepys, The Diary of Samuel Pepys
      Our little girl Susan is a most admirable slut, and pleases us mightily, doing more service than both the others and deserves wages better.
  8. (countable) a rag soaked in a flammable substance and lit for illumination.

Sexademic jokes that it’s “anyone having more sex than you.”  Definition 5 is worth noting: “an outspoken woman.”  But we’re really talking about #1 here, “a sexually promiscuous woman or girl.”

But in practice, the label has little to do with actual behavior, which is what the definitions refer to.  Emily White wrote  Fast Girls, about the social construction of slut in highschool in America.  Elaine Blair in The Nation summarized what White found:

When White interviewed the women–most of them white, middle-class and from the suburbs–who responded to her ads, the stories she heard had certain similarities. There was a “type” of girl who tended to be singled out: She developed breasts earlier than other girls; she was a loud, vocal extrovert; she was self-destructive, tough or wild; often she had been sexually abused; and in one way or another she was usually an outsider, whether she had moved from a different town, had less money than most kids or belonged to some peripheral subculture. Some women described themselves as having been promiscuous, but more said they were not as sexually active as their (untainted) friends, and none of them had done the things that were later rumored. Often the first rumors were started by bitter ex-boyfriends or jealous friends. Once they caught on, the ritual torments and “football team” fantasies inevitably followed.

[Emphasis mine.  Note the interplay between the bolded portion and definition No. 5 above.  It’s not a merely archaic element of the definition; it’s a live social dynamic.]  The shaming is sometimes, in fact, not all that infrequently, fatal

The word has a meaning.  Everyone knows what it means.  And yet it doesn’t have a definition, in the sense of a meaning that controls the denotative use of the word.  “Slut” does not denote what it means. 

If its definition limited its use, then one could argue against the application of the label.  But it is not actually susceptible to that.  Did anybody ever really talk their way out of being called “slut” with reasoned argument about actual sexual behavior? Not that I know of.  It’s just not that kind of word. 

I can think of other words that are not meant to be argued with, that have a meaning but that don’t admit of limitations to their denotative meaning — they’re epithets.  Asshole, jerkwad, douchebag, dick and scumbag — but they’re all metaphorical, comparisons to physical objects.  Bastard more closely approximates slut in that it has a definition, in that it isn’t limited to where the definition is met in the real world and isn’t meant to be, and nobody has attempted to disprove the hurled word “bastard” by asserting parental matrimony in the industrialized world in this century.  But “bastard” does not write its own reality.  It doesn’t start a cascade of rumors of extramarital conception that swirl and spiral.  Bastard isn’t limited by its truth, but it doesn’t try to assert its own truth either — at least not anymore.  Slut isn’t limited by its truth, but it does try to create its own truth, which makes it a different thing.  Perhaps analyzing “prude” will shed light on what that thing is.

Define Prude.

Prude has the same problem. 

Wiktionary tells me this:

prude (plural prudes)

  1. A person who is or tries to be excessively proper, especially one who is easily offended by matters of a sexual nature.

AV Flox, she of Sex and the 405, wrote this about two Harvard women, respectively attached as a slut and a prude — the first feminist Lena Chen, the second an abstinence proponent:

slut-shaming isn’t entirely about sex. In fact, slut-shaming isn’t the right word because more than sex, it’s about control. Slut-shaming is only half of the equation. To complete the tactics for control, you also need prude-shaming.

Meet Janie Fredell. At around the same time Chen was blogging about her hook-ups, another movement was gaining momentum on campus at Harvard: the abstinence movement. In 2007, Fredell wrote an essay on the Harvard Crimson about the allure of abstinence. She was a prude, a patriarchy-pleasing, gender-stereotyping, heteronormative anti-feminist.

The debate on having or not having sex reached a fever pitch on campus toward the end of the decade. However, when Harvard students gathered to hear these two women debate their views –- no doubt looking for blood –- they were were disappointed. They didn’t realize the two women would find so much common ground over the harassment they’d both met for voicing their positions on sex.

Fredell’s piece doesn’t manage to avoid references to STIs entirely, but in a culture where abstinence propoganda routinely relies on wads of chewing gum, tape with body hair stuck to it and cups of intermingled saliva, it’s pretty weak tea: more carrot than stick, mostly an assertion of the strength (and paradoxically the sexiness, but we kinksters call that kink tease-and-denial) of abstinence.  It’s heteronormative and preachy, but isn’t that par for the course in college papers?  It was at least decently well-written. 

When men preach abstinence, they often get called out for their tactics and their slut-shaming, and rightly.  But there’s a personal edge to the attacks on women over their assertions of abstinence.  See, I think that Fredell can make whatever decision feels right for her, and to the extent she’s wrong in judging other decisions, well, she’s just wrong.  To me, preachers-in-disguise who tell teen girls are not just wrong but offensive, and need to lose their funding and not be allowed in our schools.  But the approach of much of the culture is the opposite.  The crusaders are wallpaper, but the attacks on women who assert that they don’t put out are personal, like it’s an offense to make the claim.  Remember the nasty piece of work that wrote about his date with abstinence-only Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell?  The real story was that she wasn’t a hypocrite.  She maintained some boundary that she was comfortable with on her date.  Boy, was he bitter.  Bitter!

What Is It They Want?

Why do guys get bitter when a woman says she doesn’t want to fuck them?  Thwarted entitlement.  That bitch owed him!  That’s the stench I smell with prude-shaming, the acrid smell of thwarted entitlement.  And slut-shaming?  Why does it create its own reality, unlike “bastard?”  Because there’s no wish-fulfillment aspect to “bastard.”  Nobody calls a man a bastard and then goes home to masturbate furiously to fantasies that his parents were not in fact married.  But plenty of those who write “slut” on some girl’s locker promptly masturbate to fantasies about the same girl, and the shit they write on Formspring is as likely as not the subject of those fantasies.

So here’s where I’m going with this:  these content-free epithets, “prude” and “slut”, operate the way they do because they’re not definitions or even comparisons.  They are actually demands.  They’re demands that someone — a woman — stop occupying a social role or function that makes the speaker uncomfortable.  They’re demands that often can’t be met, because often the accused woman or girl didn’t chose and can’t control the role she has been cast in.

The case of the boy who calls a girl a slut and runs home to jack off wishing she were interested in him is pretty simple; wish fulfillment.  But much of the hurling is done by women.  What is Susan Walsh saying when she attacks Jaclyn?  If Jaclyn were telling some teary-eyed story about how a Craigslist hookup ruined her life, wouldn’t Walsh rush to embrace the poor pity object?  The attack is because Jaclyn is happy with the choice she made and serves as a living counterexample to Walsh’s thesis that casual sex leaves women devastated and alone.  The attack is a demand that Jaclyn stop threatening her position.  That’s the same thing that causes girls to single out the one who just moved to town, is outspoken and outgoing, and got breasts early.  Not so much by any particular action, but just by being, she destabilizes their choreographed social decorum; they demand that she bow to their prudishness. 

“Prude” usually operates as a demand that the target serve the speaker’s prurience.  Just the claim of unavailability flies in the face of demands that availability be performed.  It may also be a demand not act as a model of purity, though.  A woman or a girl cast in the slut role is a stick to beat other women into line.  Likewise, the woman cast as prude is a stick to beat other women by contrast, by making them look or feel like sluts by comparison.  Someone like Fredell might not set out to make other women feel judged, but by trumpeting her purity she creates the opportunity for others to use her that way.

Serve the social structure, its prurience or its priggishness.  “Prude” and “slut” are not descriptions, but demands.

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