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Taboo Language

May 30, 2011

Taking Slut Back: How a word gets reclaimed

This post will obviously contain language that may offend. So stop now if you're a prude. Aidan Wilson writes: In Melbourne on Saturday, more than 2000 women

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This post will obviously contain language that may offend. So stop now if you’re a prude.

Aidan Wilson writes:

In Melbourne on Saturday, more than 2000 women and men gathered for a protest called slutwalk. The immediate catalyst for the march was the indiscretion of a Toronto police officer who was giving a routine safety talk to ten students, but the walk is in broad reaction to a long history of sexual discrimination against women. See here for a comprehensive report on the Melbourne slutwalk, and here for an excellent column by Catherine Deveny (plus hundreds of disparate comments that I can’t be bothered with).

Anyway, the officer at the heart of this told the students:

Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.

The effect around the globe has been massive, and slutwalks have sprung up everywhere in Canada and the US, Europe and Australia, ostensibly to reclaim the word slut and remove its perlocutionary force as an offensive word, but also to show support for gender equality and denounce rape and other forms of sexual abuse and harassment.

This interests me linguistically as instances of word reclamation are infrequent, and usually happen at a grassroots level by spreading throughout a community as opposed to by prescription, so it will be interesting to see how the reclamation of slut works out.

Linguist Arnold Zwicky has already commented on the existence of the other non-slur use of slut, as a suffix meaning ‘someone enthusiastic about’, such as scrabble-slut. Slut has therefore already joined a long list of slurs that have non-slur uses as suffixes, including -nazi, -virgin, -whore and -queen. He concludes:

I don’t think “a slut is a slut”. It depends on the morphology and the context, and words can be reclaimed.

But can slut be reclaimed?

There have been only a few successful word reclamations in English globally over the last hundred years or so; the most notable of these is nigger, but other examples are fag (but interestingly, not faggot), queen and although it hasn’t completed the journey yet, cunt. So looking at these examples, can we infer anything about how successful an attempt at word reclamation is going to be?

I mentioned above that word reclamation is usually driven at a grassroots level, whereby the community to whom an offensive term is directed begin using it as an in-group marker of identity. At the same time its use by someone outside the group is still taken to be offensive, but is now rendered powerless as compared with the power that its in-group use has in strengthening group identity. For instance, the power of nigger used as a slur is minuscule compared with its power to strengthen pride in the black community [AW: On reflection, this is much too strong a position. See Stina’s comment for an impassioned response]. Being told that a word is no longer offensive just might not work; it has to spread from below. Much like democracy in the Middle-East.

There’s also another element to word reclamation that might not work in slut‘s favour. Successful reclamations like nigger, fag and cunt describe things that are just facts about people and are thus not subject to value-judgment; being black, being gay, or being female. The dictionary of the computer I’m writing this on defines slut as “a slovenly or promiscuous woman”. So slut describes behaviour which is potentially subject to value-judgment, and there’ll always be someone in the world who will judge it harshly.

Slut unfortunately, may therefore never be able to escape slurhood.

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16 comments

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16 thoughts on “Taking Slut Back: How a word gets reclaimed

  1. H Bho

    Interesting article as a whole. Although of course, many criticisms (as the commenters pointed out, so I don’t repeat).

    Clearly the person submitting this article has no grasp on the issues around slut-shaming, and the feminist stance usually backing it up. I took this by merely reading the first line:

    This post will obviously contain language that may offend. So stop now if you’re a prude.

    “Stop now if you’re a prude”.

    Not sure who it was that wrote that line. But thanks. Good job.

  2. AI: Reclaiming Words - Queereka

    […] the reclamation of words, there are some who don’t see it as very empowering. A comment made in a post I was reading on this subject (the commenter’s name is Stina and can be found a few posts down) […]

  3. lanegreene

    My strong impression is that “slut” is going to be very hard to reclaim in this way, though the idea of giving women as much pride in their sexual autonomy (and conquests, when they feel like it) as men get with “stud” is a sound one. “Stud” carries the positive connotations of overcoming some resistance by women to sex; a conqueror. “Slut” connotes someone who can’t control base urges.

    The difference between an inherent characteristic (blackness, gayness) and activity (how much sex you have) is a good one. And in that vein, I think “bitch” is much more well advanced along this line. It puts forth a different characteristic: claiming “slut” means “I’m not ashamed to seek and enjoy sex.” Reclaiming “bitch” says “I’m not afraid to raise my voice and disagree with you.” There’s a feminist mag here in the States proudly called “Bitch.” And it’s quite possible to hear some women straightforwardly put you on notice with “I’m kind of a bitch.” It’s said with humor, but it’s a way of letting you know that the girl saying it doesn’t put up with unnecessary shit just because that’s what nice girls are supposed to do.

  4. Only at Montrealgazette.com – Montreal Gazette | DavnecNews-Australia

    […] rally to find the slut in everyoneSydney Morning HeraldPhotos from SlutWalk MelbourneThe VineTaking Slut Back: How a word gets reclaimedCrikey (blog)CJADall 12 news […]

  5. Captain Planet

    Loz,

    suggest you read my comments again.

    particularly this bit.

    Any liberated, thinking person would agree that women and men should enjoy the same rights to their freedom of sexual expression, and freedom from condemnation on the basis of the consensual activities with other adults.

    If that’s misogyny, then black is white and day is night.

    Acknowledging that there are obstacles to an achievement is actually a positive.

    I take it that you do not believe in instincts, nor that natural selection has created them.

    The instinct to protect one’s children? Couldn’t have evolved, it must be memetics.

    The instinct to procreate? memetics. Culturally transmitted.

    Do you subscribe to the long – discredited views of Robert Heinlen (Stranger in a Strange Land) that all sexual jealousy is just a social construct? Culturally transmitted memetics?

    Sorry if the message doesn’t fit with your utopian ideal of the world. Some of us are trying to address the root causes of the problem, instead of dreaming away in fantasy land where humans are born free of instinct and all of our attitudes are shaped by our social indoctrination.

  6. Loz

    Captain Planet’s argument can basically be summarised as ‘don’t blame me for my misogyny, blame my genetics.’

    When one of the biggest things to come out of Dawkin’s ‘Selfish Gene’ is the notion of memetics – and that culture is as transmittable as genetic information – simply blaming attitudes on genetics is not only wrong but lazy.

    Back to the real issue at hand. I don’t think that ‘slut’ will ever be reclaimed from it’s pejorative use. I think the best we can hope for is that it extends and bleaches of it’s sexual meaning by continued use in constructs such as ‘cake slut’ or ‘knitting slut’ – much like ‘whore’. Once the word is used enough in contexts that are non-sexual and to denote people that are non-female then hopefully it’ll lose the pejorative sting.

  7. Captain Planet

    On a different, and more analytical, tack…

    If you subscribe to evolutionary theory as refined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, and also if you accept that humans are actually just very sophisticated animals as propounded by Desmond Morris in The Naked Ape, then social constructs around human sexual relationships are more easily explained, and it becomes clear exactly why this particular feminist issue has proved so problematic.

    Essentially, any genetic trait which increases the likelihood of the survival and replication of a particular gene, will be favoured by natural selection.

    Thus, to cut straight to the chase, 200,000 years of evolution of the human species have left us with a set of instinctive characteristics which maximise the chance of cellular self – replication.

    Consider the world prior to civilisation and contraception (this is when our instincts were formed by darwinian selection). Let us consider the monogamous pair bond, as the majority means of reproduction of the human race.

    A male homo sapiens who had little concern about the fidelity of his spouse, could possibly end up spending his life raising the children of other men. This means that this characteristic will die our fairly quickly. On the other hand, a man who is highly jealous and vigilant over ensuring his partner is faithful, is more likely to spread this characteristic throughout the gene pool. Hence, male sexual jealousy.

    A woman who was faithful to her partner was therefore highly valued. To expand on this, a woman who already has children would be less likely, in a primitive society, to make an attractive mate: Energy and resources would be expended by the male provider, on supplying another male’s offspring.

    Women who were raising children were largely dependant on men throughout the bulk of human evolution, during which the world was in the grip of the last ice age, and humans, of necessity, lived a hunter – gatherer lifestyle. A woman who was faithful to her mate was more likely to retain her mate, for reasons outlined above, and thus her children would be more likely to live. Fidelity of a woman to a single male was therefore reinforced as a genetic trait.

    Prior to the advent of freely available modern contraception, in our primitive society, in order for a woman to have the best opportunity to attract and retain a male provider for herself and their children, not having any children would be a substantial advantage. Restricting sexual activity was really the only guaranteed contraception. Thus, an instinctive value came to be placed upon female sexual “purity” and even virginity.

    In the cave dwelling society of which we speak, a man who successfully impregnated as many women as possible had a very high chance of replicating his genes. In a purely physical way, leaving all moral considerations aside, a man does not have the personal physical consequences of pregnancy to deal with: contemptible as though it may be, a man has the option to walk away from his responsibilities in this area. It is a survival characteristic for him not to do so, because without a provider his children may not survive.

    In the modern world, as thinking, rational, reasoning beings with an enormously enlarged prefrontal lobe which enables us to cogitate upon morality, truth and equality, we realise, intellectually, that it is completely unreasonable to impose different standards of sexual morality upon men and women. We no longer live in a primitive society where women are the jealously guarded sexual property of a man, and both men and women have (or should have) the full range of behavioural freedoms permitted by the law.

    Unfortunately, it is quite likely that our brains are, at least in part, hard wired to perceive women who freely participate in consensual sexual activity with a multitude of partners, as being in some way less worthy, due to our evolutionary heritage. Let’s call such women sluts, seeing as we are attempting to eliminate any negative connotations of the word, and the behaviour it describes.

    Women are instinctively likely to view sluts as a threat, because in the days of the cave there was a possibility that their man may be “lured” away by the slut, and become attached to the slut and her children by him. This means less support for the children of the man’s original partner.

    Men are instinctively likely to view sluts as less appealing long term mates, because the slut’s proclivity to engage with multiple sexual partners means there is a possibility that the man will be prevented from raising his own children. Thus, having sex with the slut is a good thing if you can get away with it, because it spreads your seed, so to speak: but you wouldn’t want to marry one.

    Please remember, before descending upon me in a tirade of abuse, I am talking about our evolutionary heritage as cave dwellers, not advocating a moral code for today’s world. the tendencies I have postulated above are not social constructs, they are instincts which have been selected for over thousands of generations.

    When these considerations are taken into account, it becomes clearer exactly why we have struggled, and continue to wrestle, so hard for so long, with the concept of womens’ sexual liberation.

    Any liberated, thinking person would agree that women and men should enjoy the same rights to their freedom of sexual expression, and freedom from condemnation on the basis of the consensual activities with other adults. Overcoming the inhibitions bred into us over thousands of generations to achieve this, on the other hand, appears to be proving to be something of a challenge.

  8. Captain Planet

    Cross posted from my previous thoughts on another thread…..

    I am not sure that the approach of attempting to “reclaim” labels with negative connotations (e.g. Nigger, Slut, or Nerd for that matter) is even a good idea.

    The example of afro – americans “reclaiming” the word Nigger is a good starting point. To what extent has this really worked? It’s still an offensive term. Implicit in the word itself is denigration to the recipient. Ask an afro american man if he considers himself to be a nigger. I suspect the politest reply you would ever receive might be, “No, I am a proud black man”. A more enlightened response might even be, “No, I am a human being like you”.

    Thank you Stina for reinforcing my beliefs on this. I do not consider that the proliferation of the word “nigger” amongst Australian Aboriginal people is in any way a good thing, a source of community pride, or in fact anything other than an expression of self – hatred moulded by 200 years of oppression and disadvantage. To anyone who thinks otherwise, come and visit me at my house in the central desert sometime. When my indigenous neighbours relatives come to visit and at 2 a.m. in the morning they start drunkenlyl belting each other senseless screaming “You dirty black nigger cunt”, then I will listen to you expound on how great it is that this word is now used by aboriginal people, to describe other aboriginal people.

    Likewise, is it really possible, appropriate or helpful to “reclaim” the word Slut? Can we ever envisage a time when anyone is going to really feel comfortable with it? Implicit in the word is a devaluing of the individual and a moral judgement which means that really, if you say “I am a slut” then what you are unavoidably saying is, “I am a woman with loose morals who is less worthy of respect than a lady”. What is wrong with “I am strong, independant woman who is comfortable with my own sexuality and my expression of it”? Too verbose I suppose, but I don’t think that “Slut” will ever come to mean that, try as we might.

    I believe “reclamation” of this kind is linguistically and socially impossible (taking a pejorative label and removing its denigrating connotations).

    Celebrating the “reclamation” of fag, poof, and other terms is premature. Go to a gay club, hang out at the entrance, and ask the gentlemen who are leaving, “excuse me, do any of you poofs / fags have a light?” and see what happens.

  9. SBH

    Aiden Aidan, does this story come full circle with the Victorian Government anouncing its intention to allow police to issue fines for offensive or indecent language? Presumably the police could now issue fines to many of the participants based on the widespread use of ‘slut’.

  10. anggarrgoon

    The difference in those two words is much clearer to speakers with coda-r (that is, areas where sofa and surfer differ in the second syllable as well as the first).

    I wouldn’t worry too much about slut being reclaimed. Since there are about 10 times as many pejorative words for women as there are for men, there are plenty to take over if there’s a perceived lexical gap…

  11. Aidan Wilson

    Stina, great point. I totally ignored the distinction between nigger and nigga for the sake of ease, but this is too relevant a difference in light of your comment.

    Irrespective, nigga/nigger will probably never be able to live freely as a word without conjuring an atrocious history, but I can imagine a situation in the (probably distant) future, when we finally have social equality, when it can be used, if only among the black community, without any offense intended or interpreted.

    I see it being used up north among Aboriginal youth (who have quite recently adopted a lot of African-American culture, some kids are even called ‘Tupac’) and no offense is apparent. Although this context is significantly removed from its roots.

    In which case, where does that leave us? Have any words been successfully reclaimed? A friend has already told me he regards fag as offensive even when used ‘in-house’, although poof he says, is okay “as an in-house jibe”.

    I’d suggest a definition of ‘reclaim’ that might help clarify the debate a bit. Given that any word can be used offensively if the offender so chooses, it makes no sense to talk about words being entirely stripped of their offensive power (I know this is a big retreat from my position in the post above, but hey, it’s not like I’m a politician; I’m allowed to change my position daily). Instead maybe it’s more useful to talk about words that can be used in addressing someone without causing offense.

    What exactly counts as ‘offense’ is a whole nother issue; whether or not it is intended and whether or not it is inferred both play a big role in deciding whether a remark is offensive, but it’s not something I want to go into here.

  12. stina

    I’m sorry, but as a Black American I wholeheartedly disagree with the statement that “For instance, the power of nigger used as a slur is minuscule compared with its power to strengthen pride in the black community.”

    First off, it may seem unnecessary to point out the difference between pronouncing (and even spelling) the word as “nigger” vs “nigga” but I will to explain that using the terms will get you different responses and the former causes MUCH more anger than the latter. The term you are looking for to “strengthen” the Black community is the latter.

    Now when James Brown sang “Say it loud/I’m Black and I’m proud”, When Angie Stone sings about “Brothas” and India.Arie about “Brown Skin” THAT strengthens pride in the Black community. These songs tell of taking pride in your skin and who you are, despite the things around you that may be telling you to be ashamed. “Nigga” does not do that.

    When I hear Blacks back home using the term, most times it is in a NEGATIVE way. There are many who refuse to use the term and take offense when someone says it to them. Heck, I take offense if a stranger says it to me. That is not strengthening the Black community. Does it strengthen the community when it’s one of the first and most often used terms in Black-on-Black violence? What about when used to intimidate or degrade someone? Or in situations of gate-keeping or bullying Black students out of getting an education? Those don’t sound like community-building situations to me.

    I now live in Australia and I’ve seen how people here worship and emulate Black culture but the bottom line is that Blacks in America have a very complicated relationship with the media and what Australians see on their TVs and from movies is not the whole story. Just because Black folks in the music industry and on shows like The Wire throw the word around often, it doesn’t do anything to strengthen a “community”.

    There is no community solidarity around the word “nigga”. People should really stop using it as the go-to example for reclamation of pejorative terminology.

    And by the way, with the way things change so swiftly nowadays thanks to the internet, “slut” can become any kind of word it wants to be. True, the Arab Spring happened from the bottom-up, but it never would have happened without the internet, which is how the SlutWalks spread across the globe so quickly.

  13. jacinda.woodhead

    Re the reclamation of language and the premature announcement of the death of the N-word: http://obit-mag.com/articles/by-any-other-name

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