Some words provoke instant and strong reactions, affecting us at a deep, almost visceral level. And when those words are challenged and their meanings turned upside down, it’s hard not to take notice.
The power of a word: Reclaiming “slut” (BBC, 9 May 2011)
It’s one of those words that doesn’t quite qualify as profanity, but you still probably wouldn’t want to use it at the dinner table.
Originally, the term was used to describe slovenly or dirty women, and evolved to mean women of loose or low character. Today, while the dictionary still includes “prostitute” or “slovenly woman” as definitions for the word, it is almost always used in its connotative sense — to mean a promiscuous woman.
While there have been some attempts to reclaim the word by feminists and other progressive groups, it was not until a Toronto policeman advised women to not dress like sluts to avoid becoming victims of rape that the word grabbed significant media attention.
Protests called “Slutwalks” have appeared all over the United States, as well as Canada, the UK, and Australia in response to the policeman’s “slut-shaming” advice.
While the main message of these protests is to remind those who think like that Toronto policeman that rape is never the victim’s fault, that message is accompanied by a movement to take back the word “slut” and make it a positive, self-affirming term of unashamed sexuality.
With the signs reading, “Don’t tell women what to wear; Tell men not to rape,” and “A dress is not a yes,” women also held signs proudly proclaiming their status as sluts and refusing to accept that a slut is a bad thing to be.
Reclaiming the word is also a strike at the double standard of sexuality, in which a man is lauded for his sexual conquests and called a “stud,” but a woman is condemned and shamed for the same behavior.
Still, like other insults that have been reclaimed by the communities they originally put down (“queer” and “bitch,” for example), the word in its reclaimed, positive sense can only be used by those within that community. If an “outsider” were to use it, even with good intentions, it could still be perceived as insulting.
What do you think about this issue? Could “slut” become a sex-positive term used with pride, or is it too firmly rooted in its derogatory past? Is it even a worthy cause to try to reclaim it?