What is a slut?

Linguistics and sexual politics

Slut. The word is in common use, but what exactly does it mean?

Merriam-Webster (my go-to for definitions) offers, in relevant part

slut: a promiscuous woman; especially : prostitute
This seems straightforward, but inadequate. For one thing, the definition emphasizes prostitutes, yet the women to whom the word is applied rarely are. More importantly, the definition fails to capture or explain just how fraught the word slut is: the extraordinary venom and shame that attaches to it, and its slippery, subjective quality.

In particular, the emotional freight carried by slut is not to be found in the words of its definition. Woman is entirely neutral. Promiscuity is subject to value judgments, and prostitution is often considered bad, but neither of these words approach slut in intensity and...what? What is it about this word?

BuzzFeedYellow and Kassem G took it to the streets: they asked people what slut means and recorded the responses. They didn't find out, either, but a few things emerge from the videos

What is it about this word?

slut turns out to be a very unusual word, which is why no one can get a grip on it. To understand how slut works, we will begin by looking at some other unusual words

I Can't Believe It's Not Butter!

"I Can't Believe It's Not Butter!" is the name of a brand of margarine. That is, the brand name is an entire sentence. This is very unusual. Usually, a name (i.e. a noun) is simply a word: both common names (atom, bank, car, dog) and proper names (Alice, Bob, California).

What's more, this is a very special sentence. This sentence carries with it a back-story. A back-story that everyone in the target market for margarine knows. The story goes like this

Now that brand has taken the last line of that story for its own proper name. You can see why they did this: they are hoping that the perfection implicit in the back-story will attach to their product. Still, it is very unusual from a linguistic standpoint.

There are a few jokes that work the same way: the punch line carries the setup with it

And then the nun said...
Second prize, two weeks in <city>

Telling stories

Now let's turn this around. Here is an old joke
It is Fred's first day in prison. He's sitting in his cell when someone calls out, "41". The cell block erupts in laughter. Then someone calls out, "29". More laughter.

Fred asks his cellmate what is going on. "Well," the older inmate says, "Most of us have been here so long that we have heard all the jokes. So we just number them and use the number."

Fred says, "I love to tell jokes! Give me one."

"Okay," says the older inmate. "Everybody loves 72. It always gets a big laugh"

Fred stands up and yells, "72!" There is nothing but silence as hundreds of inmates just turn and stare at him.

Fred sits down and looks at the inmate who gave him the number.

"What happened?" he asks.

The older man shrugs and says, "Some people just can't tell a joke."

OK, maybe it's not a very good joke, but it is a joke, and it works by playing on the conventions of language.

Stories can have names, like The Odyssey, and Hamlet, and Moby Dick, but merely reciting the name of a story is not the same thing as telling the story. Saying "Moby Dick" isn't the same thing as reading the book. Saying "Hamlet" isn't the same thing as performing the play.

Sexual Power

Next, we need a definition.

Sexual power is the power to choose your sex partners, and to decide whether, when, and with whom to reproduce.

Women have sexual power. How much they have depends on circumstance. For example, women in western democracies tend to have more than women in middle-eastern theocracies. But most women have at least some.

Sexual power is important. In the long run, sexual power is the only kind that matters, because...you know...you can't take it with you. The best anyone can do is pass it along.

Slut is a story

Now we can explain what slut is.

Most words are symbols. A symbol stands for—refers to—something else. The thing a symbol refers to is called its referent. Words are defined by pointing to or describing their referents.

slut is not a symbol. When someone utters the word slut, they are not referring to something. When someone utters the word slut, they are telling a story. They are using a single word to tell an entire story, just like the prisoners calling out numbers to tell jokes. What's more, the single word slut carries within it the whole story, in just the way that the margarine brand carries within it the whole history of the margarine industry.

It is a very simple story, and a very ancient story. It goes like this

That's it. That's the story. That's what slut is: the telling of that story.

It is important to emphasize that slut is not the name of that story. (I don't know that that story has a name.) People don't use slut to refer to that story. People use slut to tell that story.

Explanations

This analysis has explanatory power.

It explains why no one can give a proper definition of slut; why the word is so slippery. It is because slut is not a symbol that is defined; rather, it is a story that it is told. True, there is a woman in that story, but someone who tries to define slut by describing the woman is making a category error.

It explains why no woman can defend herself against a charge of being a slut. It is because the story is always true for the person who tells it: she's a woman (check), she has sexual power (check), and the speaker really is angry (or they wouldn't have used the word in the first place).

It explains why women cannot escape the word merely by being faithful, or modest, or even chaste. It is because the speaker's anger attaches not to the woman's sexual behavior, but to her sexual power, and women have sexual power whether they exercise it or not.

It explains why women sometimes use the word slut of other women. It is because women are in competition with each other for men; therefore, one woman can be jealous of another's sexual power.

It explains why people are taken aback when merely asked what the word means. It is because the word itself is an expression of the anger in its back-story.

It explains why all the respondents in the BuzzFeed video so easily excused the interviewer from being a slut. It was because they weren't angry at her. It wasn't a story that they were telling.

Sandra and Rush

It is instructive to look at the case of Sandra Fluke and Rush Limbaugh.

Sandra Fluke was a well-spoken—if otherwise unremarkable—law student. In 2012, she addressed congressional Democrats on the need for government regulation to require that health insurance cover contraception.

Access to contraception allows women to control their reproductive cycle. When women control their reproductive cycle, then they can decide whether, when, and with whom to reproduce. That's the definition of sexual power. So here was an attractive, sympathetic young woman, making a straightforward and reasoned case that the government should act to give women—all women—more sexual power.

The right-wing was outraged. This had to be stopped. They called in their big gun: Rush Limbaugh. Rush got on his microphone and called her two things: a slut and a prostitute.

Now, the first part, the slut story, is absolutely true.

Rush is telling a true story here.

The second part is not true: she is not a prostitute (as far as I know). But Rush wants her to be—he desperately wants her to be a prostitute. Because—wait for it—if she is a prostitute, then he regains control of her sex: all he has to do is pay for it (and, you know, he has a lot of money).

Can slut be reclaimed?

Some pejoratives can be reclaimed.

In the early 20th century, "black" was considered offensive; thus, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. During the Civil Rights Movement, the term was reclaimed

Say it loud: I'm black and I'm proud
—James Brown
In like manner, gay sex-advice columnist Dan Savage used to encourage his readers to begin their letters to him with the salutation
Dear Faggot:
This kind of reclaiming works when a term for a disfavored group is merely descriptive: once the group is no longer disfavored, then terms describing that group are no longer pejorative.

This process is incomplete (at best) for blacks and gays, but there are examples where it has progressed further. In the early 20th century, Irish immigrants to the United States were a disfavored group. Today, those immigrants—and their descendants—have securely established their position in American society. As a result, ethnic slurs relating to Irish ancestry have fallen out of currency, and the word Irish is no longer understood as an insult.

Slut can never be reclaimed.

The reason that slut can never be reclaimed that slut is not a descriptive term: it does not name a disfavored group. Slut is the telling of a story. No matter how much power—sexual or otherwise—women gain in society, that story will still exist, there will still be people telling that story, and it will still be a true story: their anger will be real.

Indeed, considering that power is a zero-sum game, the political gains of women are, symmetrically, the political losses of men. We can therefore expect that as women gain sexual power, the slut story will not fade, but will instead become more prevalent, more entrenched and more venomous. There will be more and more men enraged at the sexual power of women.

Slutting around

As a first step towards reclaiming a word, disfavored groups sometimes use a pejorative among themselves. Thus, blacks use nigger; gays use queer and faggot. This is done not to insult, but as a marker of group identity, and to desensitize: to drain the sting from the word.

Women do use the word slut among themselves; most commonly, they use the word of themselves. Women refer to themselves as dressing slutty, or being a slut, or slutting around. This would seem to be a step towards reclaiming the word, but it is not.

The reason is that when women use the word this way, they are not telling a story. Instead, they are using the word in the usual way: as symbol. In this usage, a slut is simply a woman who exercises sexual power. Roughly

dressing slutty=sexual display
being a slut =attracting men
slutting around=having sex with men

The fact that the word as used here is a symbol, and not a story, is confirmed by the fact that one of the essential elements of the story is missing: the speaker's anger. No story, no speaker, no anger.

Slut shaming

While we're at it, we might as well sort out slut shaming.

Unlike slut, slut shaming is not a story; it is an ordinary (compound) word: a symbol with a referent. But the referent is easily misapprehended, and the trouble word here isn't slut, it is shame.

Again, Merriam-Webster

shame: 1 a: a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety
Like the definition for slut, this seems true, but somehow inadequate. For one thing, it doesn't convey just how painful—how awful—shame is. More importantly, it is not an operational definition: it doesn't provide the tools that we need to understand shame from a functional standpoint.

I didn't get those tools until quite recently. I was listening to a Sunday-afternoon radio talk show. The show featured a woman—a consultant—who did organizational development for companies: trust circles, team building exercises, that kind of thing.

I forget the details, but these were companies that already had organizational problems—or else they wouldn't be calling in consultants to help them. And the consultant found that when she talked to people in these companies, she couldn't get off the dime until she had addressed the issue of shame. Shame, she explained, is

fear that you will be separated from others on account of who you are or what you've done.
"Separated from others" may not sound like much, but we need to keep in mind that humans can only survive in groups. If your tribe separates from you, your survival prospects are...poor. So shame is fear, and it is a profound fear.

This definition gives us the tools that we need to understand slut shaming.

On an unanalyzed understanding of shame, slut shaming seems to be about morality and sexual behavior. Shaming is seen as a tool to correct or punish wayward behavior. Controversies over slut shaming have to do with where the lines should be draw: what behavior is or isn't acceptable; whether those doing the shaming should be more or less judgmental; whether those being shamed should be more or less sensitive. Everything is subjective; the whole thing is a muddle.

Once we understand that shame is fear, slut shaming becomes simple and straightforward. Slut shaming isn't about morality, or behavior. It is simply a threat: a threat to separate. Women who are the target of this threat commonly feel shame—that is, fear—and their fear is well grounded: others are threatening them with grave harm.

If a woman does not display the shame—the fear—that the threat is intended to elicit, then the cliche "You ought to be ashamed!" may be invoked. Again, on an unanalyzed understand of shame, this seems to be a kind of moral instruction, or perhaps a remark on the woman's moral compass. Once we understand that shame is fear, then the statement is simply a warning: the speaker is threatening harm, and the woman should be afraid of that harm, in just the same way that you should be afraid when someone points a gun at you.

Finally, the purpose of slut shaming is simply to take sexual power from women. The structure of slut shaming is exactly parallel to the structure of extortion

Extortion is

Slut shaming is

Quotes

If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about the answers.
—Thomas Pynchon


Steven W. McDougall / resume / swmcd@world.std.com / 2016 Sep 23