Image by K.Ho

Social Justice Synonyms #6: “Slut”

Welcome back to Social Justice Synonyms! In honour of Hallowe’en, and the problematic conversations that may likely be happening on campus today, this week’s word is slut.

The word “slut” has been kickin’ around since about 1450. Though its exact origins are unknown, it started appearing in Middle English around that time. It began as a sexualized term for a woman, and has continued to carry similar meaning – it places negative judgment on a higher level of sexual activity or a more ‘revealing’ style of dress than was considered ‘socially acceptable’. This term, unlike some others, has always been used as an insult and has never held another meaning, and is therefore almost universally considered to be a derogatory term for women. The use of ‘slut’ is particularly harmful in cases where race, gender, and class intersect (more about that later). This discussion will centre mostly around its use toward people who identify as women, but does not mean to silence the experiences of others negatively affected by the term. 

The term ‘slut’ is inevitably gendered; it originated as a term for women and has continued to be for them throughout its history. Only in the past century has ‘slut’ been used (seldomly) to refer to men, and when it is, it is usually prefaced with a gender distinction (i.e. “man slut, man whore”). Although the term can have a negative impact on men, it does not have equal cultural/social effects across genders. Due to its origins and the patriarchal society in which we live, the implications of calling a cisgender straight man a slut are never as harmful. As well, there are equivalent terms for cisgender straight men that have positive connotations and reinforce machismo and social status (i.e. stud, ladies’ man, etc.).

What you’re saying by calling someone a ‘slut’ or calling their outfit/actions ‘slutty’ is that you don’t approve of their assumed sexual promiscuity. That, in turn, says a lot – that you have the right to comment on their sexual promiscuity and that their sexuality warrants shame since it does not conform to your/society’s expectations. This is called slut-shaming. Calling someone a ‘slut’ shames them for being sexual, for identifying sexual desire and acting on it, and/or for expressing their sexuality. Its use reinforces the idea that women’s bodies and sexualities can be policed by men in social circles, institutions, and/or families, and that people aren’t able to express their sexuality or lack thereof however they want.

‘Slut’ is most often used as an insult without knowledge of someone’s sexual activity. This assumes that the person being shamed is sexual or identifies with sexuality, which erases the possibility of asexuality – the lack of sexual attraction. (For more information on asexuality, click here.) Additionally, it is commonly used in contexts in which a woman is seen as a ‘tease’, such as when someone invites sexual attention and then chooses not to act on it. This removes the person’s sexual autonomy and implies that consent isn’t fluid – and consent is fluid. By “fluid”, we mean that consent is a necessary part of any sexual experience at all points of that experience for all partners involved, and it can change at any time. Using ‘slut’ term in these contexts invokes the she was asking for it narrative, implying that if a woman is perceived to invite sexual attention and then changes her mind, she is deserving of any non-consensual sexual act or attention that follows. Any non-consensual sexual act is rape, and rape is rape regardless of someone’s clothing or perceived “sluttiness”.

The term ‘slut’ disproportionately affects women of colour, Indigenous women, poor women, trans women, and sex workers. These bodies are continuously hypersexualized, devalued, exotified, and fetishized. This is particularly true for Indigenous women, who experience the historical, ongoing, and intergenerational effects of gendered violence, state violence, colonialism, and dispossession – to list a few. This can be seen in the normalized violence of Missing and Murdered Aboriginal women, in which thousands of Indigenous women have been abducted and murdered at a disproportionate rate compared to other women. As Anishnaabeg scholar Leanne Simpson writes,

I think it’s not enough to just recognize that violence against women occurs but that it is intrinsically tied to the creation and settlement of Canada. Gender violence is central to our on-going dispossession, occupation and erasure and Indigenous families and communities have always resisted this.

(Read about the Feb 14th Annual Women’s Memorial March for Missing and Murdered Women here.)

Lastly, women calling other women sluts is still harmful, even if it is a joke between friends. It perpetuates negative views of sexuality and reinforces the heteronormative idea that women are in competition with each other for male attention. This is not to say that the word can’t be reclaimed – there are folks who have embraced the term as part of their identity and given it positive connotation. However, it is important to note that certain populations, by virtue of cisgender, white, able-bodied, and middle-class privilege, are ‘better enabled’ to reclaim the term. As previously mentioned, Indigenous women, trans women, sex workers, and women of colour experience disproportionate degrees of racialized and gendered violence compared to cisgender white women, and thus may not feel as compelled or safe to reclaim the word “slut” for themselves.

Alternatives:

*Before we discuss some alternatives, we want to stress that the best alternative to calling someone a slut is to not comment on their level of sexual activity at all, because that is their own business! It is too difficult to remove connotation from those kinds of statements. The only time you should be concerned about someone else’s sexual activity or interests are if they a) involve you, b) are unsafe, or c) are non-consensual.

Synonyms that are similarly problematic: skank, hussy, nympho, whore, hoochie mama

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Use Alternative
“Dude! Check it out, that chick’s costume is so slutty.” “Hey, that person is wearing a Halloween costume! Neat!”
*here, again, question why you feel as if you have the right to comment on the nature of what someone is wearing and pass judgment on it.
A: Is this outfit too slutty?B: The skirt’s a little short… A: Is this outfit too revealing?B: If you are comfortable and confident wearing it, wear it!
“I heard Amanda made out with like three people last night – what a slut!” “I heard Amanda made out with like three people last night! Wow! Consensual kissing is awesome.”
“I’m really into this girl, but I’ve heard she’s kind of a slut.” “I’m really into this girl. I’ve heard that others talk about her sexual experience. If that’s who she is, there’s nothing wrong with that!”

Note: This article has been edited to reflect that the term “slutty” has been used to denigrate gay/queer men, particularly in the context of the AIDS epidemic. We apologize for the oversight and encourage you to read the thoughtful comment on the topic below.

  • Mackenzie

    Great article! I’ve been making an active effort to correct friends on this one. Consensual sex is fun! Rocking an outfit you like is fun!

    I might mention that in the case of the last synonym, I’d encourage people to just say “I’m into this girl!”, instead of commenting on her sexual experiences at all. Let her choose who she shares those details with.

  • Disgruntled

    I enjoyed reading this article, and don’t mean to draw attention away from the reality that the primary target of the word is women – and especially women of colour, Indigenous women, poor women, trans women, and sex workers as is deftly describes – but the discussion on the application of the word for men is myopic heteronormative. As a gay man who this past week at the BC Gay Men’s Health Summit again got an earful about the need to fight the structural perception that gay men’s ‘slutty’ behaviour is the driver of HIV infection in the community, or how ‘Truvada whores’ will be the next drivers of infection as PrEP becomes more widely used, I find the total erasure of gay men in this article startling and depressing. Considering the intersection of a stereotyped ‘slutty’ gay male sexuality and narratives of ‘sin’ that helped drive the lack of any government response to the the first decade of the AIDS crisis in Canada and the US, when I read, “the implications of calling a man a slut are never as harmful,” I can only wonder what the tens of thousands who needlessly died as a result of policy makers deeming that they ‘had it coming’ because of their their ‘slutty’ behaviour would have to say.

    Again, I really did enjoy most of this article, but if the use of the word ‘slut’ for men is going to be discussed I don’t think that the reader should have to qualify the “men” of “equivalent terms for men” as “straight men’ theirself as if all men might be referred to as a “ladies’ man”.

    • K.

      Hey there,

      Thanks for your insightful and thoughtful comment. Definitely an oversight on our part; we should have qualified “men” as
      “cisgender heterosexual men” and did not mean to conflate the realities
      and differing experiences of privilege and oppression between cishet men
      and gay/queer men (I think talking about trans men would
      probably be a different conversation in the context of the AIDs
      epidemic, as it was primarily gay/queer men who were targeted (as well as,
      of course, racialized (especially Haitian and Black), poor, IV drug using, and
      otherwise marginalized populations). Thank you for bringing this to our
      attention and we appreciate you sharing your knowledge.

      I’ve edited the article accordingly.

      – Kay

      • Disgruntled

        Thank you for the thoughtful and prompt response (as well as noting some of the further intersecting identities that have struggled in the AIDS epidemic). Keep up the good work!