The S word

7 October 2015

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Many people claim that a word only has the power you give to it.

However, most words have positive or negative connotations that deeply resonate within our culture and society.

‘Slut’ is one of those.

In simple terms, it’s a word used to describe a woman acting in a way society disapproves, typically in regards to number of sexual partners.

Over the weekend, singer and actress, Amber Rose, staged a ‘Slut Walk’ in Los Angeles.

The event sent a message that ‘slut shaming’ a woman because of how she dresses, or her sexual choices, is inappropriate and derogative.

According to the website, Rose said her objective was to “join the movement on this cause against sexual injustice, victim blaming, derogatory labelling and gender inequality”.

Melbourne-based freelance writer and broadcaster, Amy Gray, who regularly writes about feminism, tells upstart about the modern use of ‘slut’.

“The way the word is used in today’s usage is normally meant to describe a woman who has loose sexual morals,” Gray says.

“I think the use of ‘slut’ is very much a signal to women that their sexual choices are there to be judged by men, that their sexual choices aren’t their own. They are actually owned by men and judged by men.”

The feminist movement of the 60’s and 70’s saw women take back a lot of this ownership, as they ditched the status quo.

However, words like ‘slut’ highlight the double standards in societal expectations between men and women.

Male equivalents of the word are less common, the closest comparisons would be ‘womaniser’ or ‘playboy’, both of which are generally endearing rather than shameful.

It is this notion that events such as Slut Walk try to combat.

While some believe the word should be eradicated entirely, others are trying to reclaim its power by writing the word across their bodies.

Gray says that while there is a lot of positive feedback for the movement, there are some Facebook groups that undermine its message by posting photos of women from Slut Walk, labelled as “cock teasers”.

She says it demonstrates how uncomfortable people are with the reality of women being sexually independent.

“The word ‘slut’ was a shutdown. We’ve conditioned women to not ever be seen as sexually promiscuous, or independent. So if we call them slut enough, that will make them back down,” she says.

“But when things like Slut Walk come around and people really own that term, it’s actually incredibly challenging to the dominant members of the status quo. So they try to then assert their dominance by continuing to use the word in a pejorative way.”

Contrary to common belief, 50 per cent of women would like to be having more sex.

A recent survey of users of fertility app, Kindara, found women’s sex drives are just as high as men’s.

75 per cent of the 500 women surveyed would like to be having sex more than three times a week, and 13 per cent would prefer it six times a week.

Although the results were presumably based on women trying to get pregnant, these numbers suggest that women enjoy sex just as much as men.

upstart surveyed 50 18-35-year-old university students, and found their attitudes towards the word ‘slut’ conflicting.

Although 70 per cent of participants disliked using the word, and associated it with negative connotations, 50 per cent say they use it in a casual setting among friends, or as a term of endearment.

“’Slut’ in my friendship group is used casually like the word ‘idiot’. The connotations have been lost for us, at least for me, and the strength of the word has deteriorated significantly,” Andrew* says.

Andrew says the number of people someone has slept with doesn’t matter, especially not for young people in Australia, who enjoy a loose hook-up culture.

“A lot of people have become so much more sexually accepting, and those who are a ‘slut’ by definition aren’t even bothered by the connotations. I think it’s the individual’s business, and if they get labelled a ‘slut’, then they should wear it and be proud of it,” he says.

Psychology student, Rene Lienberg, agrees that connotations have diluted.

However, she tells upstart that ‘slut’ is a serious word that unfairly categorises people into a group based on sexual promiscuity.

“On a psychological level, the ideas and connotations are engrained in what society has taught us,” Lienberg says.

“It’s a degrading word and it does its job. I believe that women should embrace their sexuality, everyone should embrace their sexuality, but I don’t think that embracing the word helps.”

She says that as long as the word is used, women’s sexuality will still be an area of taboo.

Gray believes the use of the word is a personal choice.

“What I would suggest is that we then actually take a broader look at this,” she says.

“It’s not actually about the word, it’s about the systems of oppression behind the word and that’s what people are trying to change.”


*Surname omitted at interviewee’s request. 

Ewa Staszewska

Ewa Staszewska is a third-year journalism student at La Trobe University and the politics and society editor for upstart. You can follow her on Twitter here: @EwaStaszewska.