There are lots of things I do to avoid being thought of as slutty.
Despite my ever growing feminism and evolving self confidence (and the fact that I’ve been in a relationship for nearly seven years), I’m all too aware of the scrutiny that I, as a woman, am under and the standards that society expects me to meet.
I remember the golden rule; that I can only “show off” my boobs, tummy, OR legs in one outfit. I binned the red stilettos that I owned after a friend told me that red shoes = no knickers!! (knowing even at 13 that even though I’d probably never be a ‘no knickers type of girl’, I definitely didn’t want to be thought of as one). I bend over in front of the mirror every time I wear a dress to ensure that the length is not indecent. I’m careful not to giggle or swish my hair too much or look too deeply into a man’s eyes whilst having a conversation with him. I kept my “number” low and then was sure to knock a couple off of that when asked about it. Still now I work hard to ensure that “slutty” is very low down the list of words that jump to mind when people look at me.
And this is interesting for a few reasons:
- a large part of my work is quite confidently not giving a shit about what people think of me
- as I explore more and more avenues of feminism, the fact that I haven’t paid particular attention to the conversations that are going on to reclaim the word slut, or made any effort to be part of them is a surprising realisation to me. The connotations of the word “slut” is, I see now, one of the great injustices and that it took me so long to get here says a lot, I think, about the power of this word and the reservations that it has caused me to feel around the entire conversation. More on that in a bit because there is another reason this feels interesting to me, and that’s the fact that:
- I haven’t always been this way
Looking back at my teenage years, I think the idea of being “slutty” was something I rather liked.
For the simple reason being that I thought that “slutty” meant “wanted” and at a time when my self worth was low, the thought of being desired meant more to me than any systemic oppression could.
Rather than try to play the part of the “hard to get gal” (and risk looking like a dick as I resisted advances that weren’t being made in the first place), I opted for something with considerably fewer risks attached to it: I opted for something easier. I opted to be easier.
This will, I suspect, not be an unfamiliar story for a lot of women. As sad and dangerous and weird as it is to admit to now, I know that I am not the only person to have mistaken sexual interest for likability.
And whilst the point of this blog post was not to dwell on the complex issues that shrouded my teenage years and the unlikely tracks I made towards the stripper pole nightmare of middle class parents, I mention my unusual affinity with a word so rooted in misogyny because it is relevant.
As I have got older, I have grown in self worth and I subsequently do not seek validation from men or their sexual interest anymore (something I should’ve realised the first time I watched American Pie and saw that guy fucking a pudding, a man’s ability to get an erection was not an indicator of attractiveness).
And I’m all too aware that as I’m looking back at my formative years now, I’m doing it with something close to shame for the girl that sought out validation in slutty behaviour. And I’m doing that whilst explaining to you all how unslutty I am now (as if it’s to do with anything other than the fact I can’t be arsed to shave my legs most the time) and I’m absolutely not focussing on the actual problem here:
The fact that this word, this label, this notion, exists in the first place.
“Slutty” definition: (in reference to a woman), a “sexually promiscuous or provocative in a way that is considered bad taste”.
I’m a grownup now, a happy one, in a relationship with a man that didn’t really have to chase me but probably would have done if I’d wanted him to, and I find myself fascinated, obsessed really, by the enormous slutty elephant in the corner of society that, at a time when feminism is taking women and men to places that we’ve never been before, has this extraordinary power to totally and inexplicably undermine a woman.
Looking at it now, gilded in hindsight and buoyed on by the feminism that’s enveloped my existence like wisteria around a Notting Hill terrace house, I see that society, and my place in it, is still looked at through the male gaze and as such, our behaviour is judged by an archaic standard.
Feminism did not come to me in one big rush, I didn’t wake up one day and decide the very foundations upon which our society was built were wrong, rather, it has grown and evolved and blossomed into what it is now, that gorgeous purple plant that a lot of middle aged men would hate to see adorning the expensive houses that they’ve worked so hard to provide but that I’m so bloody proud of that I want the world to see.
And looking back at recent years I see the pivotal points at which my way of thinking began to change. Challenges I was faced with, injustices I saw, and then, of course, the generation defining conversation that was the #metoo movement. I think that we are yet to fully appreciate the seismic shift that this has caused, but I know for me at least that my personal growth, my new found wisdom, would be nothing without, and nothing compared to, the awakening that #metoo gave us and the subsequent education.
The power that so many men still hold, the danger that so many women are still in, the entirely accepted unfairness of it all… just look at the power of the word slut.
I grew up scared that I would be raped, obviously, but ignorant to the injustices that I was experiencing on a daily basis; the sexualisation of my teenage body by not just the boys who’s attention I so craved, but society as a whole, the power that men had, and would continue to have over me and the exhausting responsibility that fell on my shoulders to protect not just my physical being but my reputation, too.
Not to kiss too many boys or behave in a way that wasn’t considered ladylike. Not to dress in a certain way, lest to be accused of asking for “it” (it, the omniscient threat of sexual violence that exists above the head of all females). Not to reject a man’s advances, in part out of self preservation in case he were to react badly, in part out of politeness (it’s FlAtTeRiNg to be flirted with) but of course, not to accept too many requests because that would make you… well slutty.
And that would be bad. Cos no girl wants a reputation. Mostly because no boy wants a girl that’s got a reputation. Boys get to be studs and players and girls get to be sluts and whores. That’s just how it goes.
#MeToo taught me a lot and in my own life, I realised that a lot of what I was doing was because I thought it was what I should be doing. I was living in a world that protected men and judged women and I learned that so much of what I had experienced in my own life; from the street harassment to the acceptance of labels like “slutty” without an argument, was wrong.
I have been able to recognise the injustices in so many areas and I have been aided in my education by the realisation that others are recognising them too.
Reproductive rights are an area in which the conversation is changing, not just with landmark decisions like the recent legalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland, but with the seemingly insubstantial area of contraception too.
The fact that there really only exists one type of contraception out there for men, despite the fact that they could theoretically father as many as 400 children in a year (if they had good stamina) whereas there exist dozens of contraceptives for women (not without their side-effects), even though in a single year we could only produce one baby (and not necessarily even get an orgasm out of it, by the way).
This shit is deep rooted in power and religion and there is a large element of control and this will take years to unpick and to unlearn. But it has to be done, aggressively, ferociously, because we only need to see the sheer nonsensical nature of something as simple as contraception to show how far we still have to go.
But if you still need persuading, let’s look to the thing that inspired this entire blog post, and that’s the conversation of female pleasure.
A couple of weeks ago I was sitting at a breakfast table with a dildo where my fruit salad bowl had been, opposite a woman with a polar neck top that read “orgasm” across the boobs, with a bit of prosecco lube on the end of my index finger that I was repeatedly smelling and licking before describing it to the woman next to me as if I was detecting notes of aged oak at a fancy wine tasting event.
We were with Boots (celebrating the fact that they’re selling sex toys in their shops now, yes really) and it was a moment that I suspect I will look back on as “defining”.
We discussed the fact that we only learned about vaginas at school in the context of periods and childbirth, we talked about the clitorous and how no one ever showed us where it was. We talked about sex and sex toys and orgasms and relationships and we talked about the fact that none of us had ever talked enough about this before. We talked about female pleasure and it was, I realised, the first time I had ever talked about female pleasure before.
We grew up in a society that didn’t priorities or even really consider female pleasure and as a result, a woman’s sexuality has been viewed almost exclusively through the male gaze.
Is it any wonder that this all feels so wonky?
There are women out there working to reclaim the word slut. There have been “slut walks” all over America and there are some incredibly women opening up about sexuality in a way that, well, no one has ever really done before. People are demanding that rather than teaching women how to dress, we should instead teach men not to rape.
The use of the word “slut” spiked, apparently, in the 1920s, just after the end of the first world war, as women began to gain independence. The thing that they’d done to deserve the label? Encroaching on spaces that men had previously dominated. Their offices, and their bars, The cheek!
That word was a means by which men could keep women in check.
By filing myself under the label of “slutty” as a teenager (slightly more preferable than the boring one of “frigid”) I was, I see now, conforming to the rules laid out for me by the patriarchy. In the same way that I had to take responsibility for my physical wellbeing by putting my keys between my fingers when walking home so that I could stab an attacker in the eye balls and wearing my school skirt at regulation length so as not to distract the men around me, I had to manage my own reputation too; we live with the awareness that we could be described as being “slutty” at any point even if we haven’t done anything technically wrong and that’s it, it’s tarnished.
Slutty, as a word, desperately needs reclaiming.
It needs its sting taken out and to be rinsed clean of it’s filthy and tired connotations.
Halloween is coming up. The one night a year that a girl can dress like a total slut and no one can say anything about it (according to Mean Girls, anyway) and I, for one am ready.
Because, all together now, I could go out wearing my tits like handbags, in no knickers and the highest stilettos in London and I still wouldn’t be asking for it.
Sex is not owed to men and our bodies are not a commodity. If you don’t want to be sexualised, you don’t have to be. Your body is yours to do with what you please and I’ll be damned if I see any of you let the words spat out by insecure men (and their ignorant lady friends) stop you.