Can women simultaneously work to "take back" a word, even as they excoriate those who use it pejoratively? That's what's happening with the word "slut," and it's dividing the women's movement when it should be uniting it.
After a Canadian police officer told a group of university students that women could avoid rape by not dressing like "sluts," a now-international series of protests called SlutWalks were born. Participants rally, march and hear speakers on issues of sexual violence.
To some, however, use of the word "slut" detracts from the message. Gail Dines and Wendy J Murphy argue in the UK Guardian that:
The focus on "reclaiming" the word slut fails to address the real issue. The term slut is so deeply rooted in the patriarchal "madonna/whore" view of women's sexuality that it is beyond redemption. The word is so saturated with the ideology that female sexual energy deserves punishment that trying to change its meaning is a waste of precious feminist resources.
Meanwhile, MSNBC radio and cable talk show host Ed Schultz called conservative pundit Laura Ingraham a "right-wing slut" on his radio show. Outrage quickly ensued, and Schultz was suspended.
Can women be self-proclaimed sluts and still call for suspension of Ed Shultz? Yes we can. Can women support those marching for slutdom even if we don't totally agree with their views or tactics? Yes we can. But we are not.
We are using these arguments to condemn one another, much like we did when Sarah Palin called herself a feminist.
Ross Douthat wrote about the debate over the term "feminist" in the NY Times:
In this environment, it isn't a surprise that women in the public square now disagree about everything from abortion to health care to foreign policy. If anything, it's a sign that feminism may be returning to its fractious, ideologically unpredictable roots.
The fact that women are debating each other so fervently and from such high places that even men are writing about it shows me that we have certainly come a long way in at least some areas of women's rights. And yet we still seem to find more and more reasons for us to splinter into smaller, less forceful factions.
I recently attended a women's conference where Donna Brazile spoke about the need for women to support one another. "The old boys' network operates with the efficiency of a Swiss watch. In order to crack our way in, we have to create a woman-promoting machine," Brazile said.
How are we going to create a "woman promoting machine" when we are so busy attacking one another?
The reason the ERA didn't pass back then is that Gloria Steinem co-opted the debate about women's rights, approaching it from a New York point of view rather than a national one. Saying things like "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle" and "A liberated woman is one who has sex before marriage and a job after," not to mention "make him sleep on the wet spot," didn't go over well with women in the Midwest who considered themselves feminists but still wanted to be mothers.
Even if Flynt's view were true, the blame should not lie with Steinem, but with all women for letting language and semantics drive us apart and leave us disjointed without ERA protections.
I believe that all of these types of conflicts, which drive women apart from one another, ultimately diminish our power. Only when we can find our points of connection can we all truly step into our power in our own unique ways. Only then can we get equal pay, keep 13-year-olds from committing suicide after being called a slut and welcome all women back into the women's movement for equality.