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What Does 'Slut' Mean, Anyway?

02/02/2015 09:32 am ET | Updated Apr 04, 2015

Slut and ho are remarkably confusing insults. As I researched the ways these labels inflict harm on girls and women for I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet, I quickly realized that there is no unanimity over their definitions. Their meanings are fluid and sometimes ambiguous.

When used with the intent to injure, slut means one who is disgusting, shameful, and out of control. But slut and ho may be understood in a positive sense -- as a girl or woman who is sexy and confident. Yet it's not always evident what the intent of the name-caller is -- though even when the intent is benign, the word nearly always comes to be interpreted as a pejorative slur. For this reason, I urge girls and women to cease calling each other "sluts" or "hos," even in a light-hearted manner.

The first usage of slut is from 1386 in The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer used the adjective "sluttish" to refer to a man who is dressed in dirty and untidy clothes. In 1402, the English poet Thomas Hoccleve used "slut" as a noun in much the same way but with regard to a woman -- a slovenly woman who didn't keep her home clean. "Slut" continued to be used as a synonym for a woman who's dirty or untidy and who is poor or from the working class. At around the same time, "slut" also became a synonym for a woman of low or loose character -- someone who was inappropriately sexually forward. Being sloppy in matters of cleanliness became associated with being untidy in matters of sexuality.

"Slut" was used exclusively to refer to white women. "Slut" had meaning as a derogatory word only because it was the opposite of the white feminine ideal. For centuries, white people regarded black women as inherently slutty; therefore, black sluttiness did not necessarily trigger a judgmental reaction against whites. Therefore, I found no historical examples of black women labeled "sluts." The synonym "ho," an alteration of "whore," crept into African-American vernacular much later, in the 1960s.

There have been several high-profile challenges to "slut" as a derogatory term over the last 25 years. In the 1990s, Kathleen Hanna of the band Bikini Kill scrawled SLUT in lipstick on her stomach as a snarky retort to guys in the audience who might have been thinking exactly that. In 2002, the literary blog Bookslut was founded; the cheeky title implies that reading promiscuously is good. In 2011, activists in the feminist movement called SlutWalk reclaimed the word "slut" to raise awareness that wearing revealing clothing or behaving in a sexualized manner is never an invitation for sexual assault.

Despite these efforts, "slut" has not been rehabilitated. "Pimps and Hos" parties -- in which guys dress like pimps and women dress as, you know -- are ubiquitous on many college campuses. In 2012, Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke, then a Georgetown Law student, a "slut" after she testified at a Congressional hearing that birth control without a copay should be covered by health insurance. In 2013, when two teenage football players were convicted of raping a girl in Steubenville, Ohio, who was so drunk she had passed out, the girl was widely and publicly blamed for being raped on the grounds that she was a drunken slut. In middle schools and high schools around the country, girls are harassed so brutally -- verbally, online, and sometimes physically -- for being "sluts" that some have even taken their own lives to stop the terror.

After speaking with girls and women around the country about their experiences with these terms, I found one common theme: the female who is labeled is presumed guilty of having done something actively to provoke her reputation through her attire, behavior, or attitude. She may be following the unspoken rule of female heterosexuality that she's expected to attract guys and be sexy -- but she doesn't understand, or disregards, that she's not supposed to call attention to her efforts. She is regarded as too... obvious.

This element of agency gives ammunition to people who shame and police. They say, "Well, she deserves to be called a slut because she chose to do something wrong, and she earned her slutty reputation."

Therefore, I believe it is too risky to embrace the terms "slut" and "ho." Until we get closer to sexual and racial equality, calling ourselves "sluts" and "hos" could open up new opportunities for sexual harassment and assault of all women. I fervently hope for the day when we can use "slut" and "ho" as a feminist punch line and a badge of honor, but we aren't there yet. Only when we can be certain that most people agree that women have the right to sexual equality can all women be free to take back these words and make them ours.