On February 29th, 2012, Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke "a slut" and "a prostitute" because she argued that medical insurance should cover birth control.
Limbaugh also announced that Fluke was "having so much sex, it's amazing she can still walk" and that "she's having so much sex she can't afford her own birth control pills" (not only making up fiction, but begging the question of whether he understands how birth control pills actually work).
The number of appalling things that Limbaugh has said on this topic only continues to grow. The uproar over his comments has largely centered on how wrong it is to label a woman a slut and a prostitute simply because she advocated for health insurance to cover birth control. But there's a larger conversation to have here: one about the continuing use of the term "slut" to refer to any woman, for any reason. Isn't it time we retired the term entirely and moved on?
In her book, Slut: Growing up Female with a Bad Reputation, Leora Tanenbaum writes that while sometimes girls are called sluts because of actual or rumored sexual experiences, they are often deemed sluts simply because they are threatening the status quo, are disliked, or in some way they do not fit a social norm. In this sense, Limbaugh's comments are not surprising. They can be seen as an age-old move: attempting to silence or marginalize a woman who is speaking out, by attacking her to the core: as sexually cheap, as "loose," as "dirty."
On his show on Monday March 5th, Rush himself said, "I do not think she is either of those two words. I did not think last week that she is either of those two words." I believe him. He didn't call Fluke a prostitute or a slut because he believed she was. He just made up some lies to discredit her Congressional testimony.
I'd argue that most people -- women and men -- who call women prostitutes, whores, or sluts don't do so because they think that's the truth. They do it to defame, demean, and shame. They do it to keep women quiet and to keep women cautious in speaking about their own sexuality -- whether they are speaking about their views on contraception or reporting a sexual assault.
Young girls are particularly affected by the prominence of terms like "slut" and "whore" in our culture. As Tanenbaum writes in her book, slut-bashing "affects every single female that grows up in this country because any pre-teen or teenage girl can become a target." Sadly, at every middle or high school, there are girls who have been labeled sluts. It is equally unconscionable for a young girl to be labeled a slut because of her sexual experiences, consensual or nonconsensual, or simply because someone doesn't like her.
We can take this moment to let companies know we will not support them if they support this kind of demeaning speech in the media. We can also take this moment to create a movement of people saying: Calling women "sluts" and "whores" is antiquated and offensive. There is no place for these terms in my vocabulary and I will speak up when I hear the words used.
If we aim to treat other human beings with respect and decency, is there any use for for these terms?
If we don't want young girls to be shamed or marginalized by their peers because of sexual rumors, sexual experiences, or simply words aimed to wound, is there a use for these terms?
If we understand that women are neither "dirty" nor "clean" because of their sexual experiences, is there any use for these words?
In the words of counselor Rachel Whalley, "Goodbye, 'slut.' I would say you have overstayed your welcome, but you were never a kind or helpful word to begin with. Your existence was born out of ignorance and fear. Gradually, we are all embracing our better natures; we have no need for the shame that you stand for."
Let's retire the term. "Slut:" Born 1402. Died 2012. Rest in Peace. We won't miss you.
Tanenbaum, Leora Jane. Slut: Growing UP Female with a Bad Reputation. New York: William Morrow, 2000.
Slut. (2012, February 18). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 20:14, March 5, 2012, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Slut&oldid=477550836