THE BLOG
06/05/2014 02:29 pm ET Updated Aug 05, 2014

Is 'Slut Shaming' an Appropriate Term?

That title is not rhetorical. I am literally asking.

Is "slut shaming" an appropriate term for feminists interested in intersectionality to use? I've been thinking about writing about this topic for a long time, but a recent article at The Atlantic finally prompted me.

Over on Tumblr, I run a blog called "FaceBookSexism" that calls out the bigoted stuff people say on social media every day. I often tag submissions as "slut shaming." I've received numerous comments that this term is problematic and sexist and I should probably stop using it.

I won't say that this opinion is wrong or misguided at all. It's a valid concern, but one that I tend to disagree with. I continue to go to bat for it. As I most recently wrote on the subject:

I understand and appreciate that the term is imperfect. I am not one to actually reclaim "slut" by saying anything like "I'm going to be a slut tonight" or playfully call my friends sluts, but for this particular term, I do think it has a destigmatizing benefit by positing, "Just because you think something is 'slutty' doesn't mean you can shame it.

More importantly, and why I continue to use it, is that there is not a suitable substitute. Sex shaming doesn't work because so often what's being shamed are things (clothes, behaviors, etc.) that don't actually constitute sex. Conversely, "body policing" has also been suggested, but that term is too broad for me in this context. It doesn't have a common understanding which encapsulates sexuality or the gendered nature of the situation like "slut shaming" does. I guess I could say something like, "sex shaming, misogynistic body policing" but then I wonder why I am trying to reinvent the wheel, when so many people know what "slut shaming" is... and importantly, might have that term blacklisted if it's something that triggers them... and then I'm back to square one with tagging things as "slut shaming" again.

I hear, loud and clear, that many other women are not on board with the use of this term... but as a woman myself, who has had "slut" thrown in my face, I don't think that I am overstepping any bounds by using it. This is a whole thing I struggle with and I might change my stance in the future. But for now, I'm using it as a tag.

While this is where I have landed for the moment over at FacebookSexism, I am still kind of baffled and divided by the actual concern raised.  So when I read the article on The Atlantic, called "There"s no such thing as a slut" my interest was peaked. In it, Olga Khazan profiles the research of Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton on the behavior they observed living in a college dorm with young women in the Midwest.

Interestingly, Armstrong and Hamilton found a huge interaction between slut shaming and class and differences in what makes a "slut" but no real agreed upon definition of slutiness across the board. Khazan wrote:

One of the most striking things Armstrong learned was that, despite the pervasiveness of slut-shaming, there was no cogent definition of sluttiness, or of girls who were slutty, or even evidence that the supposedly slutty behavior had transpired. In the study, she notes that though "women were convinced that sluts exist" and worked to avoid the label, some of their descriptions of sluttiness were so imprecise (''had sex with a guy in front of everybody") that they seemed to be referring to some sort of apocrypha -- "a mythical slut."

"The term is so vague and slippery that no one knows what a slut was or no one knows what you have to do to be that," she told me. "It circulated around, though, so everyone could worry about it being attached to them." 

This speaks to my original point that there is no precise substitute for the term "slut shaming." The word "slut" occupies such a specific space in our current cultural lexicon that nothing else quite means the same thing -- and yet we can't say what is "sluttiness" even is. The nearest definition I can think of is "a woman perceived to be behaving or looking in a more overtly sexual way than the viewer deems appropriate." (In other words, it's more about the person saying "slut" than the woman being "slutty.")

While "slut" is a misogynistic slur, it is not equally applied across all women. The backlash to the SlutWalk movement showed as much, when many Black women spoke up about their discomfort with the term and exclusion from the movement. As was shared in an open letter at Black Women's Blueprint:

We are deeply concerned. As Black women and girls we find no space in SlutWalk, no space for participation and to unequivocally denounce rape and sexual assault as we have experienced it. We are perplexed by the use of the term "slut" and by any implication that this word, much like the word "Ho" or the "N" word should be re-appropriated. The way in which we are perceived and what happens to us before, during and after sexual assault crosses the boundaries of our mode of dress. Much of this is tied to our particular history. In the United States, where slavery constructed Black female sexualities, Jim Crow kidnappings, rape and lynchings, gender misrepresentations, and more recently, where the Black female immigrant struggle combine, "slut" has different associations for Black women. We do not recognize ourselves nor do we see our lived experiences reflected within SlutWalk and especially not in its brand and its label. 

As Black women, we do not have the privilege or the space to call ourselves "slut" without validating the already historically entrenched ideology and recurring messages about what and who the Black woman is. We don't have the privilege to play on destructive representations burned in our collective minds, on our bodies and souls for generations. Although we understand the valid impetus behind the use of the word "slut" as language to frame and brand an anti-rape movement, we are gravely concerned. For us the trivialization of rape and the absence of justice are viciously intertwined with narratives of sexual surveillance, legal access and availability to our personhood. It is tied to institutionalized ideology about our bodies as sexualized objects of property, as spectacles of sexuality and deviant sexual desire. 

Listening to this perspective is vital to an understanding of this topic. To ignore the intersectional elements of any gender topic is unacceptable. So I can't gloss over this highly problematic element of the term "slut."

I guess what I am struggling with more than anything when presented with this discussion is the idea of reclamation. When I read the open letter from Black Women's Blueprint I am thoroughly convinced that the reclamation of "slut" is white-feminism BS and I don't want to be a part of that.

But can we still use the term "slut shaming" to describe a very specific mindset we see exhibited from sexists so frequently without reclaiming it? When we use this term are we inherently using the language of oppressors? Or can we, as I suggested above, think about how the term has a destigmatizing benefit by positing, "Just because you think something is 'slutty' doesn't mean you can shame it."

What do you think?