Fun fact: I’ve never been called a slut. Despite years of talking and writing about sex, it’s just never happened. That’s not to say the word hasn’t held power in my life.
I grew up seeing it in movies and TV shows, watching women’s faces crumple when they were sexually shamed and stigmatized. I knew it was bad to be deemed a slut, and that was only reaffirmed by my mom telling me not to wear slutty clothes and my friends writing other girls off for their sexual behavior. By high school, I was careful to avoid being seen as a capital-S Slut. I dressed modestly; I only told my closest friends what I was doing with boys; I kept my social media free of skin and sexuality.
But then, the word started popping up in new ways. During junior year I read Karley Sciortino’s book Slutever, which defines a slut as “someone who has no moral obstacle between themselves and their desire to enjoy sex.” That same year, a young woman named Samirah Raheem went viral after openly declaring that even virgins can be sluts because it’s all about “feeling empowered.”
Then, in my senior year of high school, I found Call Her Daddy, a saucy, salacious podcast hosted by two self-proclaimed sluts named Alex Cooper and Sofia Franklyn. These women lovingly address listeners as sluts and whores, offering sex tips and even telling them how to ask their partners to call them sluts in the bedroom. To say the least, my world was rocked. Women were obviously more sexually open and liberated than ever before, and “slut” wasn’t a universal insult like I’d thought it was. Instead, women were redefining the term and giving it a new kind of positive power.
Despite these constant progressive revisions to the definition of “slut” à la Linguistics 101, there are countless essays arguing for the word to be retired and not reclaimed. These authors say “slut” is a mere capitulation, a submission to systems which shame women for indulging in their sexuality. They ask, “How can it be subversive for women to define themselves using language which has been so historically harmful?”
To be fair, it’s true that slut-shaming hasn’t ridden off into the metaphorical sunset. I’m in college now, and I still hear boys calling girls “sluts” and “easy” behind their backs. But just because men are weaponizing the word doesn’t mean there isn’t power in women reclaiming and redefining it.
In fact, reclaiming “slut” can be revelatory. For some sexual violence survivors, it’s a coping mechanism; for girls in high school and college, it can be a newfound source of community or even pleasure. Over the past few years, I’ve found plenty of girls who celebrate their sluttiness. When telling me about her most recent conquests, my friend Remi, a 20-year-old editor living in LA, often tells me she’s a slut with a light, breezy laugh. My friend Monika, an Ivy League freshman, loves when her boyfriend calls her a slut in the bedroom.
These women are claiming the word on their own terms, and it’s working. Remi and Monika have robbed “slut” of its traditional power, refracting it through a kaleidoscope of autonomy and profound sexual empowerment. Because of this, both women agree the word doesn’t have the ability to hurt them as much as it might have before. “If some guy at a party called me a slut or something, I think I’d probably just laugh and say I know,” Monika told me. “They just can’t hurt me with it anymore.” So not only can reclaiming “slut” offer a personal sense of pride and community — it can lessen men’s ability to hurl the word at women and cause real damage. Obviously, the bigger problem lies in how our society treats sexual women — but reclaiming “slut” is certainly one step toward freedom.
The word “slut” shouldn’t be a dirty one, but one that’s celebrated. Whether being a slut means enjoying casual sex or feeling empowered by your body, I think every woman should decide for herself if and when she wants to take the word back and call herself a goddamn slut. She should decide what that word means for her.
As much as feminists might want the word to be retired so women can progress past sexual shame, “slut” doesn’t have to be universally negative; it doesn’t even have to be about sex. “Slut” can mean whatever women want it to mean, and letting them redefine and reclaim it isn’t going to halt feminism or prevent women from reaching their most fully realized selves. It’s true that we aren’t at a point yet where every woman across America can go around publicly calling herself a slut — but that doesn’t mean we have to keep the word confined to conversational whispers or the bedroom. Women should use “slut” on their own terms in a way that makes them feel good and empowered.
Me? Instead of censoring the way I talk or dress or post on Instagram, I might just buy a Slutever necklace.
Photo by Emma McMillen.
I am a yoga instructor and I take my job very seriously.
An instructor may just seem like a fitness-oriented job, but it’s a lot more intimate. It’s my job to make every single person in the room feel safe and comfortable, while also challenging students with different affirmative goals and themes they can hopefully learn to practice off the mat. While that description may sound dangerously similar to any other exercise franchise, like SoulCycle — there is an added layer of closeness in yoga.
We don’t have machines to run our practice: instead we guide students into getting to know their bodies and breath in a way that is, for many people, almost a spiritual experience. This is no small feat, especially considering everyone’s different physical abilities, experience, and even different levels of trust. Further, things like tailoring tone of voice, wording of queues, and especially physical adjustments to fit the demographic of each student is essential in building that trust.
In creating a safe space, gender becomes a component that often dictates the dynamics in the room. Just by looking around when I teach or even in class as a student, it’s plain to see that the majority of practitioners are female. After watching the Netflix documentary about Bikram Choudhury — founder and leader of the cult-like Bikram Yoga franchise — and his twisted empire resting on sexual harassment and a heinous abuse of power, I couldn’t help but wonder: how do male yoga instructors navigate gendered boundaries and build trust with female students?
Unfortunately, this disgusting and predatory behavior of Bikram Choudhury, though extreme, is not unlike the decades of disregarded patterns of unwanted touch and attention in the yoga community.
According to a New York Times article by Katherine Rosman titled “Yoga Is Finally Facing Consent and Unwanted Touch”, while in many professional fields where jobs involve touching people are usually regulated by the government, “yoga teachers are not, and there are no industry trade groups that police these issues.” In other words, when you walk into a yoga studio yoga instructors can “touch you as they see fit” without any governing bodies checking in to make sure it’s kosher. In this way, the issue of consent becomes less and less of a necessity.
Further, Rosman notes how the yoga community has a history of turning a blind eye to these issues. Similar to how Bikram was able to manipulate his loyal followers into ignoring his web of abuse and mistreatment, teachers in the community are reluctant to discredit those they see as “gurus.” Thus fueling the power dynamics between teacher and student, and “many teachers have built their businesses and personal brands in part from associating with these figures.” In a yoga class, without respect, trust, and consent, there is simply a person in a powerful position telling — in some cases, forcefully — someone else what to do with their body.
Nonetheless, as a female instructor my role as leader and physical adjuster is not read as nearly as sexualized or forceful as a male instructor’s.
Yes, I am still respectful, nurturing, supportive, and non-judgmental in order to create the safest and most comfortable yoga environment possible. However as a woman, I am seemingly non threatening and, even as the leader of the class, the power dynamics between teacher and student tend to be more equalized.
I talked to a male Vinyasa yoga instructor, Adam, about how his gender has shaped his teaching style and affected how he may customize his teaching voice. “If you’re watching this as an outsider who has no idea what yoga is, it looks like a pretty strange situation. For instance, it may be one male instructor and maybe twenty women in a room,” he told me. “They’re all moving their bodies and doing the physical positions that he’s calling out. That power dynamic needs to be constantly kept in consideration.”
Adam also noted the importance of not only keeping himself in check when it comes to these power dynamics, but also building trust so that students have space to do the same. According to him, while his gender doesn’t fundamentally change the way he would structure a class, he says, “I want to be cognizant of the different experiences that people have. As a man, as a white guy, as a straight guy, these are experiences that are mine and people in the room may have different ones.”
Adam’s unique identity as a teacher is then separate from his identity as a cis-gender, white male, as he “tries to incorporate an understanding of different perspectives” in class while still being himself. Additionally, he noted how even smaller aspects of his presence as a male instructor have to be tailored to make students more comfortable. Things like wearing certain clothing to teach versus to practice as a student require that extra thought, as Adam said he’ll sometimes wear leggings but will try to avoid “revealing clothing” or “those skin-tight leggings” when teaching. Adam said, “I need to create a safe and nurturing atmosphere. To make sure everyone is comfortable and can practice without worrying, it’s best to play it safe.”
Playing it safe, it seems, is the best way to approach finding the balance between being a male, being a leader, and respecting boundaries.
Wording and tone can also be read differently because of gender, which is something that Adam tries to be actively thinking about when he teaches. Even the way he may queue something needs to be considered when taking into account his role as a male instructor. Adam noted, for example, how a “strong willed, long-standing female instructor” may have more legroom to queue than a male instructor of the same reputation. A female instructor who has years of experience and a loyal following may be able to queue things bluntly with commands like “Do [insert pose]” or “Get into this position right now.”
On the other hand Adam, no matter how much experience he has or how many regulars come back to his classes, says he generally avoids “very strong commands” in his teaching unless he’s sure it’s appropriate. His classes are still physically challenging, but only because of the poses and exercises his queues, not because of how he queues it or because he’s forcing anyone to do it. Instead of commands, Adam chooses to consciously “offer a range of suggestions” and frame his classes in a way that he is merely a “guide” for students.
Physical adjustments are a whole other story when it comes to navigating people’s levels of trust and physical limits. Even as a female instructor who is often adjusting female students, I still am getting comfortable with the idea of touching strangers or students I don’t know outside the studio. Many times corrections involve rotating someone’s hips or tilting their pelvis, manually rolling open their shoulder or chest, or supporting their legs, hips, or midsection in a balancing pose. These areas of the body are quite personal and intimate, and places that many would be alarmed to have poked and prodded. Thus, consent becomes essential to the building of trust and that safe space. Unless a student in my class happens to be another instructor at the studio, no matter how well I know someone I always ask, “Do you mind if I adjust you?” before even moving towards them.
Consent in yoga creates a sense of respect for others’ bodies and boundaries that will ultimately help students feel like they are in control of their own practice.
I also discussed the importance of consent with Adam to explore the ways in which it takes on a deeper meaning for male instructors, especially considering the community’s history with unwanted touching in class. At times, even the verbal consent that I typically ask for may not cut it. When a male instructor comes up behind a student and asks if they want an adjustment, again we can see how power dynamics may affect how that student will answer. They may feel intimidated or pressured in the moment to say “yes,” especially in the middle of class where ‘everyone’ is getting adjusted and directed.
Adam then brought up how helpful his studio’s use of ‘consent chips’ has been for ensuring that students who are not comfortable with adjustments don’t have to worry about saying so on the spot. These chips have two sides: one gives consent to being adjusted, and the other says no, thank you to being touched. Adam explained how he’ll put one next to every student’s mat at the beginning of class with the ‘no, thank you’ side faced up indicating non-consent to begin with. That way, students start out the class opting out of physical adjustments, instead of starting with opting in and then feeling like they have no choice. Those who then want adjustments have the option of flipping their chip to the consenting side. Adam said that this system has helped him “give more adjustments in ways that are helpful to students because they have decided that they want to receive them.” Additionally, students are allotted the security that their mat will be a safe and uninterrupted space for them unless they indicate that they want the instructor to intervene.
Interestingly enough, Adam noted how he does not give savasana adjustments. Savasana is the final rest or meditation at the end of a yoga class where students are in stillness for several minutes with their eyes closed, and one might argue it is perhaps the most vulnerable and personal portion of class for most students. I myself have never given an adjustment in savasana, as Adam and I both agreed that there’s something invasive about touching someone who has their eyes closed. Even if their consent chip is flipped up for adjustments, I feel I would be interrupting someone’s personal peace by intervening in their meditation. Female or male, giving adjustments specifically in savasana seems to be based on instructor preference and teaching style.
Yoga, like many things in today’s world, is influenced by gender and instructors are therefore tasked with navigating the implications that their own gender identity has on their power in the studio. Though I am a female instructor and am inherently viewed as less demanding and intimidating, I still must go to great lengths to fine tune my teacher’s voice to fit the room and cater to the needs of students of differing levels and physical boundaries.
Considering this community’s past lack of recognition of sexual harassment and issues with abuses of power, it is then necessary for male instructors to take even more precaution in considering their role as gendered and the implications of that. Adam is one yoga instructor who recognizes the power dynamics that are constructed in an environment where a male leads a predominantly female group through physical postures. He’s taken the necessary steps to still create relationships of trust and respect with his students by being aware of his tone, wording, clothing choices, and always making consent a first priority in approaching physical adjustments. Unfortunately, the broader yoga community still has an immense amount of progress to make in addressing and reforming the oppressive and abusive nature of certain gendered circumstances in the studio.
That being said, my individual community and many others are some of the most supportive, nurturing, and positive groups of people I have ever been a part of, and teachers like Adam are the reason the yoga community continues to provide students with loving and safe spaces.
Gif by Ash Sta. Teresa.