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.