Thoughts on SlutWalk: Can “Slut,” Like “Queer,” Be Reclaimed?

Can we reclaim “slut” as a positive term?

Sophie Jones has an interesting commentary on SlutWalk, criticism thereof, and the ensuing “feminist debate about the politics of linguistic subversion” at The F-Word.

She starts by tackling those feminists who criticized SlutWalk as a misguided attempt to promote the “right to be called ‘slut.'” Jones writes: “Some women argue that SlutWalk is just an expression of what Nina Power has called Feminism™, in which gender equality is rebranded as the right to buy whatever you want on the way to your burlesque class, whether it’s a diamond-encrusted vibrator or a pair of effing shoes.” I, like many SlutWalk supporters, have been frustrated by this misunderstanding of how and why the term is being used. That said, I’m also in complete feminist support of burlesque classes, vibrators, and “fuck-me shoes.” There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be sexual or sexy — it’s a woman’s right and still not an invitation to rape.

Jones sums this issue up as “a clear case of these writers simply misinterpreting the mission of Slut Walk, which is not a protest ‘for the right to be called ‘slut’ but a protest for the right to dress however you want free of the presumption you are ‘asking for it’.” Then we move on to more interesting questions: even if the point of SlutWalk isn’t about reclaiming the word “slut” — can we? and should we?

The first thing that sprang to my mind was the reclamation of the word “queer” by the LGBT rights movement. I identify as queer and am in strong support of the term “queer rights” as an inclusive term for the movement that avoids the alphabet soup and artificial divisions between communities. Of course, the reclamation of the term “queer” has also been beset by controversy, and not everybody has embraced the term. But it has made significant inroads with strong supporters — could “slut” go the same way?

Certainly, the term has a lot of baggage and negative connotations. But “queer,” as a former hate term, came with a lot of baggage itself (not all of which has been shed yet for many people).

A reclamation of the word “slut” would be a step for sexual liberation, for recognizing that the negative connotations of the term rely on the policing of women’s bodies and sexuality. Essentially, slut is used for a woman who is judged to have sex “too much” with “too many different people” — but if we accept that a woman has the right to have as much sex as she wants with as many partners as she wants (consensually and safe, of course), then the term can mean something along the lines of “sexually liberated” or “enjoys having a healthy sex life.”

I believe that reclaiming and rejecting the term “slut” can both be valid feminist stances. It remains to be seen which way will win out — I hope the debate on this will proceed on respectful lines and with a real attempt at understanding. Yet those with a visceral reaction against SlutWalk, especially to the point of strongly misunderstanding how the term is actually being used in this case, might examine how they think about language and whether “slut” really needs to be utterly banished from feminist vocabulary. I’ll definitely be thinking about this language dilemma myself.

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