Lingua Franca

‘Slut’ Author’s War on Slut-Shaming

Does condemning ‘slut-shaming’ too simplistically paint women as victims of a culture that sexualizes them, asserting that no matter how much they feel empowered by their sexuality, they aren’t?

02.05.15 10:45 AM ET

The term “slut-shaming” has become a nagging fixture in mainstream media. Whether splashed in panicky headlines or embedded in feminist think pieces about our patriarchal culture’s tendency to condemn women for embracing their sexuality, “slut-shaming” is everywhere.

This week the pervasive term hit bookstore shelves, too, with the publication of Leora Tanenbaum’s I Am NOT a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet, in which the author argues that young women today are being slut-shamed more than ever before.

Tanenbaum defines slut-shaming as “a method of policing a girl or woman for being inappropriately sexual and deviating from normative femininity.”

In the 1990s, Tanenbaum coined the term “slut-bashing” to raise awareness around what she believed was invidious harassment and bullying of girls’ perceived or actual sexual behavior, culminating in her groundbreaking book, Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation.

Nearly two decades later, Tanenbaum revisits the issue in her new book, drawing on interviews with more than 55 adolescent girls and women in their 20s to illustrate the word’s ubiquity as an often dangerous pejorative.

Indeed, some of their stories are chilling: Mia, a white 29-year-old who lives in Nevada, recalls being labeled a slut (despite not being sexually active) on a petition that circulated her middle school, signed by 200 students who agreed that she “deserved to die.” Others are reminiscent of stories that have been widely reported in the media: photos posted on insidious revenge porn sites and pervasive harassment leading to tragic suicides.

All of which is to say that slut-shaming is indeed a serious issue, made even worse by social media and the knee-jerk compulsion to brand someone a slut on Facebook or Twitter.

The stories Tanenbaum compiles are the meat of the book and make it worth reading. Tanenbaum also devotes considerable attention to sex positive feminists’ efforts to reappropriate the term “slut,” concluding that this isn’t possible in a society that objectifies and sexualizes women.

“Within the culture of slut-shaming and the sexual double standard, sexual equality does not exist and young females’ efforts to subvert the system are turned against them,” she writes. “For women to be truly safe, we must eradicate the use of the term ‘slut.’”

And this is where Tanenbaum’s argument becomes flimsy, primarily because it paints women as victims of a culture that sexualizes them, asserting that no matter how much they feel empowered by their sexuality, they aren’t. Tanenbaum is looking at the bigger picture, but what woman wants to be told she can’t own her sexuality within the confines of a patriarchal society? And why must we always blame society and culture? The issue of empowerment as it pertains to a woman’s sexuality is a subjective one: a woman inhabits, and takes responsibility for, her own sexuality and sexual power.

“I would argue that the word ‘slut’ has already largely been reclaimed,” says Karley Sciortino, who parlayed her popular blog Slutever into a sex and relationships column on Vogue.com, disagrees. “I see it reappropriated in powerful and funny ways by women all the time, from the women behind the Slut Walk movement to Amy Schumer and Chelsea Handler.”

But Tanenbaum writes that even when women call each other “sluts” in a lighthearted manner, whether in their dorm rooms or in the office, they’re perpetuating a culture of slut-shaming and rape culture. (“When this behavior is normalized, so is sexual assault.”)

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She also makes the dubious argument that being raped is a “common consequence of being labeled a ‘slut’ or a ‘ho,’” without citing any research besides her own to back up the claim.

“Sadly we don’t have any social science looking at slut-shaming at all,” Tanenbaum says in an interview with The Daily Beast.

Tanenbaum recognizes the contradictions in her feminist rhetoric: on one hand she is sex-positive, she says, and supports individual women who have reclaimed the word ‘slut,’ and on the other she thinks the word is too fraught, and too often a pejorative.

“I’m not trying to censor language,” Tanenbaum says. “But at the same time I’m concerned. I look around campus and every single day we have a new report of an act of sexual assault on a college campus, and that gives me pause. The fact is that most people don’t use words like ‘slut’ and ‘ho’ the way we in the feminist in-group use it. So I’m asking people to think about what these words mean and how they can be used to shame other people.”

She is right, of course, and is writing with the maternal intention of helping young women navigate their sexuality in a world of sexual double standards, where men are praised for their promiscuity and women shamed for the same.

“We can think about whether it makes sense for feminists on a large-scale, strategic level to embrace words like ‘slut’ and ‘ho,’” Tanenbaum says. “But right now I don’t think it does make sense.”

Still, no matter how open-minded she claims to be, there’s something dated about Tanenbaum’s thesis. It doesn’t help that we overuse the word ‘shaming’ whenever we discuss women’s bodies and behaviors, reducing them to a slew of made-up synthetic compounds: ‘fat-shaming,’ ‘body-shaming,’ ‘skinny-shaming,’ ’mom-shaming’.

Our bodies and behaviors are valid matters to discuss, but when women (it is almost always women) use one of those ‘shaming’ constructs against an adversary in debate, it effectively shuts that discussion down—never mind atomizing any critical nuance.