Saturday 27 May 2017

Slutwalks: Sounding off on being called a slut

Reclaiming the word through 'SlutWalks' is all very well, but do we really want to march for our right to be 'sluttish' when it's simply a way of curtailing women's behaviour?

Slut walk protestors
Slut walk protestors

Jennifer O'Connell

Reclaiming the word through ‘SlutWalks’ is all very well, but do we really want to march for our right to be ‘sluttish’ when it’s simply a way of curtailing women’s behaviour?

The first time I heard it -- or heard it directed at me -- I was 12. I was on my way home from school. A group of girls in the uniform of another school were walking behind me, giggling, when suddenly one of them shouted it.

The word hung in the air between us like a missile. The shock of hearing, spoken aloud, something I'd only ever seen scrawled on the toilet walls made my cheeks burn. I think it shocked them too: the giggling stopped and they took off round the corner.

The next time was during my second year at college.

It was late one night, and I was at a party in someone's flat. When I went to the bathroom, an older boy I'd been talking to -- a popular and, as far as I knew, well-liked rugby player; the kind who was so cool he could get away with talking about his mum and wearing navy jumpers to parties -- followed me.

When I came out, the lazy smile he'd been wearing had vanished. Without saying anything, he grabbed me by the arm and pulled me into a bedroom across the corridor, wedging his massive shoulder against the door as he grappled with the key.

When my flatmate hammered on the door an eternity of seconds later, he leaned into my ear and spat the word out, before he turned the key and let me go.

Slut.

As an expletive, it's more socially acceptable than the f-word -- witness the lack of asterisks necessitated by its publication. It also lacks the intrinsic shock value of the c-word. And yet it somehow manages to be a more personal, more violent form of verbal assault.

The c-word doesn't imply any particular knowledge of, or judgement on, your sexual proclivities. Sometimes, it can serve as a useful profanity, when none of the alternatives seem quite emphatic enough.

But slut is different. It's not a word you'd use if you caught your finger in the door, or scream at the ref if Ireland gets knocked out of the Rugby World Cup.

Slut's more personal than that, a word that says as much about the giver as it does about the receiver. Little slut. Dirty slut. Cheap slut. Fat slut. Nasty slut.

Germaine Greer and the creators of 'The Vagina Monologues' urged women to reclaim the c-word: by using it as often as possible, we would denude it of its power to shock. It didn't really work.

But now a group of Irish women are hoping to reclaim slut. Next Wednesday, the first Irish SlutWalk will take place in Galway.

SlutWalks were conceived in Canada after an idiotic cop made a remark about how if women wanted to avoid being raped, they shouldn't dress like sluts. They have been held across the US, and in places as far afield as Africa, Sweden and Australia. Rumour has it one may be held in Tehran.

The Irish event, run by the NUIG Students Union and supported by the Rape Crisis Network, is advertised across social media sites using the slogan, "Society teaches 'Don't get raped' rather than 'Don't Rape'".

That's all very worthwhile, and yet the idea of the SlutWalk still troubles me.

It goes without saying that no woman should ever be told that she must wear a particular type of clothing, or watch what she drinks, in order to 'avoid being raped'.

It also goes without saying that as long as the legal system is confused about this, then it's worth our while shouting about it.

But do we really need to create a space where it's once again acceptable -- even commendable -- to use the word 'slut' about women? Are we really ready to reclaim it?

Slut is a word that is used to hurt, embarrass, confuse, diminish and blame. It is the word that a 72-year-old Catholic priest used to denounce Sonia O'Sullivan because she'd had a child out of wedlock.

Until that changes, I won't be calling myself a slut, and I'd rather you didn't call me one either. But that's only one aspect of the SlutWalks movement that bothers me.

I don't go along with the notion that women going to lapdancing clubs are giving one in the eye to misogyny, or that wearing the Playboy bunny logo is some kind of brilliant post-modern joke.

For the same reason, I don't think struggling into a pair of leather hotpants makes me a more radical feminist -- although I do have leather hotpants that I love for myriad reasons, none of which is to make a political statement.

And so I can't follow the reasoning that equates dressing provocatively with liberation.

Do we really want to march for our right to be 'sluttish', when sluttishness is simply a censure dreamt up by society as a way of curtailing women's behaviour? I don't see men marching for their right to be selfish bastards, do you?

I reckon if we are going to reclaim the word slut, then we should at least do it properly. Let's start by stripping it of all its nasty connotations and return it to its original form.

Slut used to mean a dirty, slovenly or unkempt woman. Trawl back further in time and you'll find Chaucer even used it to refer to an untidy man, while the diarist Samuel Pepys used it fondly, to refer to his servant Susan as "a most admirable slut, and pleases us mightily".

A true slut, then, would never dream of ironing her husband's shirts, much less starching them; a true slut 'washes' her child's school uniform with a baby wipe (remarkably effective -- you should try it), and believes dust-mite exposure is good for the immune system.

In the 1960s, British fashion journalist Katharine Whitehorn made one of the first attempts to reclaim the word slut when she wrote a column in which she asked: "Have you ever taken anything out of the dirty-clothes basket because it had become, relatively, the cleaner thing? Changed stockings in a taxi?"

If so, Whitehorn said, "you are one of us: the miserable, optimistic, misunderstood race of sluts".

Her column opened the floodgates: hundreds of relieved women wrote in, confessing to having wiped the kitchen table with a kitten, or having used their husband's shirt buttons to hold up their suspender belts.

Whitehorn, it seems, did more to advance women's position than any amount of dressing in fishnets and satin bodices could ever do.

Hers is the kind of slut I could aspire to be. A struggling, miserable, optimistic and misunderstood domestic slattern.

Who am I kidding? There's no aspiring involved.

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