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From Unclean to Reclaimed: The Curious Journey of the Word ‘Slut’

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Feb 13, 2020

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Image Credit: "Sex and The City 2"(2010)

Here’s a fun brain worm: think of a word that begins with sl that can’t be used to describe one of the Seven Deadly Sins. I can’t — my mind can only bring up slip, slide, slap, slow, sloth, slick, slovenly, slash, slump, slaughter, sloppy, slag, sleaze, slattern, and — slut. None of these words are meeting your parents anytime soon, let alone crossing the gates of Heaven. According to etymologist and critic Anatoly Liberman, the sl prefix often leads to a word developing negative connotations, via the influence of Old Germanic languages upon English. “The group sl– seems to imply the idea of filth in many parts of the Eurasian world.”

Filth is where ‘slut’ began its journey — In Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, a part of Chaucer’s celebrated Canterbury Tales, in which a man (The Host of the pilgrims) asks another man (the Yeoman) about yet another man, this one of higher stature yet dilapidated bearings (the Canon, or the lord), “Why is thy Lord so sluttish?” 

This was the year 1386, after which the word slut discovered it loved women better and twined up our legs much like a parasitic vine — until, by 1402, the Middle English phrase slutte meant an untidy, dirty, and slovenly woman. Soon, the word slut took shape as a masterful shamer of supposedly promiscuous girls and women, with the supposed promiscuity rap sheet stretching from sex to short skirts to chokers to selfies to who knows what other future benign offense one may commit to anger society. 

However, what’s interesting is that filth is where the word ‘slut’ continues to sting, though the word and its hard T-sound doesn’t quite bounce off the tongue with its trademark act-of-war whip crack anymore. Even in 2020, the year in which one can be a slut of anything, from poetry to art to bagels to Virgos to actual unabashed sluttery. In S1E4 of the current most beloved show of our times, when the titular Fleabag and her sister hear a group of men mournfully wail “SSSSSSLUUUUUTTTTTTSSSSSSSS,” it only takes Fleabag a beat to retort, “Yes?” Here, Fleabag can retort so, because she knows nobody will actually think her a slut in a negative way, what with her aristocratic neck and well-off parents and her personality itching to adopt a deviance she will never be shamed for. Fleabag is perhaps the greatest example of how the word ‘slut’ is not merely a misogynist phenomenon — its also primed to prey on those without class privilege.


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In the real world, the SlutWalk played an important role in the initial taming of the word’s victim-blaming barbs. A protest movement ranging across countries, SlutWalk called for the end of victim-blaming sexual harassment and assault survivors by virtue of what they look like and what they wore when they were assaulted or harassed. The movement swelled to challenge a variety of victim-blaming exercises, including the enforcement of dress codes upon schoolgirls.

However, even though the word slut appears acceptably de-fanged, slut-shaming, or shaming women for engaging in behavior judged to be promiscuous, is definitely alive and kicking. Leora Tanenbaum, who has extensively written about slut-shaming in the digital age, told The Daily Beast, “I’m not trying to censor language. 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.”

The problem isn’t in what movements like SlutWalk and the larger conversations around them choose to fight, it is what they choose to ignore. Modern feminist reclamation of the word ‘slut’ intends to fight the control the slur exerts over women’s sexuality. The problem is, when we hear a historically misogynistic slur, we immediately think this is a man berating a woman. However, according to research by sociologists Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton, women are as likely to use slurs like ‘slut’ to enforce both literal and social class barriers for women. Affluent women were more likely to engage in sexual experimentation and not get slut-shamed, while less affluent women were more likely to be slut-shamed by other women even if they weren’t as sexually active.


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This is why we must pay attention to why the slur historically referred to dirty, unclean women — it specifically calls out women’s poverty as compared to their sexual proclivity. ‘Slut’ as a verbal attack will remain alive and kicking unless we recognize that the slur dips as heavily into its ability to otherize as it does on its ability to shame our legs shut. In her essay for Al Jazeera, journalist and activist Melissa Gira Grant writes, “As it turns out, there are no sluts; there are only girls to keep out of the party and, by extension, to remove from social influence. Without fail, she was always someone else, someone other,” adding, “Like its cousin, ‘whore,’ a slut is never about what you did there and with whom you did it but rather what is said about you.” 

This is where protest movements like SlutWalk both succeed and fail. The movement, which drew its power from being able to dress their sluttiest best — in outfits that showed off skin and sexuality — did attempt to get across how women’s outward presentation makes no difference. But, it fails to take note of the origins of this outward presentation, the women who suffer such slut-shaming the most, and so, the classist nature of who gets to get away with promiscuity and who doesn’t. SlutWalk’s sincere attempt at reclamation did give the slur the curse of commonality, and so, killing its bite. But, the hateful sentiment that once powered the slur still remains alive and will continue to, unless we recognize that half the battle lies with us women and our commitment to intersectionality.

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Written By Aditi Murti

Aditi Murti is the senior culture writer at The Swaddle, with an interest in cultural analysis, environment, and the science of mental health.  Write to her using aditi@theswaddle.com, or find her on social media @aditimurti.

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