Who You Calling “Slut”?

“When you judge someone, it doesn’t define the person you’re judging – it defines you.”
Tulisa Contostavlos (story in The Guardian)

A few months ago I had a Twitter exchange with a woman in the tech industry, who wrote that girls the age of her teenage son should not be allowed dress like “skanks”. I assumed it was her son who defined them thus, and gently suggested that he should be taught not to use such terms. She replied that it was herself, not her son, who made this judgement. Her son, she added, being a teenager, was happy for them to dress that way.

I resisted the impulse to argue, because I may have to deal with this woman professionally someday. But it saddens and angers me that so many are prepared to pass judgement on other women based on their mode of dress and their (real or perceived) social and sexual comportment.

I’ve lived in places where women are judged far more harshly, and consequences for “transgression” can be severe. In Bangladesh, I was appalled that most of women on the street – and they were few – were covered head to toe in black burqas, only their eyes barely visible through black mesh. Though I was a skinny, innocent 14 year old, uninteresting to the average male gaze in my own country, in Bangladesh I didn’t feel safe, exposed to the eyes of men who assumed that any woman not completely covered up was somehow sexually available. So I dressed conservatively, by American standards (covered to the ankles – in tropical heat), and never went out alone.

Once I took a bicycle rickshaw somewhere with a woman friend. We were puzzled as to why the driver was pedaling so erratically, stopping and starting and weaving all over the road. We finally realized that he was masturbating furiously through his lunghi – apparently irresistibly turned on by the sight of our (not very) naked flesh – or by whatever fantasies and assumptions he entertained about unchaperoned foreign females. Had I or my friend been alone with him, we might have been in danger. By our own cultural norms we were modestly dressed: long skirts or trousers, loose, high-necked blouses. But those same clothes, in the eyes of the rickshaw driver, branded us as available sexual objects:  our hair, faces, and arms were uncovered! Obviously, we were sluts, and lucky that we got no worse than a display of public masturbation.

In some countries, particularly those under Islamic law, it’s considered sluttish behavior for a woman to ride in a car or speak with a man who is not a relative, and punishments can be severe. Many girls worldwide have been murdered by their own families for “dishonoring” them by falling in love with the “wrong” men.

So, to define a girl or woman as a “skank” or “slut” is not just insulting: it implies a threat of physical harm as punishment for her “transgressive” behavior. Even in America, how many times have we heard – even from authority figures – that a woman “deserved what she got” because she was in the wrong place, dressed the wrong way, behaved provocatively? When you call a woman a slut, you have judged and condemned her to… whatever she gets.

Most Americans reading this were probably shocked and disgusted at the rickshaw driver’s behavior I described, but your definition of “slut” comes from your culture, just as much as his did. I don’t necessarily agree with any of you. Actually: your right to have an opinion ends where my body begins.

If you think you’re more civilized or enlightened than that rickshaw driver was, then it’s time for you to stop judging girls and women based on their dress or sexual behavior. Who a woman has sex with is none of your damned business. The idea that it might be comes from the notion that women are property, whose ability to bear children must be kept safe for a socially-approved man.

Legally and culturally, most of the people likely to read this page should be well past that. It therefore follows that you should not be using words like “slut” to threaten, shame, control, and silence women. Or you’re really not so different from that illiterate, ignorant rickshaw driver on the streets of Bangladesh.

 

Thanks to Brendan for insightful comments during the writing of this piece.

further reading:

2 thoughts on “Who You Calling “Slut”?

  1. ty_a

    I stumbled on this blog from joyent > twitter > here.

    This is a well thought out position. I have experience myself in Muslim countries where the women are covered head to toe. The explanation they give is that they are assuring the sanctity of women by covering them. Essentially what they are doing is taking away every form of self expression in an effort to “protect” them. It’s all BS of course because the women in those places have no real safety, as they are more or less chattel. What’s saddest of all is that it’s really the women (though brainwashed) that enforce those rules. It’s culturally enforced self-attack.

    I’d really recommend watching this Vice News short film on bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan for someone that is unaware to really understand the role of women in Muslim cultures:

    http://www.vice.com/vice-news/bride-kidnapping-in-kyrgyzstan-full-length

    Things are quite different in the West of course. I think in visual film terms on lots of things. I think that one of the best examples of how things have changed is if you watch a film like Coma (1978). The protagonist is a female surgeon, during the film (and novel) she is trying to solve unexplained deaths. Even though she is obviously capable enough to become a surgeon, all the men think that she is hysterical and imagining all the things she’s discovered. So to a contemporary viewer, the stereotypes might have made more sense. To a modern viewer I think that the behavior of the men in the movie would be seen as pretty stupid. Shows how things have changed in just a generation or two.

    Anyway, good article to read. Hope I’ve added something.

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