Let’s Talk About Sluts


I saw an article today that made me think, and that I thought might help stimulate some conversation around here.

The article, in the New York Times, is about the change in use of the word “slut” and its attendant meaning(s). I didn’t really get labeled this way when I was in high school, and I’m not entirely sure why, since among my close girl friends I was definitely the most adventurous one (which actually wasn’t that adventurous, but everything’s relative I guess). But I always said that I didn’t believe in that word, that women had just as much right to pursue such activities as men, and that I personally wouldn’t use it. Yet, I know that the sexual double standard persists and that it was all around me in high school, college, and law school especially. I was once called a whore in no uncertain terms by a jealous male “friend” who saw me leave the bar with another guy whom I had met that night — at age 27 he hadn’t gotten beyond such, in my thinking, juvenile characterizations.

Now that I think of it, I am sure that numerous people have thought of me in this way, and it just never affected me much, notwithstanding that I have always been vocal about opposing the word. It has always seemed to me that the slut concept is inextricably tied to low self-esteem, and there’s a whiff of the idea that girls do these things in a misdirected attempt to be liked or loved, rather than because they want to. Which is its own double standard. Personally, I never participated in anything I wasn’t interested in doing, notwithstanding that there were psychological rewards (and usually also detriments) in addition to physical ones. And I was always mystified by the use of terms like “give it away” that implied that having sex diminished a person’s worth, that there was some quantity that could be used up and after which one’s claim to personhood was spent. How draconian, and how absurd, that seems.

Without going scriptural on me, what does this “slut” concept mean to you all? How do you make sense of it? Do you view people (women or men, or both) in certain ways if you know things about their sexual histories? Envy, pity, contempt, disgust, interest, indifference? What do these reactions say about us and how do they relate to the choices we have made in our own lives?

There are also tons of ancillary questions, like how you discuss your history with your significant other, whether you share numbers and details or keep everything to yourself, whether such revelations cause jealousy or anger and why, and of course, how the next generation is dealing with these issues. And in a broader sense, why sexuality has always been such an incredibly fraught issue that seems to bring out such extreme reactions from asceticism one one end of the spectrum (I always think of St. Augustine) to libertinism. And, of course, why libertinism is only acceptable in men. So, what do you all think?


24 Responses to “Let’s Talk About Sluts”

  1. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Okay, Terry, try googling articles titled, “Let’s Talk About Sluts” and “Old West History Trivia,” and I feel confident the Houseflies wins this one hands down! Both on the same day!

    This could be an interesting discussion, but I’m not sure I’m the best one to kick it off. Anyone else willing to get the “real” comments started?

  2. Sandi Says:

    I was thinking that people were so thrown by the title that it was too daunting to respond. I had considered posting an article about gay marriage, which definitely has a track record on this blog of being hot-button, but then I saw the slut article and thought it was a really interesting topic that hadn’t been addressed directly before. Come on people, I know you’re not shy!

  3. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Keep yer britches on, fer cryin’ out loud. (Yes, yes. I know.) Give a brother a little time to collect his thoughts, yo.

  4. Capt MidKnight Says:

    I thought the first thing I should do, before trying to comment in some sort of reasonable way on your post, was to look up the definition of the term. When I used an on line dictionary, it returned the following:

    1. slut. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000.
    …promiscuous. b. A woman prostitute. 2. A slovenly woman; a slattern. Middle English slutte.sluttish -ADJECTIVEsluttish·ly -ADVERBsluttish·ness -NOUNslutty -ADJECTIVE…

    What was interesting, however, was that it led to another entry, stating that “slut” was used in defining another word – “mistress.” It was actually the “Usage Note,” for mistress, given below, which caught my eye. I thought you’d like to know that someone else has noticed the great “gender imbalance” in the number and usage of such terms.

    English has no shortage of terms for women whose behavior is viewed as licentious, but it is difficult to come up with a list of comparable terms used of men. One researcher, Julia Penelope, stopped counting after she reached 220 such labels for women, both current and historical, but managed to locate only 20 names for promiscuous men. Murial R. Schultz found more than 500 slang terms for prostitute but could find just 65 for the male terms whoremonger and pimp. A further imbalance appears in the connotations of many of these terms. While the terms applying only to women, like tramp and slut, are almost always strongly negative, corresponding terms used for men, such as stud and Casanova, often carry positive associations. •Curiously, many of the negative terms used for women derive from words that once had neutral or even positive associations. For instance, the word mistress, now mainly used to refer to a woman who is involved in an extramarital sexual relationship, originally served simply as a neutral counterpart to mister or master. The term madam, while still a respectful form of address, has had sexual connotations since the early 1700s and has been used to refer to the owner of a brothel since the early 1900s.

    Maybe more later, if I can come up with anything coherent.

  5. Terry Austin Says:

    Nope. I Googled both topics — though, based on past experience, I wisely avoided the combo search phrase “wild west sluts” — and only found out that Sandi’s topic is also the title of a song (or maybe album?) by the Riot Grrls or somesuch.

    The good news is that Capt. Midknight has taught me some new words: sluttishly, sluttishness, slattern.

  6. Capt MidKnight Says:

    The good news is that Capt. Midknight has taught me some new words: sluttishly, sluttishness, slattern.

    Always glad to help.

  7. Terry Austin Says:

    I used every one of them tonight, appropriately or not, when I saw the Dodgers had Odalis Perez pitching to Albert Pujols in the 14th inning.

  8. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Should have brought in Rollie Fingers, which if we’re looking for some new names for male sluts, wouldn’t be such a bad suggestion.

  9. Mystique Free Says:

    I think of a “slut” as a woman who is sexually promiscuous.

    However, I also have an emotional response to the word – at the gut level, I think of a slut as someone who is sexually irresponsible.

  10. Al Sturgeon Says:

    I agree, Mystique. I think irresponsible is a very good word for it. Which leads us to what we mean by “irresponsible,” and I suspect it gets confusing from there.

    (Hey Juvenal, still collecting your thoughts over there?!)

    Without a doubt, I think the concept applies to both genders, and I suspect the fact that more words/attention are/is devoted to females than males in this regard has a lot to do with sexual history (Hey Cap’n, have you done much sex history research?!).

    I think Sandi is prepared to argue that historically women have been reduced to be of little use beyond sexual fulfillment for men, and maybe this is the reason. Regardless, I think we can all agree that a woman’s sexuality is valuable, and being irresponsible with something valuable isn’t a good thing.

    So I guess my contribution to the discussion is that I completely agree that sexual IN-equality gender-wise has long been the case, but that notwithstanding, both women and men ought to be “responsible” with their sexuality today, though our competing standards for defining responsibility would be interesting to discuss.

  11. Capt MidKnight Says:

    (Hey Cap’n, have you done much sex history research?!).

    I doubt very seriously if I could get that project approved by Mrs. Capt.

  12. juvenal_urbino Says:

    I’ve not had much time for thought-collecting, but Al’s most recent comment rattled a few loose.

    It seems fairly well established social history that the emphasis on female sexual purity for most of recorded human history is attributable to biological ignorance, awe at the mysteries of female fertility, and the family/clan/tribe organization of society for most of that history.

    Establishing clear lineage — who belonged to whom, who fathered whom — was incredibly important. In a world in which the distance between keeping one’s family/clan/tribe alive and seeing it starve was alarmingly short, nobody was taking on responsibility for children not clearly their own.

    Since the precise biology of sexual reproduction was a mystery, all they were sure of was that a man’s penis activated a woman’s fertility by supplying her with that man’s generative power. A new bride had darn well better be able to prove to her new husband that the only generative power in her blood was his. If she had some other man’s generative power inside her — IOW, if she (i.e., her blood) was polluted — how could her husband be sure the children she would bear were his and his alone? The only way he could be 100% sure was if she was “empty” (unpolluted) when he married her, and no other man’s generative power would ever be introduced.

    So, even for married women, you see rules for guaranteeing bloodlines, like the Israelite law I mentioned a while back, that if a woman sought to defend her husband from attack by grabbing the attacker’s genitals — one of the first things women are taught to do in modern self-defense classes — her hand must be cut off. Not because she’d been naughty, and not on some misguided theory that she might’ve enjoyed it, but to preserve the certainty of a pure bloodline: having touched another man’s penis, she might have become infected with that man’s generative power. Promptly cutting off the exposed hand assured her husband/family/clan/tribe that any future children would be her husband’s, “of” their clan, their kind, not the attacker’s.

    A woman’s value came to be almost reduced to her sexual purity (in a very literal sense, not a moral, metaphorical sense). Certainly, it was recognized that women had other highly valuable skills and traits, but without her sexual purity as a guarantee of bloodlines, none of those other things mattered.

    Over the centuries, mythological, religious, philosophical, and moral systems were developed to explain, reinforce, and propagate such rules. Sexual purity — meaning a literally unpolluted bloodline — became Sexual Purity — a heavy-duty moral metaphor with all kinds of cosmic and metaphysical implications.

    Eventually, virginity became a commodity; a valuable piece of personal property that could be lost or given away. A thing that’s value added to one’s value as a person. Once it was gone (lost or given away), the whole person was less valuable — of less worth. If virginity was the only value that person had to start with, then now she (almost always “she”) was worthless.

    Personally, I think all of this is morally dubious. In a sense, Al, I disagree with you that a woman’s (or a man’s) sexuality is “valuable.” A woman (or man) is valuable. Precious, in fact. Worth-y. This is true regardless of her (or his) sexuality. This value can’t be lost or given away, and nothing she (or he) does with her (or his) sexuality can reduce it.

    She (or he) certainly can use her (or his) sexuality immorally, and thereby do damage to others and self. However, such immorality does not affect her (or his) value at all. She (or he) hasn’t “given away” or “lost” value.

    (This rambling wordiness is what happens when I don’t collect my thoughts, btw. Apologies.)

  13. juvenal_urbino Says:

    On a more personal level, I value women’s sexuality but, like all things having to do with women’s thoughts and desires, find it completely opaque, so I don’t really know what to say about it.

    In general, I think we men like for women to use/express their sexuality in a way that makes us feel valued, special, and desirable. We want their sexuality open and ravenous with us, demure and inert to everyone else. (Presumably, these are the conflicting desires from men that women experience as the virgin/whore dilemma.) If they’re open and ravenous with lots of people, then what’s special about us? Nothing. (The fragile male ego rides again.)

    Come to think of it, what we want isn’t all that different from what men in ancient societies wanted. We still want to feel we’re the only one. Our reasons for it now may be more romantic and emotional, but what we want seems to be basically the same.

  14. Sandi Says:


    thanks for engaging. I thought this one was going to go by without any real conversation.

    All the stuff about biological children etc. is undoubtedly true … and I sympathize with what you say about wanting to feel special. I think the way to compartmentalize that is in terms of time … if you meet someone who had partners before they met you, then they can’t be blamed for having a life before you came along. I guess that’s the defense of serial monogamy. 🙂

    As for opacity: I think that there is no unified “female sexuality,” so for every woman you meet things have been different and unique. I think that my experiences are different from many of my friends, for example, in terms not only of when, where, and with whom, but also in terms of why — what motivated us. I will say this, though … I don’t think women have owned their sexuality well, maybe ever, but certainly not long enough to be able to be responsible with it for the most part. Drunk with new freedom, I think a lot of women make decisions that aren’t thoughtful or aren’t justifiable morally. And I don’t mean that right-wing, either, though to hear some tell it anyone who would question any woman’s sexual choices is no feminist, but then again I always was more like Catharine MacKinnon than Christie Hefner or Nadine Strossen. Speaking of making bad choices, check out the movie Closer if you haven’t seen it. I don’t think it offers a lot of answers, but it asks some interesting questions.

  15. Mystique Free Says:

    “I will say this, though … I don’t think women have owned their sexuality well, maybe ever, but certainly not long enough to be able to be responsible with it for the most part. Drunk with new freedom, I think a lot of women make decisions that aren’t thoughtful or aren’t justifiable morally.”

    I think this is true. I went from being told that sex was bad and I should save it for the man I married (Pentecostal) to an atmosphere where many women and men were openly promiscuous (UU).

    Earlier this year I tried to slog through Wendy Shallit’s book on Modest but she pissed me off so thoroughly it made me nearly sick to read about.

    What I’m not hearing right now, and what I would like to hear, is how to be fully responsible for my sexuality. I think that means making choices based on what is best for my body, mind, and spirit, not based on a religious institution, the desires of the man I’m dating, or what my friends all seem to think is acceptable, Sex and the City, or whatever. I’m no prude but I want to take care of myself. I watch women get into situations with men who don’t care about them and grieve for months. I do it myself.

    If no one else tells us what we “should” do, how do we learn to decide for ourselves, and to use our freedom wisely?

  16. Mystique Free Says:

    It really bugs me that I can’t edit the typos in my comments.

    I am not as stupid as I look!

  17. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Not me! I really AM as stupid as I look, and if you want to know how stupid that is, check out my webshots page album from our 80s Party last Saturday night (http://community.webshots.com/user/alsturgeon).

    Mystique brings up the question I think is most interesting. So we should be “responsible” for our sexuality – but who sets that standard?

    I’m a follower of Jesus, but that just about doesn’t say anything specific (since Jesus is used for different definitions of sexual responsibility).

    I guess the legal basis in regard to sex in America is “do no harm.”

    Who sets the standard to all of you out there? And what does that mean to you?

  18. Mystique Free Says:

    I guess the legal basis in regard to sex in America is “do no harm.”

    After thinking about my post for a while I think that I would have been more precise by saying I wished for more of a serious discussion (rather than instructions, as I implied) about responsible sexuality.

    I admit that I’ve been thinking about this in relation to women, and Al reminds me that it applies to everyone.

    In that vein – I DO have rules for how men should treat women. Things like “Don’t sleep with a girl right before you break up with her.” or “Don’t wait until after sleeping with her to mention that you don’t want a serious relationship with her,” or “When it’s really obvious that she likes you a lot and you know you don’t feel the same way – FFS – stop trying to get her into bed.”

    I have a feeling that the discussion here should be a tad more general and a bit less specific, though 😀

    I think it’s really hard to be responsible by taking care of yourself, and less difficult to be responsible by not hurting others (though I don’t think this is the case for everyone).

    And the other question is – what constitutes “harm”? Dating, romance, love and sex are always risky and we always risk hurt when we make ourselves vulnerable to look for love.

  19. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Good questions!

    I guess the American ideal is that you have the freedom to do what you want with your body as long as you don’t hurt someone else (which leads to obvious laws for rape at one extreme and no laws against private masturbation on the other).

    But in between the extremes, “hurt” or “harm” is a lot more fuzzy. What about adultery? Aren’t a lot of people hurt then? What about divorce, especially when there are children? I think there is empirical data to back up some harm there…

    Is the standard simply relegated to physical harm? I don’t think so – what about public decency laws?

    I don’t know what an agreed-upon standard should be for being sexually responsible. Sex isn’t portrayed as a simply religious activity, so religious standards won’t seem to fly from a legal standpoint.

    To quote the late, great Michael Lasley, I have no point.

    (NOTE: Is it ironic that, when commenting on an article titled, “Let’s Talk About Sluts,” the word verification I must now type is yrhor?)

  20. Sandi Says:

    Al, as to who sets the standard … that’s a hard question to answer because in the end it’s all pretty subjective. In point of fact, though, it’s really the culture you live in that sets the standard; we then either conform to or deviate from it. I agree with your “do no harm” rationale, but sometimes it’s hard to know in advance whether an action will cause harm after the fact.

    For me, the standard came from culture, at least when I was in high school. I felt like it was understood that I was supposed to be out there experiencing things, and people who didn’t were a little square. (The idea of abstinence until marriage would NOT have played well at my high school, although I understand it does in some places, which shows how variable this all is).

    I also learned from somewhere that sex equaled acceptance of the physical self (i.e., if someone wanted to have sex with you it meant you were not too ugly to live). As someone who grew up ugly, I had several later experiences that were about nothing much more than that I wanted to be thought of as attractive. I suspect it is the same for some other women. Unfortunately, this focus on wanting to be accepted (acceptable) physically leads one to pay less attention to accepting oneself, and the entire mental/emotional/spiritual side. It’s hard to concentrate on that when you’re a teenager, I guess. But it’s obvious to me now that having sex in order to feel attractive is not a good idea. And yet, it’s frankly been hard for me to develop any other reason for it. I guess that’s what my best friend and I call a “therapy issue.” 🙂

  21. juvenal_urbino Says:

    I dunno. That doesn’t seem like such an inappropriate function for sex to perform, Sandi. Provided a) it does help one along toward that fuller self-appreciation you spoke of, and b) the other party isn’t hurt in the process. And even point A isn’t really an ethical concern; more of a practical one (i.e., having sex is not going to help that person solve their problem).

    Point B is where I seem to differ from the direction in which Mystique’s comments point. Although I agree with all those concerns about oneself, I don’t think one can have a meaningful sexual ethics that is purely or predominately self-regarding. It takes two to tango, and sexual ethics must be concerned with both parties. Two “do no harm” questions must be asked: will I be harmed? will s/he be harmed? Both have to be kept in view, in roughly equal measure, I think.

    It’s probably safe to say that it has historically been the case that when women have gone off the sexual tracks, so to speak, it’s been primarily due to lack of attention to the first question. For men, it’s been (and remains) the latter.

    I think things have changed quite a bit over the past couple of generations, though. Women of all ages have learned/realized they need to have the self-respect to give the first question more attention, but it seems that that extra attention has come by giving the second question less attention. Sandi and Mystique, feel free to set me straight, but women seem to be in sort of a transitional state — sort of a sexual adolescence. (We men, of course, have always been sexual adolescents, so it’s not so much transitional for us.) Women are no longer partner-oriented to the exclusion of self (a good thing), still working out just what it means to be more self-regarding (an understandable thing), and in the effort, have lost sight of their partner(s) perhaps a little too much (an unfortunate thing).

    I’ve been kinda flip about men in all this, but we obviously need to pay better attention to the partner question. And the shift in women’s sexuality is forcing us to, in some degree.

    The upshot is, both sexes are sort of up in the air right now. There aren’t really any social structures to help guide our sexual ethics. The old ones were built on women only thinking about their partner and men only thinking about themselves; they fell apart when that was no longer the case. And we don’t have any new ones yet, because neither sex has even figured out how to ask both questions, much less how to bring our answers together, much less has their been time for new social structures to develop around those new understandings.

    I remember a remark from Shelby Foote’s book on Gettysburg (that’s for you, Cap’n), that the fighting in a particularly choked and rocky thicket called “Devil’s Den” was so intense and became so confused on the difficult terrain, that a soldier trying to figure out what he was supposed to do was as likely to hear orders coming from a Private as from a General. Nobody knew what was going on any better than anybody else.

    I think our current situation is like that. Everything is so tangled, confused, and disorganized right now, nobody knows what’s going on any better than anybody else. There are no Generals carrying institutional knowledge from the past that can guide us lowly, er, Privates through this new terrain we’ve marched onto. We’re on our own. We either keep slogging through the confusion with the hope we’ll eventually arrive somewhere better, or we go back to exactly where we were before.

    Given all that’s happened in the last 40 years — and before that, with the birth of birth control — it’s hard for me to imagine we’ll ever go back where we were before. Nor do I think it’d be a particularly good thing if we did. So I guess we — the current generation, and perhaps several more to come — will just have to find our own way through the thickets as best we can, and live with the confusion and discomfort.

    Or we could all just never have sex.

  22. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Wow. That’s really good stuff, JU.

    I’ll just be quiet now.

  23. Mystique Free Says:

    Two “do no harm” questions must be asked: will I be harmed? will s/he be harmed? Both have to be kept in view, in roughly equal measure, I think.

    Actually, I would agree with you. I can see how my post sounds rather one-sided, but that’s just bad writing on my part 🙂

    Or we could all just never have sex.

    G_d forbid!!

  24. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Dang. I was hoping somebody was going to correct me with a more optimistic reading of the situation.

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