Dating, Relationships, & Sex, Race & Politics, Theory & Essay

Why Is “Slut” Still A Bad Word?

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock or one of Eddy Curry’s areolas for the past week, you’ve undoubtedly heard about the controversy involving Rush Limbaugh and Georgetown University student Sandra Fluke.

(Abridged version: During an unofficial Congressional hearing about contraception last Thursday, Fluke argued that birth control should be covered by health insurance at religious institutions, testifying that students at Georgetown pay as much as $1,000 a year for contraception. Limbaugh spoke about this on his radio show the next day, and referred to Fluke as a “slut.” Predictably, the hundreds of thousands of different angles you can take on this news story has given everyone associated with media a never-ending hard on since it broke.)

Now, Limbaugh is an disgustingly wealthy man (seriously!!!) who’s amassed his fortune by being very good at being a syphilitic chickenhawk, so him saying nasty things about a young woman is about as “dog bites man”-ey as a story can get.

Yet, in the past couple days, as I read Limbaugh getting publicly pimp-slapped by President Obama and clicked on several different articles written by several very serious people accusing him of “slut shaming,” one question kept popping up in my head: Why is “slut” a bad word?

Now, this question is (obviously) rhetorical. I know exactly why slut is considered to be such a pejorative term. I also don’t mean in any way to suggest that Fluke shouldn’t have been offended, angered, hurt, and saddened by Limbaugh using a word like that to describe her.

Thing is, my question isn’t about Limbaugh or Fluke or the contraceptive controversy. (Please re-read that). It’s not even about the term itself as much as what it’s used to describe: a person (woman or man) who has (or had) many sexual partners.

If, as many progressive, open-minded and liberal people say they believe, having numerous sexual partners isn’t a thing that a person needs to be ashamed of, why is there still such a negative connotation attached to the words commonly used to describe people who fit that definition?

I know that words like slut and ho and skank are used to shame, but if the acts themselves aren’t shameful, how are those words still given that power, and why haven’t we thought of any replacements?

You can argue that the mere act of creating a word to describe a person’s sexual activity is judgmental in itself. That argument breaks down, though, when you realize that not only do we have words to describe all human activity, we have also have considerate (and occasionally condescending) euphemisms for any terms that may have any type of negative connotation. We all know that “seasoned” means “old” and “plus-sized” means “fat,” but we still regularly incorporate the code words because they just sound less derisive.

Promiscuity, though, has no such euphemism. There’s no generally accepted “kind” way of saying “slutty.” Perhaps someone reading this can, but I can’t think of a way a person can reference someone having a much larger than usual amount of sexual partners¹ and it not come across as potentially (and likely) incendiary. I’ve heard people ironically refer to themselves or their friends as “slut” or “ho,” but once you remove the irony and the tongue-in-cheekness, it always stings (or is meant to sting).²

I wonder if this is because, despite what we might publicly say, we — men, women, liberals, conservatives, feminists, womanists, and bigamists alike — all still kind of feel that there is something off with a person who sleeps around. I don’t know. I do know, though, that it looks like I have no answers to that rhetorical question.

Maybe one of you might. if promiscuity isn’t a bad thing, why do you think that every single term used to describe a promiscuous person has such an unquestionably negative connotation? Basically, if being a “slut” isn’t a bad thing, why is “slut” still such a bad word? And, since it’s still a shitty word, why haven’t we thought of a word or even just a euphemism to replace it?

¹”Much larger than usual amount of sexual partners” is definitely relative. 

²There’s an obvious parallel here between “slut/ho” and “nigger.” No further thoughts, just pointing that out

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB. He is also a contributing editor for EBONY.com. He lives in Pittsburgh, and he really likes pancakes. Reach him at damon@verysmartbrothas.com. Or don't.

  • http://www.twitter.com/chellziswinning Chellz

    But promiscuity IS a bad thing. so all words associated with it are bad and there (and likely will never be) soft euphemisms to describe tramps, scip scaps and scalliwags. lbs

  • Stars

    Think of someone saying this to you…….I just got through wiping the come off yo mama’s back! She’s the best SLUT I’ve ever f$#ked. THAT’S WHY IT’S A BAD WORD. Unless you VALUE a woman, that word is bad. It’s socially acceptable for men to this but not women you want to marry or display in public as important to you.

  • @1SouthernGirl

    Who’s to say that young woman has/has many partners??

  • Maximillian

    America willfully neglects almost anything related to sexual-type education of ANY kind. Damn near every institution is responsible for this, therefore a system of confusing beliefs and misinformation take the place of a halfway decent health class and common sense.

  • A Woman’s Eyes

    I do not recall Sandra Fluke saying she had many sexual partners. She could very well be like I was in my college years….tons of sex with one partner.

    Having said that, feminists are the ones who use the term “slut shaming” as it would beh

  • jennifer

    It’s worth pointing out that the word slut rarely if ever just means “one who has/has had many sexual partners.” It often implies that one is indiscriminate, lacking control over baser impulses, possessing bad judgement, possibly disease ridden, unworthy of anyone’s commitment both now and in the future, you could go on and on.

    I think all those things put that extra stank on it that makes it pejorative.

  • http://www.kinkythought.com Dani

    Promiscuity as a concept is subjective. Even before you get into the value judgment you have to define what number puts you into the realm of promiscuous. 20 plus? Is it even a number? If you’ve had sex with 8 dudes, but in two trains of four, where does that put you?

    Sure, there are a lot of people who believe that it’s no big thing to pull triple digit partners, then again a lot of people really DO see that as kind of icky. You read all these studies about how women are hard wired for monogamy and to “attach” to sexual partners, so there’s a view that anyone who doesn’t have that kind of emotional connection behind sex is that way because something is wrong with them. (Although reality kinda supports that in a lot of cases. Of say, 10 women I know personally who could be considered promiscuous, 7 of them have some history of abuse that they’re working through and working in.) The value judgement stems from assumptions on where a woman’s mind is behind the decisions she’s making, which is a double standard. Men can just be driven by a sheer desire for sex, but women who do the same are “abnormal.”

    But then I self-identify as a hypocrite. I don’t think of any of the aforementioned friends as “slutty,” outside issues or no. However, the acquaintance of a friend of mine who screwed a random stranger old enough to be her father in the bathroom of a hotel suite while the rest of us watched TV at a party… that’s the only sexual partner I’ve known her to have, I know nothing of her life before or since, but she’s a slut for that off sheer principle. It’s all relative.

    And “social butterfly,” “free spirit,” and “wild” are all non-incendiary euphemisms I’ve heard. I prefer to use “she’s about her sh*t”/”she gets it in.”

  • tre

    i think that the S word used to describe women is just as offensive as the F word used to describe gay men. now with that said…is the term used to always describe a particular behavior? i would say no. it is bad bc it is a derogatory term used to de-value women. glad you fellas are discussing this over here. thats why i luv y’all!!

  • brendadc

    Did I miss a memo….because the last time I checked, promiscuity is considered a bad thing…but it’s applied to women. I don’t hear it associated with men, who are encouraged to “sow their wild oats” and play the field until they’re ready to settle down. I feel when a woman takes on that attitude, they’re at risk of being labeled a “slut” or “ho.”

  • http://www.lifeofalibra.com L Boogie

    “if promiscuity isn’t a bad thing, why do you think that every single term used to describe a promiscuous person has such an unquestionably negative connotation?”

    Here’s the thing. This notion of promiscuity being “ok” only applies to men from my vantage point. As its always been, if a man says he’s been through 10 women, it’s shrugged off and not a second thought is given. If a woman says she’s been with 10 men, she’s automatically called a slut, whore, and whatever else you can think of. It’s such a bad term because it’s pretty much EXCLUSIVELY reserved to describe a woman, regardless of her actual sexual behavior. All someone needs is the perception that a woman is engaging in “slutty” behavior, and she’s immediately labeled as such. Terms that use such a broad brush to paint a group’s perceived behavior will always have a negative connotation, similarly to how “ghetto” is almost universally negatively used to describe Black people…

More Like This