"Was that the guy you tried to be a slut with?" my mom asked me the other night. I had been telling her about running into someone with whom, several years ago, I'd had a monthlong fling. As it turns out, he's a neighbor now and walked by my house one evening with his small son in tow and said hello. My mother wasn't being mean or judgmental when she put her clarification that way. She was simply reminding me about my motivations at the time.
When I hooked up with this guy, I'd just gotten out of a semi-abusive relationship. I felt cheap and that I might as well give myself over to it with an experiment in casual sex. I declared that I was going to be a slut and started brandishing around Mae West quotes like "When I'm good I'm very good, but when I'm bad I'm better" as a badge of tawdry honor. Long story short, it turns out I'm not cut out for casual sex. But here's the thing: Whether I was or wasn't meant for a "Sex and the City" lifestyle, I wouldn't be a slut either way.
That's because sluts don't exist. They are a myth as much as unicorns. When it comes to women and their sex lives, all too often we come back to the Madonna and the whore archetype. That's too simple because no one, not even sex workers and nuns, are just one or the other. Things as complex as human sexuality and identity can't be distilled down to one or the other. We use terms like "slut" as a clumsy shorthand to describe a whole warren of sociocultural, religious and personal ideas that we don't bother to take the time or intellect to untangle.
When I was 14, I had to sign an abstinence pledge in a class called Changes and Choices. Despite my naiveté, I instinctively knew that I didn't agree with what they were saying. I barely knew what sex actually was, yet I distinctively remember thinking that people would think I was a slut if I didn't sign. I wrote my name on the slip of paper as required and turned it in to the teacher. That's how deeply ingrained this myth is, that young girls can know what it is to be a slut before they even know the mechanics and implications of their own sexuality.
I dodged that first slut shaming bullet, but in the 13 years since then, I've been riddled with many others. The list of things I've been slut shamed for includes but is not limited to: one, telling friends about a scary incident on a cruise ship where drunk Swedes were threatening me and some other girls; two, wanting to dance with a boy while wearing a swimsuit; three, wearing a crocheted halter top; four, being candid about the sex I've had with my small number of monogamous partners; five, having premarital sex; six, not being ashamed of having owned or openly discussing sex toys; seven, walking down the street; eight, being on birth control; nine, dating a recently divorced man; and 10, having breasts.
So basically, being a slut doesn't even have a real definition. If someone calls me a slut it's not really about my choices or behavior, it's about their ideas about women. That includes when I called myself a slut because I was participating in risky behavior that hurt me because I thought I didn't deserve better. That includes when I have called other people sluts because it was an overly convenient insult or I needed a quick way to say that their sex life didn't seem psychologically healthy or was otherwise concerning. That includes when anyone defends a rapist or a harasser because of what a woman did or did not wear or how she behaved. It also includes when women proudly call themselves sluts because they want to claim the power of free, liberated sexuality for themselves and choose to subvert a dirty word as part of their empowerment. It means whatever you want it to mean.
It's strange how a word that has so much weight and so much meaning culturally and psychologically is actually so ephemeral and doesn't really have a definition. Teenage girls kill themselves over this word. Men assault women over this word. We hurt ourselves with this word. We can talk about the word; we can try to reclaim and elevate the word; we can try to edit it out of our vocabularies. But as long as we focus on the word and not what it means to each of us and why, as long as we continue to use it as shorthand, we are being lazy in our thinking about some very important things. It's dangerous to be lazy about important things like women, sex and power, to be so careless with a word that can maim and hurt and kill.
We need to have a knockdown drag-out Jell-O wrestling match with the slut myth. We need to fight dirty with ourselves about why we care so much what other women do and about what we ourselves do. It's only once we know how we use the word and start trying to use it more intentionally that we can actually have a discussion about women and sex that's productive. To converse effectively on any subject, you must know the right terms. Let's actually communicate about what we really think. Until we can have a more precise, honest conversation, silently replace the word "slut" with the word "unicorn" in your head whenever you encounter it. After all, sex is magical, both concepts are a myth, and only you can decide who and what you are.
Meghan O'Dea is a 20-something writer, pop culture critic and social media fanatic. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter if you have questions, comments or stories on being a young adult in the workforce. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
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