Sexuality Lacking Understanding and Thoughtfulness: What it Really Means to Be a SLUT

miz jenkinsOp Ed11 Comments

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There are few four-letter words as nasty as the word “slut.” Few other words elicit such intense disdain, self-righteousness, or indignation. But what it actually means to be a slut in our culture is rife with complexities. Some people claim sluts don’t exist. That the word has simply been created in order to shame and disown women who fail to meet male society’s self-serving rules of etiquette. Others bandy about the term to suit their whim or their fancy or their need to be a raging asshole to someone that day*, which might explain why the first group is feeling a bit on edge [*Note: we will refer to these people as fools and assholes. There is no need to take further note of fools and assholes.] Many others are willing to admit to the possibility that sluts exist ““ they think they know one when they see one ““ but they disagree on who fits the description. I’m going to claim sluts do exist, and moreover must exist but first we’ve got to get clear on what that means.

In order to start we have to dispense with the notion that female sexuality is sacrosanct, that it should be inviolable by objective examination and judgment. It’s illogical to argue that society has no business having an opinion on individuals’ sexual habits. We have opinions about parenting, labor arrangements, pet ownership, when/whether it’s appropriate to send thank you notes to relatives”¦virtually every aspect of human interaction that involves two or more people involves society as a whole. Or more to the point at issue: we are all, ultimately, one another’s potential sex partners. No shit we should have something to say about what kinds of sexual risks people are taking. Most of all, when it comes to ourselves.

Slutty is as Slutty Does

It’s important to acknowledge the boundaries between character and behavior. Behavior is comprised of superficial, short-lived, immediately-observable actions that may or may not be uniquely context-driven. The reasoning behind any given action may not be illustrative of a person’s habits or values generally. That is to say, anyone might engage in seemingly slutty behavior now and then. That doesn’t necessarily make one a slut. Over time, it’s patterns of behavior that tend to suggest more fixed personal qualities and entrenched systems of belief.

We could sit here all day long making and debating lists of “slutty” behavior. Mine would include:

  • Getting too drunk to effectively defend yourself or make rational decisions
  • Performing sex tricks on demand for men-at-large
  • Broadcasting greater sexual accessibility than you are actually willing to allow
  • Using graphic misogynistic language to gain acceptance from men
  • Hesitating to withhold consent to sexual contact when you want to or SHOULD

But the “shoulds” cause a lot of fervor when discussing female sexuality. Our culture is awash in mixed messages regarding such things. Why should society dampen (no pun intended) a woman’s sexual enjoyment by prescribing when she should/shouldn’t have sex? And whither our varying and opposing moral values? Whose should take precedence?

If you’re willing and able to understand that the answers are more conceptual than concrete keep reading.

Dumb Sluts

Dumb, dirty, filthy”¦ as often as not, the word “slut” when used is preceded by one or more equally withering moral judgments. The words typically imply one of two things about a woman’s sexuality: that it tends towards risk of infectious disease or that it renders her effectively powerless, which as a personal modus operandus is simply stupid.

Last week I wrote an article on how having a whole passel of sexual partners can be healthy and empowering for women. Then there are the times when it’s not. A key distinction is the level of awareness a woman has about herself and her environment.

Glee's Dianna Agron conveys sexual power and authority in a shoot for a well-known gentleman's magazine with a look that says "I know what you want and I know what I want...and I MIGHT be willing to negotiate".

Sex is not inherently equal as between the sexes. Anyone who has not sufficiently internalized that premise needs to pause for a moment and consider his or her relative risk if s/he was to walk out the door right now and have sex with the first stranger s/he meets under a bridge downtown. To speed things up let’s stipulate that the risk of contracting an STD, the risk of being overpowered by someone with sick, anti-social tendencies and the risk of having a burgeoning human person implanted all up in your body are higher if you have female parts. No it’s not fair, but it’s life. Add to that a culture in which men are encouraged to use physical force to gain their objectives and in which women are strongly implied to have a duty of submission and you have your answer to why it might make sense to be slightly more preoccupied with whether women are engaging in safe, healthy sexual behaviors than men (although sexual expectations of men is a topic that is far too seldom mined for wisdom…and comedy…but that is an article for another time).

Let’s stipulate also that when engaging in any behavior it behooves a person not to be dumb. That is, not to have a tendency towards mindless self-destruction. This necessarily means having some understanding of ones surroundings and ones own and others’ motivations. Slutty behavior can be viewed in part as lacking some essential understanding when it comes to the risks inherent in making the decision to engage in sexual activity.

In the abstract there is a case to be made for engaging in any number of sexual acts. There is a time and place for hair-pulling, for striptease, for begging on your knees on the bathroom floor, for letting go of control with fairly reckless abandon. But there are also a whole host of realities, both philosophical and mundane, of which one needs to be apprised when engaging in such pursuits. Is the situation safe? Am I being respected? Am I sufficiently prepared to handle the consequences of making this decision? What do I stand to lose? Is this really something I want to do or something I feel I am expected to do? Whose expectations am I trying to live up to?

Glee's Lea Michele demonstrates the classic "I'm half-naked and don't have a clue" pose, a favorite with the Patriarchy for its suggestion that the subject is foolish or naive enough to willingly hand over supervision of her vagina to the viewer. Note the purposely vacant expression.

Sexual expression is not cultivated in a vacuum. The messages we chose to convey through clothing, language, personality and behavior are shaped by the culture we live in and observe. It is vital to be aware of the fact that in a male-dominated heterosexual culture women are encouraged to view sex and sexuality through a male lens. It should be obvious to anyone who is paying attention that this is only occasionally in a woman’s best interest. It’s clearly convenient for those who bear relatively less risk in a sexual transaction to encourage their partner not to think about his/her own downside.

If you fall for this, you might be a slut.

Recently at the MTV Movie Awards actress Reese Witherspoon raised eyebrows by alluding to a distinction between women who are “good” and “bad” sexually. The ensuing debate focused mostly on whether it was inherently “good” or “bad” to make a sex tape. I contend that when attempting to judge “good” or “bad” sexual behavior, for men or women, it’s less useful to attempt to isolate the behavior itself and rather more helpful to examine whether the behavior in context demonstrates any reasonable appreciation of a person’s real interests and vulnerabilities.

The degree to which a person is willing to accept a burden of risk without any offsetting benefit to their interests is a pretty good indication of whether they are acting reasonably and rationally. To suggest that the decision to risk pictures of ones face and naked, willing body being broadcast to strangers around the world to access at their leisure ““ for no meaningful reason or compensation other than the fulfillment of a desperate need for validation ““ might be so unreasonably reckless and idiotic as to be frowned upon doesn’t seem like a stretch to me.

This applies to Wieners, too.

To Be or Not to Be

Looking honestly then at everything there is to gain or lose when engaging in society as a mature sexual being, one is confronted with the choice in any given sexual situation of whether to be or not to be a slut. This is where society’s objective judgment more or less ends and individual judgment becomes paramount.

At the end of the day it truly matters little what society thinks a slut is. What matters most is where a woman herself draws the boundaries between “good” and “bad” sexual behavior or acceptable and unacceptable risk. At face value the concept of “slutiness” simply represents this general distinction. Recognizing that it is imperative this distinction be made (and the aforementioned understanding of how it is to be made) is really the most essential element of not being a slut. That is, how carefully the choice to take a risk has been calculated factors greatly into whether the choice is respectable… irrespective of whether one agrees with the criteria being applied.

Being mindful of the need to be mindful is a state of conscious reflection that one should embrace with respect to any potentially risky behavior, be it drug or alcohol consumption, driving a car or swimming in the ocean. While it’s sometimes possible infer from a person’s actions whether they are even attempting to use common sense, more often it is an intangible matter: whether a person presents themselves as knowledgeable, purposeful, discerning and in control.

A woman who truly has ownership of her sexuality demonstrates all these things, above all to herself. She is to be feared and her keen mastery of her sexuality is to be respected. A woman who is heedless, inattentive and/or thoughtless in expressing her sexuality tends to be complicit in her own oppression and exploitation. She is also to be feared but rather for her shocking failure to properly exercise her own autonomy than her potential to mold the world in her image. For it is a slut that allows herself to be molded in a man’s ideal image without considering what it costs her (and by extension other women).

Undoubtedly the sexual oppression and exploitation of women is a cultural epidemic that needs to be discouraged as strongly as women are to be discouraged from acquiescing to it. All of society has an obligation to minimize the incidence of harm to its most vulnerable members – also, not insignificantly, its majority – and to fight systems of inequality generally. But the fight starts with standing up decidedly for ones own fair and equal treatment. The inability or unwillingness of a person to do so is deserving of all the scorn and mockery the word “slut” implies.

(And if you are a slut, frankly scorn and mockery are the least of your problems.)

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miz jenkinsSexuality Lacking Understanding and Thoughtfulness: What it Really Means to Be a SLUT

11 Comments on “Sexuality Lacking Understanding and Thoughtfulness: What it Really Means to Be a SLUT”

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  1. Profile photo of mayyria
    mayyria

    I don’t use the word “slut” as an insult, so I disagree with the conclusion you’ve reached in this post. I just don’t think that word can be divorced from its misogynist roots. I understand that we are all hurt when other women participate in their own oppression, but I don’t think shaming them accomplishes anything. So I would call a woman with no self-respect who sleeps around for personal validation with no regards to her own best interests an idiot with low self-esteem. And I might even call her a “dumb slut”, but the first word of that phrase would be the only one I meant as an insult. Society at large doesn’t care WHY women choose to be promiscuous. It just cares that they do. And, to the kyiarchy, a promiscuous woman is a slut. So I have no problem being a slut– but I take great care to not be a DUMB slut.

  2. Profile photo of HelloKitty
    HelloKitty

    I’ve been confused about the word slut for a very long time, even in terms of slut walk. That’s because I haven’t come to full terms about my sexuality nor have I updated/reeducated myeslf about what’s going on with the younger generations. There is so much to catch up on for me and it’s overwhelming at times. I am mostly thinking about the teen girl classmates of my two sons. How do we teach these girls about “sluts” and “slutty behavior” while at the same time teach them about female empowerment, sexual power, and keep them safe.

    You’ve given me much to chew on and digest, Miz Jenkins.

    1. Profile photo of miz jenkins
      miz jenkins

      I wouldn’t necessarily call Rielle Hunter a slut. A bitch, a homewrecker and a pathetic, self-absorbed, gold-digging bimbo maybe…but not a slut. The term slut has little to do with morality in my mind and far more to do with practical judgment and power.

      Despite negative public opinion Rielle Hunter came out just fine in this situation. She was aware of the risks, she was willing to take them and frankly she got what she wanted.

  3. Profile photo of Professor S
    Professor S

    “Being mindful of the need to be mindful is a state of conscious reflection that one should embrace with respect to any potentially risky behavior, be it drug or alcohol consumption, driving a car or swimming in the ocean.” Absolutely, Ms. Jenkins. And so much more, if it is our own body.

    Once again an excellent article. I believe in the six degrees of separation between people. If we are only concerned about who we individually have sex with, and if we’re only looking at it on a case by case basis, we are forgetting that we are having “sex” with the partners of the people we choose to have sex with. We are forgetting that our choices often have far reaching consequences.

    I remarked, a week ago at the behavior I noticed amongst my teen-aged daughter’s friends on FB/Tumblr. They were all mimicking and expressing the behavior of a woman in full command of her sexuality/needs – a woman fully capable and free to be as freaky as she pleased, but in actuality, they were all pretending and doing so for one thing: A reaction. They were PMing each other, waiting, hoping and praying to get the attention of boys, that like on their FB page, that reblog on Tumblr, and then wondering breathlessly when he’d email, inbox, message or call them because they were so “sexually free”. But they don’t want to be a sexual freak of the week. They want the boy to like them. They want a boyfriend.

    Consequently, these boys encourage this behavior, playing along and promoting the idea that it means that the girls are confident in their sexuality, when they are just trying to get some.

    Undoubtedly the sexual oppression and exploitation of women is a cultural epidemic that needs to be discouraged as strongly as women are to be discouraged from acquiescing to it.

    To see young girls acting in complicity with their own subjugation is so sad for me, believe me, I have no words.

    From the comment below :

    soitgoes: I don’t really agree with saying whatever you want about whomever you want under the guise of feminist expression/freedom of speech.

    I’m so glad to read someone say this. IMO, it works on both sides of the argument, too; that is to say, one cannot dictate that others cannot say what they want/feel under the guise of feminist expression/freedom of speech.

    1. Profile photo of KitzyKid
      KitzyKid

      Consequently, these boys encourage this behavior, playing along and promoting the idea that it means that the girls are confident in their sexuality, when they are just trying to get some.

      I agree so much with this! In so many ways it seems like the idea of women owning their own sexuality has been subjugated into making especially young women think that it means they have to vie for the most sexual experiences with men, and is now just another way for men to control women’s sexuality.

  4. Profile photo of Mary
    Mary

    Getting too drunk to effectively defend yourself or make rational decisions

    Defend yourself from what, exactly? I don’t understand, or agree, with the idea that one could be considered a “slut” because they are unable to defend themselves from an attack by (what I’m assuming you meant) another human being. It sounds like victim blaming at best.

    1. Profile photo of Chrissie
      Chrissie

      I didn’t quite understand that statement either. What about alcoholics? Are they by default, exhibiting slutty behavior? This just confused me.

  5. Profile photo of elyseface
    elyseface

    I have to disagree with this opening statement: “It’s illogical to argue that society has no business having an opinion on individuals’ sexual habits [...] No shit we should have something to say about what kinds of sexual risks people are taking.”

    I don’t understand why this is an illogical argument. As far as I’m concerned, as long as an individual is not hurting anyone else, it is none of my (or anyone else’s) business what they do behind closed doors. And it seems like quite a leap to go from “potential sexual partner” to “people” in general. Yes, you should have something to say about the sexual risks your partner has taken/is taking, but in my opinion that sort of assessment should be on a case-by-case basis. Everyone has different ideas about what kind of sexual history and activity they are comfortable with their partner having, it doesn’t make sense to rely on a good/bad scale that has been determined by anyone but yourself.

    Basically my interpretation of this article is that it is a set of guidelines that works for you, but as with anything to do with sexuality, it is a difficult task to call them universal.

    1. Profile photo of soitgoes
      soitgoes

      I think it’s an extension of the reality that whether or not we voice our judgments, we can’t really stop or change what we think about other people. For better or worse, we all exist in relation to the mores of our respective cultures. But you’re right: I don’t really agree with saying whatever you want about whomever you want under the guise of feminist expression/freedom of speech.

  6. Profile photo of eve
    eve

    “At the end of the day it truly matters little what society thinks a slut is. What matters most is where a woman herself draws the boundaries between “good” and “bad” sexual behavior or acceptable and unacceptable risk. [...] That is, how carefully the choice to take a risk has been calculated factors greatly into whether the choice is respectable… irrespective of whether one agrees with the criteria being applied.”

    This excerpt get to the heart of it: “slut” is a contextual term used to harm. It’s larger societal meaning does matter, I think, but only to people who are still forming their ideas about their sexual lives. That’s the rub for me. Now I can say “Eff off!” to someone who wants to talk about my sexual choices, but I don’t think 17-year-old me could have done that and meant it. I would have been all bravado in the moment, but I would have taken the shaming to heart. And that’s my problem with dealing with such a loaded and contextual word: we need to dissect words like this constantly to remind those new to the conversation–or still dealing with how to be autonomous sexual creatures who really don’t give a fuck–that words are just words but living around and beyond them takes work.

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