On Sluts, Rape and Fuckery

Nothing hurts me so much as hearing the word slut dropped into conversation. This is because in tenth grade my English teacher recommended Leora Tanenbaum’s book, Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation. Not a book I would have picked up on my own, but I liked this teacher and would have read anything he recommended.

At the time I still considered dating beneath me, but even I noticed that a creed of acceptable behavior had formed. For a while a sentimental chain poem circulated on people’s AIM profiles. It was a very inspiring poem, something about wearing your combat boots and saying no even though it’s hard. It was dedicated to ‘all the good girls’, i.e. girls who don’t put out on their first date.

I was deeply moved. I had the mind of a Puritan and approved of rules. Sex struck me as scandalous. So did revealing anything more than your ankles and wrists.

Then I read Slut and Leora Tanenbaum blew my mind. When she was a freshman in high school Tanenbaum made the mistake of making out with the boyfriend of a very popular girl. For the next four years she was branded a slut and socially ostracized. Motivated by this experience, she posted an advertisement in the newspaper and interviewed girls with similar experiences. Slut! cataloged their stories. I don’t remember the details, but Tanenbaum’s main point was that the entire concept of a slut exists to repress female sexuality.

Most professions are geared towards men and require prefixes or suffixes when applied to females. Actor. Actress. Steward. Stewardess. The only exceptions are whore and slut. When applied to men they become man-whore and man-slut. A slut, as defined by the dictionary, is a promiscuous woman.

That’s the crux of the insult: promiscuous women. It’s an insult with so much power that frequently I’ll hear girls asking each other if their outfit is too slutty, or worse, calling another girl a slut, and well, you don’t want to be labeled a slut. It doesn’t mean you’re bad like an evil mastermind with superpowers, it just means you aren’t worthy of respect. You aren’t a person. You’re degraded because your vagina is like an old trash can that’s been emptied into one too many times.

Tanenbaum ended the book not by urging readers to drop their use of the word slut or broaden their definition of what is sexually permissible, but by urging readers to have the same standards for males and females.

I chose to erase slut from my lexicon, and did my best to strip off the Puritan mindset. It seemed ridiculous to judge someone’s morality based on how many people they slept with or what they’re wearing.

Even so, I was called a slut once. At the time I laughed because it was ludicrous. My mother wore more provocative clothing than I did.

But there it is, despite all I say or what I believe: when called a slut, I feel the sting of it. I need to tell you that, no, I haven’t slept around, yes, my shirts bare no cleavage. I don’t say the word slut. I tell you I don’t believe in the concept, but throw that word at me and I fall to pieces.

Actually, nothing hurts like hearing the word slut, unless it is hearing the word rape dropped about carelessly. Again, a word I wouldn’t have thought much about, except that when I was in high school a girl gave her senior speech on her best friend’s rape. She ended not with an appeal for women’s rights or self defense, but by begging us to consider our language. We use the word ‘rape’ so casually, for sports, for a failed test, to spice up jokes. ‘The test raped me.’ ‘His smile went up to justifiable rape.’ These references confer casualness upon the word, embedding it into our culture, stripping it of shock value, and ultimately numb us to the reality of rape.

I am not sure if we are numbed to the reality of rape, but here’s the sad irony. While the word rape can add an edginess to your language, talking about actual rape is taboo.

I didn’t know this until one of my friends was raped. Then I knew this, because I didn’t want to tell anyone.

If she were mugged, I would have told everyone and raged. But she was raped, and it took me approximately a year to talk about it, not because I didn’t want to, but because I sensed it was forbidden territory. Even now I feel a little clumsy, as if I have spilled someone else’s secret, even though I know she does not want her rape to be a secret.

I still wouldn’t talk about it casually, the way I talk about my roommates getting robbed and relish people’s reactions. And yet, that reluctance seems to give rape too much importance, as if to say it’s so bad it can’t be talked about, something so terrible and ruinous that the victim must forever be silent. Silence bothers me. I’m mostly silent about what I’m ashamed of.

It is almost—and you must forgive me if I phrase this poorly—almost as if there is some rule that says, to rape someone is to take something so important away from him or her, but usually her, that she can never be the same again.

A boy who liked my friend got drunk once and said, “I would have given my life if it could have prevented…” He could not say the word, maybe because it referred to reality: “…what happened to you.”

When she retold it, my friend shook her head. “Ugh. No. It’s not worth that. Not worth a life.” The thing is, a lot of people do believe preserving the sanctity of a vagina is worth a life. The question is whose life?

Perhaps that’s why the silence.

The hardest part about rape, my friend has said, has been the silence. The rape is part of her, it is something she’d like to refer to casually—‘Oh yes, I learned that law term after I was raped,’ or ‘I’ve become more alert after I was raped,’ and she can’t. She has to stop herself and gauge the audience. Do they know she’s been raped? If yes, will they be able to handle the reference? If no, does she want to tell them? She is the most socially graceful person I know, but she practices in her head before she tells people. How to introduce it? How to strike the right note of seriousness without verging into the melodramatic? She doesn’t want to be seen as ‘the girl who was raped,’ but she does want people to know because it’s part of her personal experience, because there’s far too much silence already.

She doesn’t want pity. She just wants to talk about it. It is surprisingly difficult to procure this combination.

I imagine most people don’t know she was raped. Rape isn’t something you write to the school bulletin about. Actually, after I learned about her rape, it seems like we gained entry into a club, a whole list of other rapes that had never been spoken about until now. Other friends. Parents. Teachers. Coworkers. There are so many people who have been raped and who do not speak of it. It is far easier to speak of edgier, metaphorical rapes.

I know. I do it all the time. I still feel like I’m betraying her trust whenever I mention her rape.

There is a word I say all the time, and it is fuck. This is a problem now that I have left the carelessness of college life for office hallways and button down shirts. At work people have trained themselves out of using expletives. Even when they are under duress and slip up, only damn, shit, and hell slip out. Fuck is consigned to some forgotten corner. I bite back fucks at work, turn them into coughs or fishes.

What puzzles me is that people who are willing to slut-bomb all over the place, or riddle a sentence with rape, back the fuck away from fuck. Somehow it sits at the top of the expletive hierarchy, the biggest and baddest of them all that still remains marginally socially acceptable.

Fuck is defined as ‘to engage in coitus with’. The second definition of fuck is to be cheated. What happened between the first and second definition? How is it that fuck became taboo? Fuck created us. Fuck gave us life. Who got cheated? How?

To have sex is to be cheated, to mention it is obscene, to appear to want to have sex is socially taboo, but to force sex upon someone is permissible.

Fuck that. TC mark

More From Thought Catalog

  • Guest

    'Cunt' is above 'fuck' in the hierarchy. At least here in the UK.

    I really liked this, for the most part, only it felt a little muddled and long by the end, but then somehow ended really abruptly. Was this supposed to be about female sexuality or about language? It felt like maybe you meant to write about both, but there was a lack of clarity towards the middle and end of this, although it was a great start.

    I also agree with you wholeheartedly on the issues you've talked about.

  • PERFECTCIRCLES

    Never say “slut” or “whore” and will be more mindful about “rape.”

  • obsessions

    so true.
    I never say the word “slut” or use “rape” so casually (can't even understand one of your examples & was shocked the first time I heard someone say they “raped” a test) or say “fuck.”

  • http://yifei.co/ Yifei

    Made this fella think. What if someone I know *had* been raped? How would that change things? Why would it change things? Heavy. Thanks for the dose of perspective.

  • Guest

    Definitely agree with this article.
    One thing that I cannot stand and do not even allow in my presence are “rape jokes”. I will not allow the suffering of victims to be made a mockery of.
    The fact that people can so easily make the subject the punchline of a joke just shows how trivial people find this kind of assault on a person.

    And that is simply unacceptable.

  • BBQCHICKEN

    i think the use of the C word should have been discussed more so than fuck. i think it's worse personally and don't actually see that many hold back “fuck” as much as they used to.

    • sistersledge

      you mean “Cunt”?

  • petite

    I cried hard over your rape part of your writing. Its so true. I found many of friends have gone through such an evil act, where I have not. And I wish I could take that part of their past from them and make them happier because I would never want anyone to go through such heinous crime. It sucks knowing and being quiet about it, the people who did it to them never got sentenced or received any consequences for their actions. While I see my friends carrying this into their relationships, the burden they have on their shoulders, and them not letting go and just being angry.
    People fuck people up. And I wish they didn't have to hurt others to make themselves feel like they're better then them.

  • Arthur

    what is the source of the drawing?

  • http://banana.blog.co.uk banana_the_poet

    I wrote this poem this evening after reading your article which was linked to by a friend of mine on facebook

    Thoughts on something that happened a long time ago.

    http://poems-2-share.blog.co.u

    • nonani

      really really good work!

  • Tommmmmm

    ehhhh, but there are a lot of words that exploit human suffering to make a stupid point. “Starving” should be considered extremely offensive but it's tossed around pretty liberally. I don't see that as right either. no forms of human suffering should be trivialized to the point of being part of people's casual conversation.

    We've watered down horrible experiences but we still hold dearly onto dumb taboos like the disgust at the though of people fucking. dunno. people are fucking confusingly dumb sometimes.

    • http://gearshack.blogspot.com Naked&Famous

      “Starving” can be tossed around casually because most of us aren't around people who are starving. If you happened to find yourself in an impoverished part of the world, say sub-saharan Africa, in the company of a few dozen people dying slowly from starvation, you might not use the term so lightly. The same goes for saying you “murdered that test:” it's not a term you would say around a family whose father was just murdered. I agree with the author that rape should be free to talk about, but never joked about.

  • http://reasonablydoubtingnews.blogspot.com/ Pär

    Good work.

  • guest

    i have mixed feelings about this article. the writing was great, don't get me wrong, but i can't quite agree with talking about someone's past rape/sexual abuse in normal conversation.
    it's not like i don't talk about my rape experience because i'm ashamed of it; i don't talk about it because it's a very, very personal part of my life and i'm sensitive about it, as would any person who has been subjected to it. it's not something i want to share with someone unless i trust them deeply; sharing it with people i don't know or trust would be REALLY numbing it down to a non-event.

    i understand being upset about rape being somewhat of a “taboo topic” in our society, but the truth is that not everyone can bring it up so easily (a la the example given in this article, “I've learned to be more aware since I was raped.”), for one reason or another.

    the emotional damage that comes from rape and sexual abuse is very real. i don't feel like preventing rape is for the sake of “preserving the sanctity of a vagina,” as you said — rather, it's preventing the physical and emotional pain that the victim will have to endure for years on end. i personally know people who have seen their minds — and lives — unravel because of a single rape/sexual abuse event in their past, and dropping the topic in casual conversation can re-open the wound. again, your friend may be over it, and that's great for her, but some of us are still struggling to heal over this part of our past. some of us are still not ready to talk about it in the way you've suggested.

  • elise bauer

    i agree with the most recent 'guest' comment. people's experiences are different, and rape is no different. singular rules or 'shoulds' about rape are just as invalid as those puritanical rules about sex.. felt startled/confused that it seems encouraged to talk about other people's personal experiences? but i understand i think the main point was to compare between the vocal-ness of 'fuck' and the silence around rape, and that language should be more mobilized in battling shame about those experiences. i really applaud you for addressing rape in tc.

    (but i really gotta say that rape does not equal “forcing sex”. rape is not remotely close to sex.)

  • http://twitter.com/phmadore phmadore

    I prefer promiscuous people, in all cases.

    • eric

      None else would suffer you, I suppose.

  • Tricksyrix

    Tl;dr

  • Guest

    “These references confer casualness upon the word, embedding it into our culture, stripping it of shock value, and ultimately numb us to the reality of rape.”
    Nah, I don't think so. Casual use of the word is crude and juvenile, sure. But desensitizing to the brutality of the act itself sounds like a reach.

    • eric

      And does any eyebrow even quiver should we say, I killed / murdered / eviscerated that test? I tracked down that test's family head by head and ruined them? I firebombed that test. I nuked the entire subject from orbit? Only the shadows of the ashes of that test remain? No, the ultimate in violence slips out sounding cute even, from the cutest faces. But desensitization does not follow. Indeed, exactly the *real presence* of these horrors is expressed here. It seizes the imagination horribly, and our figurative language is never the same.

  • SalivatorX

    This article is underpinned by entry level half-baked feminism. The author betrays the reality of the word “slut” in that it is women who first and foremost call each other that. It's a way for women to control each other. Then men sometimes use the expression too, more in a factual way. We don't care if a woman has had a lot of sex. We do care if she's cheap and she's free. That's why women are paranoid. And lastly, “slut” is used by feminists to alienate women from men. That's why implicitly, it is patriarchy that imposes slut as a derogatory word. Not true.
    As for the other words, and concepts such as rape. This word is highly politicised and complex, especially in the mouths of those who have a hidden agenda: self righteous and self pitying women. It's almost a badge of honor among them to be part of that experience. Stick to facts, and not emotional drama about nothing in particular.

    • setecq

      What is the difference between someone calling a woman “slut” versus calling her “cheap” or “free”? How are feminists using the word “slut” to alienate women from men? If you're a man who doesn't think of women as having limited sexual agency, feminists aren't going to thrust the word “slut” upon you.

      I understand why you might find women discussing rape to be “self-righteous.” Do you think that if you had been the victim of so serious a crime, you might be equally self-righteous? Think about how hurt you've been when people have wronged you, and now think about being discouraged from speaking openly about being victimized.

      Women who have been so badly wronged deserve at least the ability to heal, and shouldn't have to worry about their speech not entertaining unsympathetic people.

    • Emily

      Rape is not used as a political weapon in the mouths of 'self righteous and self pitying women'. The reason rape is seen as so much more offensive than being mugged or a similar crime is because it's taking the most personal act two people can engage in and stripping away all the closeness of it.
      And I'm sure many people who have experienced rape would be appalled at your idea that it is considered some sort of 'badge of honour'. It is humiliating, it is cruel, it completely impacts on everything. If I could take back what happened to me I would and I'm sure all other victims (male or female) would do the same.

    • es

      the end of your comment is unbelievably offensive. there is no rape club, no badge of honor. my rape was violent and scary, it changed my life and how i related to other people and it's taken years to get over it. i know the only way you could believe something like what you said is no one close to you has been raped. i hope it stays that way even though i hope you open your eyes.

    • Baine

      Women like me are paranoid because we have been restrained and fondled against our will. Women like me are paranoid because they have been followed by strangers telling them, in explicit detail, exactly what they want to do to them. Women like me are paranoid because many of us are physically smaller and weaker than many men, and because we live in cities that actively discourage us from reporting our rapes.

      Please, think before you post something so offensive and hurtful to the many, many people who have been raped.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh

    “titular”

  • Gregpphoto

    I don't think using a word like “rape” in the context of sports or a test, as the author used as examples, is offensive to victims of rape. Would saying “that test killed me,” be offensive to the victims of murder, and therefore should be dropped from our vocabulary? If so then we are moving towards a very Orwellian existence.

    • http://gearshack.blogspot.com Naked&Famous

      Well sir I suppose we could ask a murder victim if it would be offensive? Something tells me the answer might actually be yes, if it were possible. I agree with the author that words, certain words, have more power than we might give credit. Say these words out loud to a friend and watch for a subtle cringe or change in expression: Cunt, Bitch, Slut, Nigger, Faggot. They're powerful words and we need to be aware of that, if nothing else.

    • Ras1517

      are you kidding? Have you put any thought into what you're saying?

      First of all, Orwell's society was coercive, top-down. Militancy. This is what rape is about. Perhaps you know, as I do: when I walk down a dark street in a busy city, when I get cat-called, I get what “Orwellian” means.

      Using your language with sensitivity; acknowledging the politics of your situation and your words; that's just the opposite of Orwellian. That's just having humanity, and maybe a sense of justice.

      Thanks, Ms. Gupta for an empowering article.

  • http://twitter.com/mahuba3 Melanie McAvoy

    I do talk about my rape. It was acquaintance rape (in other words, the ubiquitous kind – not the violent-stranger-in-the-dark-alley type people seem to prefer to imagine. That kind is horrifying, but considerably less common) – and since it happened, I have not missed an opportunity to (attempt to) educate people (yes, I was THAT girl at the Super Bowl party! But, hey, it was perfectly relevant…). It's a frustrating thing to talk about, since everyone has his/her own insecurities and biases. But I do believe having these conversations – about rape, about words like “slut” and other discriminatory words/attitudes/behaviors/beliefs (no matter how mainstream or seemingly benign) – is important. Every day, individuals suffer and are damaged because others have not contemplated the SOURCE or the EFFECTS of their words and actions.

  • Maggie

    Go, girl! Thanks for your perspective. Badass ending, too.

  • http://twitter.com/gabrielherrera gabrielherrera

    finally some writing on this website that isn't post-ironic bullshit. good work

  • http://www.facebook.com/Khaligula Khalil Pineda

    damn this article is so behind sociology/psychology/even contemporary gender studies (which are behind the previous two) that I don't even want to discuss it. I'll just point out that this “people who say rape loosely back away from fuck” trend is totally bullshit.

    • Guest

      Because the second part of your post, “people who say rape loosely back away from fuck,” is debatable and currently unprovable, I’ll leave that alone.

      What I take umbrage with is your first sentence:  That this article is so behind sociology/psychology/even contemporary gender studies. 

      This article isn’t about sociology nor psychology.  This article is about bringing to public attention a problem that exists in people’s mindsets, the way we use language.  Maybe it’s been discussed for a long time, for years.  Yet despite that, the problem still remains, and people do use the word “slut” to make women lesser than men.  The casual use of the word “rape” makes the idea of forcibly taking from someone, of partaking in the most intimate act that two people can have with one another but contorting by creating a power dynamic in which one party takes from the other who is relegated as a sexual object and not a person, more acceptable by lessening the perceived severity of the act that happened. 

  • Mmeng84

    I'm a survivor of sexual abuse, and my abuser was a family member. Throughout that entire time, I just wanted it to stop, and to go back to normal. I just wanted to spare my family from the damage and still belong, but of course it didn't work out like that, and my worst fears came true. I don't talk to them anymore, and they haven't dealt with it. Being silent is the very thing that enabled him. I think if people talked about these things more candidly, abusers wouldn't have as many hiding places.

    Making light violence against women contributes to rape culture (a culture that enables rapists). When reports about a rape make reference to the victims clothing (it's not about sex appeal, it's about who's most vulnerable), this contributes to rape culture. When you laugh at a joke about violence against women, this contributes to rape culture. Even viewing sex as something that women have and men want to take contributes to rape culture. It's not good for women, it's not good for men either.

  • es

    the rape section of this article rang very true with me. what happened to me is a part of my identity, it's something i feel like my friends need to know, but it's always so difficult to talk about. some people have treated me differently after i've told them, like i'm somehow more delicate and not the same person i was before i let them know-except i was. it's hard to have such an important part of your life be a secret, and i still hear people make rape jokes all the time…it's insane.

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