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.