Portrait of a Slut: Soldiers in the War on Women

by Gina DeVitis

The beginning of the Unite Against the War on Women Rally and March in New York

To someone like Rush Limbaugh, Jill Hopfield is a slut.  She is wearing a big gray sweatshirt and purple jeans, cuffed at the bottoms to better suit her 5’2” frame.  Her dark brown hair is in a loose ponytail, her eyeliner slightly smudged at the corners.  She sits cross legged on the bathroom floor, mumbling her paper on Freud aloud to herself before she submits it, checking for flow.  It is Cinco de Mayo, but rather than putting on a sombrero and taking tequila shots, Hopfield is holed up in her friend’s apartment stealing his internet cable and finishing her homework.

But stereotypical party girl or not, Hopfield has engaged in premarital sex and supports government funding for birth control.  To someone like Limbaugh, she must be a slut.

“A slut at first glance is a woman who has had or has been perceived to have more sexual partners than the person throwing around the term deems to be an ‘appropriate’ number,” says Meg Zandi, an organizer for Sexuality Health Education to End Rape (SHEER), “With a bit of critical thinking, a slut is any woman who does not make apologies for her sexuality or who dares to base her sex life off of safety and/or pleasure rather than public perception.”

Or, as Urban Dictionary defines it, “A woman with the morals of a man.”

When other people try to explain the term, answers are mixed: a slut wears suggestive clothing, flirts with too many men, has too much sex.  To some, she has loose morals and even looser undergarments (if any at all). To others, she is a concept that further maintains the power of the patriarchy.

The one constant, whether defined by a fraternity brother or a feminist, is that a slut is always a woman.

Jill Hopfield

“It’s unfair because oftentimes there are just as many male ‘sluts’,” Hopfield says, “But that’s another can of worms.   Why isn’t there a male equivalent for the word mistress?  It puts all the negative connotations of sluthood on women: only women can receive the negativity of sex, only women can receive the negative label.”

The term slut-shaming has come into the eyes of the media due to the recent attack on women’s rights, christened the War on Women.  When taxpayer money is on the line to fund contraception and other women’s health services, the claws come out: Slut-shaming entails inducing guilt and/or degrading a woman for her perceived or confirmed sexual behavior.

“A man can’t be a slut because derogatory terms are usually created by the majority to further establish their dominance,” Zandi says, “and having ‘man slut’ be a real term would degrade the work they have done to keep women in their place. Usually ‘man slut’ is used in a joking fashion, with a wink and a nod to it, whereas women can be called sluts in a very threatening manner.”

And the malice is genuine.  When Rush Limbaugh went on his rant about Sandra Fluke, who stood up to Congress in support of government funding for birth control, he went beyond remarking on her assumed sexual behavior and went so far as to compare her, with disgust, to a prostitute.

“It makes her a slut, right?  It makes her a prostitute,” he said, “She wants to be paid to have sex.  She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception.  She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.  What does that make us?  We’re the pimps.”

His comments lit the fuse for a new, empowered wave of feminist rage, partially fueled by Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney’s “Where are the women?” remark in response to the all-male panel at the congressional hearing for Fluke, and in part by the very women Limbaugh was putting down.

Indeed, “slut” has recently become indistinguishable from an outspoken feminist.  At the recent Unite Against the War on Women March and Rally in New York, posters were abound with phrases like, “Birth control addicted sluts, whores, and bitches vote too!” and “Slutty whores for birth control!”

“There is power in reclaiming the term and putting it in a discourse where people aren’t saying it in a condescending and judgmental way,” Hopfield says, “But there has to be some sort of intention to reclaiming it.”

Participants of the Unite Rally proudly hold up their signs.

While slut-shaming still persists, women have been working hard to re-appropriate the word and turn it into a positive.  The primary concern and purpose for doing so is that slut-shaming often leads to victim blaming: that a sexual assault victim should be in any way at fault for what happened to them, whether because of what they were wearing or otherwise.  Organizations like SlutWalk aim “to make a unified statement about sexual assault and victims’ rights and to demand respect for all.”

SlutWalk was founded in 2011 after a police officer, who was supposed to offer advice for reducing chances of sexual assault to a forum at Toronto’s Osgoode Hall Law School, said, “I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this; however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.”

Since then, SlutWalk has spread across the United States with multiple marches of protest, where some women choose to dress in “slutty” attire to show control over their bodies and sexuality.

“The accumulated mythology and manipulation surrounding the idea of women makes women the problem, the solution, the target–but in all capacities, the focus; whereas men swaddle themselves in the cloak of normalcy,” says Rebecca Hirsch, an education organizer for SlutWalk NYC, in an email interview, “Women ‘inspire’ men to act poorly; men are without blame. And this utterly unfounded prejudice against seeing women as people and men as responsible for themselves makes its way down the ages in history until the fantasy that ‘inherently bad women tempt bumbling, blameless men into doing bad things’ is legitimated.”

To some, this feminist viewpoint is just as radical and alienating as an opinion like Limbaugh’s might be.

“It’s psychologically proven that in discussing something, your views become more extreme,” says Hopfield, who is just finishing her degree in Psychology, “In social psychology, if you put two extremists in the same room, they’ll become even more polarized because in discussing and defending their own ideas they become more against one another.”

Regardless of efforts to make the term at least neutral, “slut” is still predominantly viewed as an extreme negative.  In fact, the main criticism of SlutWalk was that the name alienated a lot of people who might have otherwise been allies to the cause.

Likewise, the War on Women has received much criticism, predominantly from right-wing news outlets like Fox, for using the term “War”.

“Whether you call it a War on Women or you call it something else, they clearly have, at a national, federal, state and local level, so many policies that are enacted or that they have set in motion to deny rights to women: Rights to pregnant women, rights to single women, rights to single parent families,” says Alistair Mackay, a journalism student at NYU.

Feminists and sluts alike are not going down without a fight in the same way that Republicans on the other end of the spectrum will not go down without a fight.  While there has been no bloodshed, both parties believe something is on the line and are perfectly willing to defend it.

A woman holds up her sign for the War on Women.

“Some say there is no War on Women, some say we shouldn’t call it a war,” says Desiree Jordan, founder of the Unite Women New York chapter, at the recent rally, “Let’s be clear: It doesn’t matter how you package it, we will not accept it.”

While Limbaugh’s opinion on Fluke may have put him under fire and lost him considerable sponsors, others were quick to defend him, including women (Sarah Palin being one), and none of the Republican 2012 presidential candidates took a strong stance against his statements, aside from suggesting his choice of words might have been more for shock factor.

“In a society that is standing for free speech and is supposedly a liberal society, he has a right to say those things,” says Mackay, “but I think ultimately Rush Limbaugh’s damaged the party he supports more than he could have possibly imagined, and he’s damaged his own credibility.  He’s still going to be the most listened to talk show host in America, but politically it was an absolute disaster.”

Various conservative organizations, including Family Life/Respect Life of the Archdiocese of New York, did not respond to requests for comment.

However, on the conservative side of the argument, the solution to sluthood remains consistent: required abstinence education.  Feminists, on the other hand, are rallying for required sexual education instead.

Someone like Hopfield finds it hard to understand the word “slut” as anything other than how a “liberal, sexually-free, uninhibited 21-year-old college student would think of it.”  Rather than shame, she finds pride in her sexual experiences.  Though she feels no qualms or guilt for the number of partners she has had, she does occasionally feel as though she is supposed to, a fact which unnerves her.

“Ultimately what it comes down to is: It’s internal,” says Hopfield, “It’s your body,  you can do with it what you will regardless of what sort of a slut you are, whether you’re a feminist slut or a saving yourself, slut-for-your-husband slut or a socially immoral, terrible, bane-of-the-Earth slut. The ultimate reclaiming of sluthood is just in being aware of your body and being aware of what you want with your body.  Whether it’s to make out with everyone or to save yourself, it’s ultimately about you.”

 

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