How the word ‘slut’ oppresses women

Ever been called a 'slag'? How about 'frigid'? Jennifer Drew explains how such derogatory language is used to keep women in their place

, 31 January 2008

GraffitiThe words slut, whore and slag are derogatory terms for certain sexual behaviours and attitudes. Slut means a person who engages in sexual activity with multiple partners and actively seeks new sexual encounters. Whore defines a person who is judged and defined solely through their sexuality. They are dehumanised beings because they are perceived as sexually deviant and immoral having supposedly transgressed dominant ideologies of moral sexual behaviour and standards.

But of course slut, whore or slag are never gender neutral terms of abuse, since supposedly only women are slags, sluts or whores – not men or teen boys.

Consider how men as boys are socialised into dominant ideologies of what is presumed to be natural (hetero) male sexuality. Male sexuality is still widely believed to be uncontrollable once aroused and can only be satisfied by the penis penetrating a woman’s vagina, anus or both. Another aspect of the male sexual script is the belief it is acceptable for males to use coercion, pressure or even the threat of violence in order to gain sexual access to women.

Boys learn male sexuality is supposedly driven by their hormones, so men cannot be held responsible for their sexual actions or behaviour. Society informs boys – via a variety of methods – that the woman’s role is always to ensure her male sexual partner is sexually satisfied and male sexual pleasure always supersedes a female’s. Men not women are always supposed to initiate and control a heterosexual encounter and it is the man who decides what sexual acts will take place. Boys also learn men, because of their biological maleness, have the right and entitlement of sexual access to any woman or girl. Male heterosexual relations with women are not about mutual pleasure, reciprocity or respect but rather conquest of a woman’s body so that the man can prove his ‘manhood’ to other men.

Female sexuality is viewed as primarily for the purpose of reproduction or satisfying men’s sexual requirements. Women who are lesbian or do not desire to engage in penetrative heterosex are still widely believed to be prudish, frigid or anti-sex

Equally important, boys learn that society grants men far greater sexual freedom and sexual autonomy than women. Men are not held accountable or responsible for their sexual activities and actions, unlike women. Boys learn it is their right to use coercion or pressurise a woman/girl into unwanted sexual activity, since males always know precisely what a woman wants and needs which conveniently happens to always be identical to a man’s demands and expectations. Since male sexuality is presumed to be uncontrollable once aroused, it is the woman’s role but not the man’s to set limits on sexual behaviour, which conveniently justifies and excuses male sexual coercion, pressurisation, plus of course male-on-female rape. It is acceptable for men to have multiple female sexual partners, because many men – and women too – consider these men to be ‘studs/players’ and this supposedly proves their sexual virility and manhood.

Evolutionary psychology seeks to justify men’s sexual violence against women, the sexual double standard and men’s supposed ‘natural’ sexual promiscuity. Men are supposedly biologically programmed to impregnate as many women as possible and thereby prevent them becoming pregnant by other men. Men are supposedly biologically programmed to maximise passing on their genes to the next generation. However, it is women not men who pass on more genes to their babies.

Women are socialised into a different sexual script, wherein female sexual autonomy is non-existent. Convenient is it not, since if there were a female sexual autonomous definition it would interfere with the woman’s role of taking care of men’s sexual needs. Instead female sexuality is viewed as primarily for the purpose of reproduction or satisfying men’s sexual requirements. Women who are lesbian or do not desire to engage in penetrative heterosex are still widely believed to be prudish, frigid or anti-sex. Girls learn their primary role is to act as ‘gatekeeper’ to the male’s sexual demands and they alone are held responsible for any sexual activity that occurs. This includes being held accountable even when they have no physical way of stopping unwanted sexual activity.

Girls still learn they must walk a very narrow tightrope in order not only to earn male sexual approval, but also ensure a man does not pejoratively label her a ‘whore’, ‘slag’ or ‘slut’ if in his view she is too sexual

Women’s sexuality has been constrained, controlled and regulated by men for centuries and, although male control over female sexuality is lessening, it has not been eroded. Despite claims women are now sexually empowered with rights to sexual autonomy and assertiveness, it is still men who define whether or not a woman is a ‘slag’, ‘slut’, or ‘whore’. Girls still learn they must walk a very narrow tightrope in order not only to earn male sexual approval, but also ensure a man does not pejoratively label her a ‘whore’, ‘slag’ or ‘slut’ if in his view she is too sexual. Women continue to be denied ownership of their sexualities. Women are still expected to provide sexual satisfaction to male partners and husbands and continue to be held accountable for setting limits on their male partners/husbands’ sexual demands. If a woman is perceived as being sexually autonomous, society condemns her as a ‘bad girl’ (meaning an adult female child!) or a ‘slut’. Women are expected to be sexy but never, never sexual in their own right.

Dominant ideologies concerning male and female gender roles tell us men are active, rational beings, they are objective, not ruled by their emotions or feelings. Women are the opposite of men and hence are passive, irrational, over emotional and their feelings ‘rule their minds’. But we are also told that once a man experiences sexual desire or arousal suddenly he is incapable of controlling his feelings or emotions. Never mind that this contradicts the belief men are not ruled by their feelings but are rational and objective unlike women!

Now the definition of male sexuality becomes more complicated, because if male sexuality is uncontrollable and (hetero) men innately need a constant sexual release via penetration of a woman’s anus or vagina, together with claims that men innately need to experience multiple female sexual partners, why don’t they get called ‘sluts’, ‘whores’ or ‘slags’. If one believes having multiple sexual partners renders the person ‘used goods’, then such pejorative sexual insults must apply equally to men as well as women. But in reality men are given greater sexual freedom without accountability or responsibility whereas women continue to be pathologised as nymphomaniacs, bad women or sluts.

We are regularly informed women are sexually passive, more emotional, dependent, have a lower sex drive than men and always put their partner’s sexual needs first. Yet, when women refuse to enact this narrow, passive, sexual role and instead demonstrate ownership of their sexualities, men call them sexually insulting names such as sluts, whores or slags.

Nymphomaniac is used to define women who are sexually insatiable and incapable of achieving sexual satisfaction. Satyriasis is the male equivalent and it refers to men obsessed with penetrative sex. Men supposedly have a higher sex drive and it is claimed they are always in a state of constant readiness for penetrative sex with any woman, so satyriasis defines male sexuality. Men are always supposed to constantly seek to ‘score’ and sexually conquer women in order to prove to other men they are not homosexual but ‘real men’. But is it not strange this view neatly fits into the definition of ‘slut, slag or whore.’

We must redefine female and male sexualities wherein mutuality and respect replace biological assertions of male sexual domination and female submission

A BBC radio 4 programme was recently aired entitled ‘Is This Empowering?’. The subject under discussion was women believing media propaganda which promotes the misogynistic message that dressing in a hyper-sexualised manner is empowering to women. A number of teenage boys were quoted as saying: “The first thing that comes to mind is she’s a ho. The first thing with girls like that, I see them as like easy targets – you can get their numbers, do whatever.” Clearly these boys have already internalised and accepted the view that biological maleness grants them the privilege of judging and defining women as being either ‘hos’ or ‘virgins’. Labelling women as being ‘sluts’ or ‘hos’ maintains male power over women. If these boys were to act on their presumption certain young women are ‘easy targets’ and sexually coerce or rape these women, such actions would be considered justified because these women from the male perspective do not have the right of sexual autonomy or ownership of their bodies. Instead they are simply sexualised commodities not human beings. An important aspect of male sexual autonomy is the belief men cannot be held to the same sexual standards as women. Women defined as ‘sluts’ are considered sexually available to men, because once they are deemed sexually active they are automatically available to any man or boy. Men and teen boys who are sexually active are not given these pejorative labels. Female sexuality continues to be controlled and regulated by men, but male sexual activity and expression is deemed to be above condemnation and control.

We need to do more than simply telling men and boys that when a woman says ‘no’ to unwanted sexual demands or advances her refusal must be respected. We must redefine female and male sexualities wherein mutuality and respect replace biological assertions of male sexual domination and female submission. Irrespective of whether men dominate women sexually, women dominate men sexually or same sex partners play this role, the result is sexual exploitation.

Some women, like some men, are more sexually active than others, whereas others do not have multiple sexual partners. Far more important than whether or not a man or woman is a ‘slut’ is whether or not men and women treat their sexual partner(s) with respect and mutuality

We must challenge the widespread belief that male sexual aggression against women is normal male heterosexual activity. Likewise we must challenge the catagorisation of women into ‘sluts’ and ‘virgins’. Men are not ruled by their sex drives but are fully capable, like women, of controlling their physiological sexual functions. We must challenge embedded beliefs that men as a group have the right and entitlement of sexual access to any woman. Male sexual aggression is not innate, it is learned behaviour, and therefore can be unlearned. Likewise female sexuality is not passive or simply an adjunct to male sexuality. It is separate and autonomous. Women must have the right of sexual autonomy and ownership of their bodies just as men have been granted this right for centuries

If individuals believe women are either ‘sluts’ or ‘virgins’, then the same sexual pejorative terms must apply equally to men. For too long men have believed they alone can take the high moral ground and condemn women for the same sexual behaviour for which men are praised. However, given that women surprisingly are human too – we must in fact refuse to use these labels, because female sexual expression does not define a woman’s character or humanity. Some women, like some men, are more sexually active than others, whereas others do not have multiple sexual partners. Far more important than whether or not a man or woman is a ‘slut’ is whether or not men and women treat their sexual partner(s) with respect and mutuality. Male sexual violence against women exists in part because men continue to be socialised into believing women exist solely for the purpose of sexually servicing men. Male-defined ideologies of what supposedly passes for moral sexual behaviour must be challenged.

Yes, women too call other women ‘sluts’. But we must not forget these terms are male-defined. If they were female-defined, then men too would be pejoratively labelled ‘sluts’, ‘whores’ or ‘slags’. Only when men engage in homosexual activity are they condemned for their supposed sexual deviance because such activities are not ‘masculine’ and ‘real men’ must always be sexually attracted to women not men.

We must cease claiming women’s sexualities are responsible for men’s sexual violence against women and instead challenge the widespread belief women are defined solely through their sexual identity.

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