Slut studies

Exploring the slur with the New York Times' Thursday Styles section.

Published July 13, 2006 8:10PM (EDT)

Today's New York Times Styles section offers a kind of lexigographic study of a word shunned and embraced by women across the nation: Slut.

Originating in the Middle Ages, slut "has emerged from a schoolyard barb to become commonplace in popular culture, marketing and casual conversation," the Times writes. Turning to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Times found that the primary definition of slut is "a woman of dirty, slovenly, or untidy habits or appearance; a foul slattern." The second entry defines a slut as "a woman of a low or loose character; a bold or impudent girl; a hussy, jade."

The latter meaning is the one that's popular in the U.S. today, and when it's used as a slur it does double damage. By its very status as an insult, "slut" disparages the idea that women, like men, can have multiple sexual partners and explore their sexual desires. Times writer Stephanie Rosenbloom also raises the oft-repeated point that modern male counterparts to slut, like "stud" and "player," have more positive connotations of status and masculinity.

"Slut," on the other hand, can still be hard to hear. Leora Tanenbaum, the author of "Slut! Growing Up Female With a Bad Reputation," told the Times that for junior high and high school girls, "being labeled a slut is still painful and humiliating, despite pop culture's semi-embrace of the term." In doing research for her book, Tanenbaum noticed that "it is primarily girls who are pinning the label on other girls." She suggests this is "because of their confusion over the contradictory messages they receive about their sexuality and how to conduct themselves." Tannenbaum found that the label often has nothing to do with sexual behavior. "Among teenagers, the word has been attached to girls whose bodies develop more quickly than those of their peers  as well as to pretty girls, girls who are somehow different, even girls who have been raped."

But the Times notes that some women have embraced the term in order to reclaim it (a transformation also enjoyed by former slur "queer"); Seventeen editor in chief Atoosa Rubenstein told the Times that "slut" and even "ho" are used by girls in a positive way, and added that "a phrase such as 'you little slut' has become a way for girlfriends to bust each other's chops."

On the whole, the Times offers an evenhanded and comprehensive (if slighty staid) overview of the four-letter word. It's depressing that most insults for women still focus on attractiveness and sexuality, but we're all for robbing slurs of their sting. We'll know when the term has truly turned the corner when it's used in all contexts: "Hey, New York Times, you big slut! Nice story!"

By Sarah Goldstein

Sarah Goldstein is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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