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Slut! Should We Reclaim the Word or Banish It?

The Limbaugh controversy is a perfect example of the complexities of reappropriating, or renouncing, the slur.
 
 
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Until now, reclaiming the word “slut” never appealed to me. I fully supported the message of SlutWalk — that women don’t ask to be raped by dressing a certain way — but I had no interest in applying the slur to myself. But this Limbaugh thing has me singing a different tune.

I’m not exactly scrawling “slut” on my forehead, but suddenly, reclaiming the word seems potentially exciting. I’m not the only one recognizing a shift in the conversation about reclamation. Megan Gibson of Time  wrote, “While the motivation [for SlutWalk] was inarguably sound … the protest caused controversy, in part because many were wary to associate themselves with the word slut.” She continues, “Remarkably, thanks to Limbaugh’s ignorant vitriol, we’re seeing a marked change in that wariness.”

That said, in identifying with Sandra Fluke, the target of Limbaugh’s rant, some women have instead chosen to distance themselves from the term, which perfectly illustrates how complicated reclamation can be.

This week, the hashtag “iamnotaslut” went viral. Jessica Scott, an Army officer who started the hashtag,  tweeted, “I am a 35 year old mother of 2, an Army officer who has deployed. I use #birthcontrol to be a good soldier & responsible parent #iamnotaslut.”

Feminist activist Jaclyn Friedman points out that the message here is, “Just because I use birth control doesn’t mean I’m a bad girl” — which might imply that some women  are bad. “The problem with the ‘iamnotaslut’ hashtag is that it creates a line,” she explains. “[It says,] ‘I’m a valid spokesperson on this but women who have lots of sex are not.’”

Fluke is such a sympathetic character in part because her testimony — contrary to Limbaugh’s bizarre interpretation — wasn’t about sex; it focused on women who need birth control for reasons other than pregnancy prevention (specifically, polycystic ovarian syndrome and endometriosis).

“It’s a way to categorize and differentiate yourself, that  you are deserving of respect,” says Leora Tanenbaum, author of “Slut! Growing Up Female With a Bad Reputation.” It’s not all that different from what she observed among teenage girls while researching her book: The slur was most often used by girls, not boys. It’s a way for girls and women to displace anxiety about their own sexuality. “It’s a classic scapegoating technique,” she says.

The Limbaugh affair is a perfect example of how reclaiming, or rejecting, the term is immensely personal and dependent on context — and it goes much deeper than either SlutWalk or SlutRush. As many have pointed out, the word “slut” comes with different baggage for many women of color.  A letter written to the organizers of SlutWalk and signed by hundreds, read, “As Black women, we do not have the privilege or the space to call ourselves ‘slut’ without validating the already historically entrenched ideology and recurring messages about what and who the Black woman is. We don’t have the privilege to play on destructive representations burned in our collective minds, on our bodies and souls for generations.”

How individual acts of reclamation are understood by others is also dependent on context. “If you’re with a girlfriend and you’re like, ‘Yo slut,’ or whatever, everybody laughs and you all understand that you’re being ironic,” says Tanenbaum. “You can be ironic when you’re with people that  get the irony.”

One of the major arguments against reclamation at this point in time is that not enough people get the irony. “It may sound funny for me to say, because I did write a book that’s called ‘Slut!,’ but I do have a problem with taking back the term,” says Tanenbaum. “In order to successfully reclaim the term ‘slut’ we need to be in a place where more people have their awareness raised and are cognizant of the sexual double standard and what that means for women’s sexuality and freedom.” It’s still “too much of an in-joke,” she says.

 
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