Sex & Relationships

He's a Stud, She's a Slut: The Sexual Double Standard

"Slut" is applied to women engaged in any activity besides knitting, praying, or sitting perfectly still lest any sudden movements be deemed whorish.
From the book He's a Stud, She's a Slut by Jessica Valenti. Reprinted by arrangement with Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2008.

If you have a vagina, chances are someone has called you a slut at least once in your life. There's just no getting around it.

I remember the first time I heard the word "slut" -- I was in my fifth-grade science class. A certain little girl (terror) named Eleena had been making my life miserable all year in a way that only mean little girls can. She had turned all my girlfriends against me, spread rumors and the like. She walked up to me at my desk and said, "You called me a slut." I had absolutely no idea what the word meant. I just sat there, silently. She repeated herself: "You called me a slut, but you're the slut." I don't remember how long after that I found out exactly what "slut" meant, but I knew it had to be terrible and I knew I didn't want to be it.

Naturally, I'd be called a slut many times over later in life -- not unlike most girls. I was called a slut when my boobs grew faster than others'. I was called a slut when I had a boyfriend (even though we weren't having sex.) I was called a slut when I didn't have a boyfriend and kissed a random boy at a party. I was called a slut when I had the nerve to talk about sex. I was called a slut when I wore a bikini on a weekend trip with high school friends. It seems the word slut can be applied to any activity that doesn't include knitting, praying, or sitting perfectly still lest any sudden movements be deemed whorish.

Despite the ubiquity of "slut," where you won't hear it is in relation to men. Men can't be sluts. Sure, someone will occasionally call a guy "a dog," but men simply aren't judged like women are when it comes to sexuality. (And if they are, they're judged in a positive way!) Men who have a lot of sexual partners are studs, Casanovas, pimps, and players. Never sluts. In fact, when I just did a Google search for "male sluts," the first result I got was She Male Sluts DVD! I know, should have seen that coming. The point is, there isn't even a word -- let alone a concept -- to signify a male slut.

But it makes sense when you think about what the purpose of the word "slut" is: controlling women through shame and humiliation. Women's bodies are always the ones that are being vied over for control -- whether it's rape, reproductive rights, or violence against women, it's our bodies that are the battleground, not men's.

And if you don't think it's about control, consider this little bit of weirdness. The most recent incarnation of the sexual double standard being played out in a seriously creepy way is through Purity Balls. These promlike events basically have fathers take their daughters to a big fancy dance where they promise their daddy their virginity. Likewise, the father promises to be the "keeper" of his daughter's virginity until he decides to give it to her future husband. Where are the Purity Balls for men, you ask? Oh, they're there, but they're about controlling women too! Called Integrity Balls, these events focus on men not having sex because they'd be defiling someone else's "future wife"! Not because men need to be pure or be virgins -- but because they need to make sure women are virgins. Unbelievable, really.

Outside of the feminist implications of the sexual double standard, the slut/stud conundrum has always been my favorite because it just makes no sense logically. Why is a woman less of a person, or (my favorite) "dirty," because she has sex? (Heterosexual sex, that is; somehow lesbian sex isn't "real.") Does a penis have some bizarre dirtymaking power that I'm unaware of? Every time I have sex, do I lose a bit of my moral compass? "Sorry to mug you, Grandma, but I had sex twice this week!"

And let's face it -- the slut stigma isn't just dangerous to our "reputations" or to some weird-ass notion of purity. How many times has rape been discounted because a woman was deemed a slut? How many times are women called whores while their partners beat them? How often are women's sexual histories used against them in workplace harassment cases? The sexual double standard is a lot more dangerous than we'd like to think.

So ... What to Do?

First and foremost, stop calling other women sluts! It doesn't behoove us to bash each other, gals. And speak out when you hear men do the same. I'll never forget in college overhearing a conversation that my boyfriend's roommates were having. They both had slept with the same girl over the course of the year -- they called her a whore and made a joke about her vagina being "loose." I asked them why she was the bad person in this scenario -- after all, they had had casual sex with her, too. They couldn't provide an answer, but that didn't stop them from continuing to laugh. I always regretted not saying anything more. Outside of calling ourselves and others out on perpetuating the double standard, it's a hard battle. But I think if we recognize the hypocrisy of the slut/stud nonsense when we see it -- whether it's an anti-choice law or a movie that makes women who have sex look like deviants -- we're on the right road.

Excerpted from He's a Stud, She's a Slut by Jessica Valenti.
Jessica Valenti is the executive editor of Feministing.