Suffragettes and Sluts: United in Semantics

By Max Bienstock

Demonstrator at the Slutwalk rally in Toronto last April

On October 1st SlutWalks will make its way to New York City. Since its beginning as a response to one Toronto policeman’s advice to female students to protect themselves from being raped by ceasing to dress like “sluts”, Slutwalks’ scope has widened, creating the largest feminist mass-movement in some time. Reenergized, feminists have their greatest opportunity in years to create widespread and lasting change in society. 

On its simplest level, SlutWalks protest the words of that one police officer, but they also protest the concept that victims can be at fault for being raped—that female sexual attractiveness surrenders the sacredness of sexual consent. Secondly, SlutWalks protest and satirize the practice of slut-shaming and the creation of superficial stereotypes based on clothing. Thirdly, they reject the entire notion of the virgin-whore dichotomy present in our culture, attempting to replace it with a more sex-positive outlook. SlutWalk demonstrators revolt against the status quo, sporting stereotypical ‘slutty’ clothing and ostentatiously labeling themselves as ‘sluts’. With their final stroke, SlutWalks attempt to do something just as difficult and perhaps farther reaching: to redefine and reclaim the word ‘slut’ itself.

To fight against injustice wherever it lies, even in the cultural bedrock of our language, is a noble cause. I do not believe that anyone can rationally defend the usage of derogatory terms when their purpose is to attack, but the issue of derogatory language is more nuanced than that. We all acknowledge that these words have strong meaning—that they are loaded bullets that can

SlutWalk rally in London last June

maim if used. But why should they be? The power of the word ‘slut’ comes from its many meanings and the associations wrapped up within it. It attacks an individual woman, ascribing to her traits (one of them being an overtly sexual nature) that much of our society sees as unclean. It reinforces a patriarchal system, gives cover for sexual violence, and denigrates all women by its very definition. However, by refusing to say it and words like it, we move only in a hollow direction away from a patriarchal society and instead transform into a paternalistic one. With that step we gain no ground, we may even move backwards. We concede that there is something at all shameful in any of the implications of ‘slut’. The word ‘slut’ specifically, leaving aside other epithets for the moment, is ripe for redefinition. There are only vague and purely individual notions of what makes one a ‘slut’. It has the potential be applied to anyone for even the slightest of reasons. This gives it its power, but also its weakness. If a significant push, like the SlutWalks movement, continues to take place, it has the potential to reclaim derogatory words, and to give the words new positive connotations.

Words are political. Language has been integral to the women’s movement from the beginning. To belittle women working for the right to vote, men—especially in the news media—began referring to these female activists as ‘suffragettes’. In the beginning, women derided the term, preferring to be called ‘suffragists’, the gender-neutral descriptor. However, many in the movement eventually realized that merely ignoring the word did not rob it of its power to demean their goals and actions. Women like Emmeline Pankhurst accepted the title and inflated it with its own positive meaning—even naming an activist magazine The Suffragette

Each wave of feminism has realized the importance of language and the need to alter both the debate and the entire culture by reclaiming and redefining derogatory language. One of the first clearly epithetical words marked for reclamation was ‘bitch’. An early attempt was Jo Freeman’s “The Bitch Manifesto” from 1969, which defined the negative usage of the word and strove to redefine it positively. In 1996, Bitch Magazine began publication, quickly becoming one of the foremost contemporary feminist publications. Perhaps the most well-known recent attempt to reclaim ‘bitch’ occurred during Tina Fey’s 2008 appearance on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update to deliver a comic monologue entitled “Bitch is the New Black”. Other sexually derogatory words including ‘cunt’ (famously the subject of a book by Inga Muscio), ‘slut’, and ‘whore’, have been the target of reclamation efforts. For performances, feminist punk musician Kathleen Hanna famously wrote these words on her body to dilute their power.

As is clear, this concept is not new, and hardly limited to sexist language. Comedian Lenny Bruce took issue with the power that derogatory language has in our society and used it ad absurdum, not just to get a sick laugh, but to reveal how essentially meaningless these words are without the power we ascribe to them. One of Bruce’s best stand-up routines went like this: “Are there any niggers here tonight? I know that one nigger who works here, I see him back there. Oh, there’s two niggers, customers, and, ah, aha! Between those two niggers sits one kike…uh, two kikes. That’s two kikes, and three niggers and one spic. One spic-two, three spics. One mick”. By using the words over and over again, they lose the taboo power they have over us. We know that language reclamation can be successful. ‘Queer’ is no longer viewed by mainstream society as a slur, and even has positive connotations as seen in the rallying cry, “We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!”

Reclamation efforts are certainly difficult, especially when dissent about their plausibility comes from within the movement, but we know that it remains an essential part of a correction to our culture. As the reaction to SlutWalks has shown, our culture needs to start a dialogue about sexism. There can be no dialogue and no effective change in the culture when language is stamped out and self-censorship and paternalism become the law of the land.

Further Reading:

Speech by Jaclyn Friedman at the Boston SlutWalk 

Article by Rebecca Traister about SlutWalk

Jaclyn Friedman’s blog post on SlutWalks

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One Comment on “Suffragettes and Sluts: United in Semantics”

  1. […] of sexual assault and rape in a SlutWalk march and rally in Union Square (read more about SlutWalk here). It was an incredible rally and I was amazed to see such a large and enthusiastic turnout. […]


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