men, masculinities and gender politics

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In praise of sluts, whores, and other promiscuous women.

Okay, first, let’s get one thing settled:  just how much sex someone else is having is none of my damn business.  And in an ideal world, no one else would make it their business, either.  But this is not (yet) an ideal world.  This is a world where women who are sexually active -- or who are merely thought to be sexually active -- are still often harshly attacked, viciously criticized, demeaned, diminished, loathed.
 
And I am sick of it.
 
These attacks come mostly from men... or from other women who are busily doing the patriarchy’s work for it by seeking to limit their sisters’ freedom -- sexual and otherwise. 

 

 
I am sick of this abusive behavior -- this sexually abusive behavior -- of calling a woman bad names because of how she looks/how she dresses/how she acts/how many people she has been sexual with/how many people you think she has been sexual with/for no reason at all... 
 
This stuff has real consequences.  It significantly and unnecessarily complicates sexuality for the majority of us.  And it greatly interferes with the ability of adolescent girls and young women to explore and experiment with their sexuality in a context that is safe from others’ judgement.  And in its most extreme form, it leads to the death of women and girls, either through their murder at the hands of an insanely jealous partner, or through suicide, as recently happened with the tragic incidents in Nova Scotia and in Northern California, where young women were reportedly raped at parties and then were then called “sluts” and “whores” by their peers when photos of the attacks were circulated. 
 
So then they killed themselves.
 
Not only was calling these young women “sluts” and “whores” a totally erroneous understanding of what happened to them -- they were raped, dammit! -- those are horrible names to call any woman or girl -- anywhere, anytime.   
 
Does the concept of a “slut” or a “whore” even make sense?  Personally, I don’t think so. 
 
Heck, we can’t even figure out what these terms actually mean!  According to Merriam-webster.com, a whore is a “a woman who engages in sexual acts for money: prostitute; also: a promiscuous or immoral woman.”  It is derived from the old Norse from hōrr, meaning adulteress.    
 
But according to Wikipedia, on the other hand, the English word whore derives from the Old English word hōra, from the proto-Germanic kohoron (prostitute), which derives from the proto-Indo-European root kā meaning "desire," a root which has also given us the Latin caritas (love, charity) and the French cher (dear, expensive).
 
So a “whore” is a woman who takes money for sex.  Or maybe she doesn’t.  Or maybe she is an adulteress.  Or maybe she is just someone who is promiscuous.  But regardless, she is someone whom we all desire!
 
Clear as mud, ain’t it?
 
As for a slut, Merriam-Webster says she is “a promiscuous woman; especially: prostitute."    (Again we seem a little unclear on the whole money piece.)  And, according to Wikipedia, “Although the ultimate origin of the word ‘slut’ is unknown, it first appeared in Middle English in 1402 as slutte (AHD), with the meaning ‘a dirty, untidy, or slovenly woman.’  Even earlier, Geoffrey Chaucer used the word sluttish (c. 1386) to describe a slovenly man; however, later uses appear almost exclusively associated with women. The modern sense of ‘a sexually promiscuous woman’ dates to at least 1450. Another early meaning was ‘kitchen maid or drudge’ (c. 1450), a meaning retained as late as the 18th century, when hard knots of dough found in bread were referred to as ‘slut's pennies.’”
 
So, a “slut” may or may not have sex.  She may simply bake bread.  She may be just physically dirty.  And she may or may not take money for any of the sex that she either does or does not have.  And until the mid 14th century, she might even have been a he, but now she is exclusively a she.
 
So the case for either of these terms is looking pretty weak. 
 
Albert Einstein once said: “If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” 
 
Personally, I prefer an updated version of that notion that I once heard someone say: 
 
“If you can’t explain something simply, it’s either because you don’t know what you’re talking about, or it’s because you’re full of shit!”
 
And it seems that when it comes to defining the terms whore or slut, we really don’t know what we’re talking about. 
 
And that when we use those terms to disparage women or girls, we’re full of shit.
 
And we’re also being sexist.  I am utterly sick of watching men (and some women) tear down women and girls for their sexual choices -- when most of us will celebrate those exact same choices when they are made by men!  I am sick of a world where a woman is called a “slut” for the exact same behavior that makes a man a “stud.”  I am tired of attacks on women who are merely exercising (or who are merely perceived to be exercising) their sexual liberty. 
 
The mixed messages endure.  There is an old saying that what a (straight) man wants in a wife is “a woman who is a lady in public and a whore in the bedroom.”  But that’s not entirely true.  A lot of us men are troubled by any woman’s overt expressions of enthusiastic desire -- even if she is our partner, and it’s inside of the bedroom!
 
“Good  women” -- and “good mothers” even more so -- are simply not supposed to be sexually voracious.  In our patriarchal, puritanical culture -- still stuck as we are in a Madonna/whore dichotomy -- many men find it difficult when their female partner expresses unbridled sexual enthusiasm.  Many men will still see her as a whore.  And it troubles them.  And this difficulty is greatly magnified when the woman also happens to be the mother of their children.  Because in a patriarchal society, mothers aren’t supposed to act “slutty.”
 
And even if we straight guys are totally okay with a female partner’s expressing herself sexually, we will still almost certainly claim her sexuality entirely for ourselves, demanding that she not engage in any sort of sexual interaction that does not also involve us – not even flirting.  Because in our society we hetero guys still believe that “the girl is mine!” 
 
And should she ever want to go out in public dressed like a “slut,” well, she is really only allowed to do that on Halloween.
 
(Have you ever wondered why so many women choose to dress in an overtly sexual manner on Halloween?  Could it be because that is the one day of the year when women have social permission to let their hair – and necklines – down, and to hike their skirts up?)
 
The hook up tightrope.  Even the “hook up culture” that has emerged on many college and university campuses -- in which women theoretically have a high level of sexual freedom -- is fraught with mixed messages.  Guys can pretty much hook up as much as they want, but women still must walk a tightrope -- lest they become known as a “whore.”  (And research suggests that a lot of hook up sex isn’t all that pleasurable anyway, and rarely results in orgasm...  for the woman, that is.) 
 
An interview conducted by Tracy Clark-Flory with author Leslie C. Bell about her book Hard to Get: Twenty-Something Women and the Paradox of Sexual Freedom discussed the perilous path that young women still must negotiate even within this context of supposed sexual license, and the fact that the relative freedom of “hook up culture” all too soon comes to an end: 
 
Q: This conflict between sex and committed relationships seems reminiscent of the wife/whore dichotomy, that we’re not able to conceive of a woman being desirous within a relationship.
 
A: Absolutely. I think we’ve not come a great distance from that dichotomy. It still is very easy to fall into. I think people feel on the one hand, you’re supposed to have lots of sexual experience, [but] you really have to be sure to rein that in before the specter of “the whore” comes in... I think the 20s are a moment where people do feel a little freer to have first experiences, but again it’s sort of punctuated by this date by which they’re supposed to become wives. It’s psychologically difficult for people to think about themselves as sexually agentic and enjoying sex and being a wife or a partner at the same time. Those are not very easy ideas to hold on to [simultaneously]. (http://www.salon.com/2013/03/03/finally_a_nuanced_look_at_hookup_culture/ )
 
So the conflicting messages remain very strong -- the tightrope is thin and shaky.  So a lot of women choose to get off -- and to forgo getting off.
 
Why do we hate women’s sexuality?  Last year the American political figure and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said:
 
“Why extremists always focus on women remains a mystery to me.  But they all seem to.  They want to control women. They want to control how we dress, they want to control how we act, they even want to control the decisions we make about our own health and bodies.  Yes, it is hard to believe that even here at home, we have to stand up for women’s rights and reject efforts to marginalize any one of us..."
 
She’s right.  Male supremacists -- wherever they are -- want to control women.  And an immense part of controlling women is trying to control their sexuality.
 
There seems to be little else in modern life that draws as much patriarchal scorn as the woman who is sexually self-possessed.  (Another target of vicious attack is the unapologetic gay man.  Because both of these lived identities upset the traditional social order in very profound ways.  Because these folks don’t need us patriarchs.  And they refuse to submit to our domination.)  
 
Any woman who pursues pleasure and sensuality on her own terms is a deep threat to the patriarchy.  We straight men simply cannot control a woman who is sexually powerful.  She challenges our entire social structure because one of key tenets of male supremacy is the notion that women’s sexuality (to the degree that it is allowed to exist at all) is entirely a performance that is put on for the benefit of us heterosexual men.  That women’s bodies were put here on earth only to please men. 
 
So we attempt to locate any overt female sensuality only in the prostitute, the whore for hire, the slut for sale.  A woman who, although sexual, is only for our use and disposal.  A woman we can control.  A woman we can buy.  A woman we can own.
 
A sexually self-empowered woman, on the other hand, is sexual in the ways she wants to be, when she wants to be, and with whomever she wants to be with.  We can’t control her!  And the final slap in the face of the patriarchy is that the “with whomever she wants to be with” just might turn out to not be us! 
 
And that enrages us.
 
And it is this fear of female promiscuity (and, I would argue, the fear of female strength in general) that contributes to the mutilation of female genitals throughout too much of the world.  To the attempted sexual destruction of women.
 
Reclaiming the words.  Reclaiming the world.    The other day I did a radio interview about the tragic suicide of Rehteah Parsons, a young Nova Scotia woman who killed herself after being “slut shamed” after having been raped.  During that show I said that we need to disarm the words slut and whore.  That we need to remove their sting.  That we need to stop judging women’s sexuality.
 
And there are some women who are actively trying to reclaim the terms slut and whore.  They are embracing the words.  Embracing the identity.  There is of course some controversy about whether these words can even be reclaimed.   Just as there has been around people trying to reclaim racist and homophobic slurs. 
 
As a white, straight guy, I don’t have an opinion on the issue of reclaiming racist, homophobic, or sexist names.  That’s not my battle, and I do not have the lived experience necessary to have an informed stance.
 
So what makes me think that I have the right to chime in on women’s sexuality at all?  After all, I have not lived a woman’s experience.  And, as I said at the beginning, just how much sex someone else is or is not having should be none of my business.  But I do feel a need to speak up because so many other men -- so many of my hetero brothers -- are so busy harshly condemning and viciously attacking women and girls for their expressions and enactments of sexuality. 
 
We still live in a world where people call young women “sluts” and “whores” for having been raped! We still live in a world in which a proposed United Nations statement against violence against women was condemned by conservative men around the world for insisting, among other things, that girls be granted sexual freedom and provided with contraception!  We still live in a world where grown men call for the stoning of a young Tunisian woman who dared bare her breasts on a website because, it was said, her actions were likely to cause “epidemics and disasters” and to destroy society! 
 
 
We still live in a world where most good men respond to these outrages with only silence.  But good men need to start speaking up.  We need to call out -- and call off -- our misogynist brothers.  We need to do our part to help to make the world safe for an empowered female sexuality! 
 
I have a young daughter.  I want her path to adult womanhood to be easier than it was for her foremothers.  And this includes in matters of sexuality.
 
Unapologetically “promiscuous.”  I think part of the antidote to all of this misogynist anti-sex poison is to hold up images of women who are unapologetically sexual.  Who are empowered.  Who don’t care if they are seen by others as being “promiscuous.”
 
Merriam-Webster rather conservatively defines “promiscuous” as being “not restricted to one sexual partner.”  But I prefer another definition – the one that defines promiscuous as “anyone who is having more sex than you are!”  Because that definition shows just how subjective and relative the term actually is!
 
Throughout history there have been women who have actively resisted society’s attempts to control them, their bodies, and their sexuality.  Women like the 19th century French novelist Amantine Dupin, who wrote under the pen name George Sand.  Dupin had numerous male lovers, and, quite likely, at least one lover who was female as well.  She often dressed in men’s clothes because of their practicality, and, shockingly for the time, she also smoked tobacco in public!  She was unapologetic about her lifestyle, even though she was harshly attacked for her behavior by the moralists of her time.  (Who are not so different from the moralists of our time!)
 
Another prominently pro-sex woman was Mae West, the American stage and screen actress who boldly asserted her right to have sex on her own terms.  As a young woman she penned and staged a play that was actually called Sex.  In 1927 it was shut down on moral grounds, and West was sentenced to jail for 10 days for harming the morality of the youth of New York City.  But, if anything, the morals charge only emboldened her, and she made a career out of being daring. 
 
Some of her more famous quips include:
 
Marriage is a great institution.  I’m just not ready for an institution yet.
 
When I’m good I’m very good, but when I’m bad I’m better.
 
A hard man is good to find.
 
I go for two kinds of men, the kind with muscles, and the kind without.
 
I go for two kinds of men, foreign and domestic.
 
Too much of a good thing... can be wonderful 
 
Why don’t you come up and see me sometime...  when I’ve got nothing on but the radio.  
 
I generally avoid temptation unless I can’t resist it.   
 
To err is human, but it feels divine.   
 
Those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often.   
 
When choosing between two evils, I always choose the one I’ve never tried before.   
 
Save a boyfriend for a rainy day.  And another, in case it doesn’t rain.
 
Good sex is like good bridge. If you don’t have a good partner, you better have a good hand!
 
I’m the lady who works at Paramount all day, and Fox all night.
 
Both Dupin and West have gone on to their eternal reward -- perhaps on Cloud Nine?  But another woman who still asserts her sexual appetites unapologetically is the country singer Dolly Parton.  In interviews she has hinted at the fact that she and her husband have an open marriage.  And in a recent issue of Vanity Fair she answered the magazine’s “Proust Questionnaire” with the following responses:
 
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
 
Snow White, because she slept with the seven dwarfs and got away with it.
 
What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
 
Monogamy—I’m sorry, I meant monotony.
 
What or who is the greatest love of your life?
 
My husband, Carl Dean—we have been together for 47 years.
 
Who knew that sweet little Dolly Parton likes to get around?  And she’s totally unapologetic about it, too!  And totally devoted to her husband.
 
Safe sex requires sexual safety!  People who teach sexual health often focus on “safer sex” techniques, practices, and products.  And while their work is absolutely essential, sometimes I feel there should be more attention in that work paid to issues of consent.  Because sex that isn’t fully consensual isn’t psychologically safe.  It hurts people, regardless of how much latex is involved. 
 
And we also need to raise our field of vision, and to look around at the hazards that are present in our entire sexual environment as well.  Our sexual environment is badly contaminated by puritanical, patriarchal attitudes that attempt to strip women of their sexual power.  Which is both tragic and ironic.  Tragic because the vast majority of humanity would very much like to be able to fully embrace and thoroughly inhabit our sexual selves.  But society tries to deny that right to women.  And it’s ironic because a woman’s clitoris is the only part of the human body (male or female) whose entire purpose is pleasure.  And even in societies like ours, where the clitoris is generally spared any ritual physical cutting or destruction, we still seek to deny females the option of pursuing their own pleasure on their own terms!   
 
How much sex any woman (or man) does or does not have really is none of my business.  But I believe that confronting a patriarchal society that attempts to control and/or kill women’s sexuality is my business.  Because I need our society to be a sexually healthier place.  I need that for all of us, but I especially need it for my daughter, who will soon grow into a young woman.  And as she increasingly negotiates her way through the culture, she will see how the terms “slut” and a “whore” are used to bully, to brutalize, and to humiliate women and girls.  And I need that shit to stop.        
 
We need to help to build a world where people of any gender – and this includes women! – feel free to have just as much (or as little) sex – good sex – as they want.  And by good sex I mean sex that is enthusiastic, consensual, safe, and ethical.  (“Ethical sex,” according to Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy, the sexual liberationists who argue for reclaiming the term slut in their book The Ethical Slut, means not deceiving anyone about your activities.  You don’t have to broadcast to the world what you are up to, but you don’t lie about it, either.)   
 
Building such a world means creating a social context where people of all genders – and again this includes women! – have the social permission to have a whole lot of sex, with one partner or with many!  Or to have just a moderate amount of sex with a modest number of lifetime partners – even just one!  Or to not have sex with anyone else at all! 
 
And any choices that a woman makes along that rich and varied continuum of human sexuality need to be totally okay.  Without her having to encounter any kind of judgement or criticism from anybody. 
 
Without having some misogynist jerk call her a slut or a whore.