I have been fortunate enough to only wonder what it would be like if someone, with the intention of defaming my character, called me a slut to my face. I often hear it amongst friends jokingly and dare I say affectionately but seldom with mal-intention. Perhaps, that’s why these words have become so engrained in our contemporary vocabulary as they sort of just roll off the tongue: “That little slut,” “She’s such a whore,” “This bitch is crazy,” “Hey bitchhhhh!” It’s funny, just a joke and no one is really being serious.
I was recently moved by the story of Jesse Logan, a teenage girl from Ohio. 18-year-old Logan sent a nude photo of herself to her boyfriend. To her misfortune, soon after the break-up, her ex-boyfriend sent the naked photo to various girls in his school. It sadly did not occur to his primitive mind that Logan’s bare body was not for communal display. This subsequently lead to a very public humiliation as students from various schools in the surrounding area relentlessly harassed her, deeming her a slut and a whore for this mere picture. According to the victim’s mother, Cynthia Logan, her daughter was miserable, depressed and even afraid to go to school. Last summer Ms. Logan walked into Jesse’s room only to find her daughter hanging from a rope— Jesse took her own life.
I began to think more critically about the words that I use and the words that I hear. What does it really mean to be a slut? What does it really mean to be a whore? By its textbook definition a slut is a slovenly or a promiscuous woman. A slut is a woman, in some cases a prostitute, that engages in sexual activity casually and without much rumination. The word “whore” differs in that it literally means prostitute. A whore sells her body as a commodity for financial gain.
By revisiting the precise definitions of words like slut and whore, it becomes clear that we use these words in our daily discourse outside of their original context. For a long time, I did not think that this was a big deal but it is evident that this misuse is causing real pain, the real pain of women. Even though there are words like man-whore and man-slut, they do not hold the same power. The words continue to be implicitly feminine. In Jesse Logan’s instance, the words or rather the shaming that resulted from the words drove her to the grave. So I must wonder why we continue to use divisive language that dehumanizes and degrades women?
As we remain speaking the language that demeans us, we perpetuate a shaming and a narrow interpretation of our sexuality when men are so often not put in the same stringent positions.
Bitch seems to be a different story. Many new-wave white feminists seem to have affectionately and proudly reclaimed the word. Although I am not altogether comfortable with this reclamation as I am still trying to navigate my own personal understanding of bitch, I find it difficult to similarly reclaim slut and whore. These words tear at the fabric of our sisterhood and continue to push women into humiliation, shame and guilt.
While the stories of women of color may not make NBC news, our realities are just as painful. We too engage in language that negatively challenges our sisterhood and diminishes our character. Although we like to believe that there aren’t dire consequences like suicide, the only ones we are fooling are ourselves. For black women, manipulation and humiliation by men are not foreign concepts and despite contorted representations of our sexuality, we think sincerely about the value of our bodies and how they are portrayed. I will not dare to call for some ceremonial burial of misogynist put-down words. I am in no such position. I only wonder if we could think more deeply about the implications of the things that we say. Perhaps through earnest discernment, we might be able to put them to rest.