In director Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999), Mena Suvari’s character says at one point with abundant delight to her best friend Thora Birch, “you total slut!” It’s a phrase that is as common and colloquial with teenage girls as it is in the porn industry. The term “slut” is one that many have tried to re-appropriate like in the photograph of Riot Grrl Kathleen Hanna with “slut” emblazoned on her belly like a talisman, like a warning. Hanna’s defiance of societal expectations regarding femininity and her acknowledgement of the double standard regarding women’s sexuality (we want our girls to be virgins, but we sexualize them every chance we get) allows the word “slut” to take on various gradations of meaning, but few have been able to redefine this term or unpack it in such nuanced ways as the acclaimed punk singer.
The phenomenon of “slut shaming” is still prevalent for many young girls today. Slut shaming is the assumption that a girl is a “slut” based on the way she dresses, talks, who she dates, what rumors circulate regarding her sexuality and sexual acts (whether they be fact or fiction), the list goes on and on. While some instances may appear as innocuous as Suvari’s riff in American Beauty, it is painstakingly clear in pop culture that girls are still pushed to capitalize on their sexuality and consequently punished once they do so. Leora Tanenbaum unpacked the connotations and implications of “slut” in her book Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation (1999) where she notes, “there is little a ‘slut’ can do to erase her stigma. Magnified by sexual metaphor, her social difference defines everything about her. She represents soiled femininity” (12). Chloe Okuno’s 20-minute horror short Slut (2015) addresses the unabashed desires of her clement protagonist to shed her good-girl persona and the consequences that follow in all her “soiled femininity.” Additionally, David Robert Mitchell’s horror film It Follows (2014) also explores the harrowing aftermath of a girl’s one-night stand with a cute guy, though neither Okuno or Mitchell pass judgement on their female protagonists. However, Todd Heywood acknowledged this idea that women are ruined through sexual activity, when he was forced to reassure readers in his opinion piece “Save the Slut Shaming: Neither the HPV Vaccine Nor PrEP Will Cause Us to Become Promiscuous,” that these vaccines don’t turn girls into “sluts”—they save lives. Ethan Czahor, Jeb Bush’s chief technology officer, believes your college major will turn you into a slut, as evidenced from past tweets including, “college female art majors are sluts; science majors are also sluts but uglier.”
On the flip side of this, there’s also the glorification of the “slut” in various media. Producer Rashida Jones’ timely documentary Hot Girls Wanted (2015) illuminates this ever increasing trend and demand of barely legal girls in porn. When ads in pornographic magazines feature the last four digits of their phone number as “slut” or feature previews to the pages of girls with the word blazing across their bodies like a promise, one must wonder what it is we’re promoting as sexy in our society. The slut becomes an object of desire, but only when she is pictured on the glossy veneer of the pages or a mere click away on our laptops. We don’t want the slut to be real, because she then becomes a threat to our puritan ideals, including abstinence-only programs that have recently received astronomical funding, thanks to George W. Bush, despite their proven ineffectiveness, providing a sobering paradox to our ideals vs. the realities of our sexual demands. The National Abstinence Education Association recently released new guidelines that promote a stronger risk avoidance message: ‘The most reliable way to avoid transmission of STDs is to abstain from oral, vaginal, and anal sex or to be in a long-term, mutually monogamous relationship with a partner known to be uninfected.’” However, the most common word searched for with porn is “teen.”Conservative America can’t have its cake and eat it too. If abstinence is “the most reliable” method for our youth, then why is the demand for the “slut” so high?
What we need in order to move beyond the two-dimensional dichotomy of the “good girl” or the “slut” is a middle ground in which girls can explore their sexuality with all the necessary information and resources available to maintain healthy and safe boundaries. While I’m not suggesting we resort to a Brave New World of feelies, I’m more conscious of my body and women’s bodies in general today than ever, how our bodies are being erased from the public sphere’s dialogue (hence the abstinence only model that dislodges any acknowledgement of sexuality), and political movements that claim ownership to my body. We need to acknowledge that some girls are sexual, not necessarily by the dictations of Hustler magazine, but as curious, sentient beings—this reality shouldn’t represent “soiled femininity” or be socially stigmatized. We need to allow our girls more options than simply the Madonna or the whore.
When Hanna took back the word “slut,” she reworked the power of the meaning behind the language. I’m hoping more girls become willing to investigate the way their sexuality is portrayed in the media or marketed to them in magazines. Women—it’s time to reclaim not just our bodies, but the language used to describe us, in all our American beauty.