In one of my English courses a group of students were asked to analyze Jamaica Kincaid’s flash-fiction story “Girl” from a feminist perspective and then to present their interpretation. This particular piece of flash-fiction can be found in pretty much every introductory literary studies anthology on the planet because it speaks to such a wide demographic—young people, African-Americans, and women.
Any number of themes could have been discussed when the group presented their interpretation. Anything from British colonialism and its affects on young African women, to the very general; the problematic gender expectations and sexist double standards that instill confusion in young women.
But, instead, the group decided to talk about sluts.
“Girl” is written to mimic a mother advising her daughter to become the ‘right’ kind of woman. One motif in this fictional mother’s dialogue is: “On Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming.” Every few sentences the mother warns her daughter against becoming a slut, until she finally just assumes her daughter is a slut, in which case, she starts giving her tips on how to conceal her slutty-ness.
The presenting group zeroed in on this motif, and the class had a thirty-minute discussion about whether or not the girl in the story was actually a slut. Not only did the group, and the rest of the class, completely miss the point of this motif and the story as a whole, but the language and the attitude they chose to discuss it with was nauseating. (Perhaps what made the whole thing especially disturbing was the fact that the group leading the discussion was mostly women.)
The first group member to speak on the subject said: “Well, I think whether or not this girl is slut really depends on how she’s dressing. Like, you know, Miley Cyrus—she’s a slut. Maybe that’s what the mother is trying to say when she’s talking about hemming a dress.”
After this comment, and after the word slut was tossed around a few more times, the discussion completely transitioned from Kincaid’s story, and became entirely about whether or not Miley Cyrus was a slut: “Miley Cyrus is for sure a slut, the things she wears are so disgusting—you all know what she did with the foam finger at the VMAs.”
Then another girl said: “Who cares. If Miley Cyrus wants to be a slut, then let her be a slut.”
Slut, slut, slut, slut, slut. It went on and on.
I remember listening to everyone and thinking: Did we learn nothing from that assembly with Ms. Norbury in 2004?! Stop calling each other whores and sluts!!!!
I put my head down onto my literary criticism anthology and mentally checked out for the next 20 minutes. I just couldn’t engage in that discussion. Later in the day I told my good friend Nyemh about what happened and all she had to say about it was: “General stupidity aside, who do they know that Miley Cyrus fucks?” And I laughed because, seriously!
My least favorite word in the English language is slut. I hate it because it’s a word that solely demeans women, but somehow, is very much a part of our generation’s everyday conversation. I can’t remember when I specifically decided to edit the word, and all of its synonyms, out of my vocabulary. All I know is that one day I was listening to my friends (all girls) talk and it suddenly dawned on me that we were throwing, “Yeah, she’s a slut,” accusations out like candy. I remember wondering: What gives us the right to rationalize and classify what should be, and is, the most private and sacred part of another woman’s being? And then it happened: I decided to operate under the pretense that sluts don’t exist, and neither does the concept of purity.
Everyone’s sexuality is so personal and individual, and the sexual encounters of others (if we hear about them) are often taken out of context; no one can fully understand the situation and circumstances under which they occur except for the people involved. So, we should have some respect; we should stop scrutinizing how other women choose to conduct and/or present their bodies, especially in such harsh, superficial, terms.
Words like slut, and whore, and loose are damaging, not only because men seem to be exempt from the conceptions associated with them, but also because their prevalence in our vernacular implies that we have this pre-existing idea that not only can a woman’s identity be defined by how many people she has or hasn’t slept with, but also her worth; how she is viewed as a person and whether or not we see her as someone worthy of basic human understanding and compassion.
I was raised Christian—a religion I no longer identify with—and the denomination I grew up in reinforced the idea that every time you had sex with a different person you were giving him a piece of your soul.
Seriously, that’s what they’d tell us in these ‘save yourself’ girl talks where they came up with these crazy sexist metaphors for our virginity. One example being: “Before sex, you’re a clean, straight, nail. But if you have sex outside of marriage, you get rusty.”
Of course, now I realize how incredibly gross (and manipulative) it is to compare teenage girls’ hypothetical sex lives to rusty nails, but being an impressionable thirteen year old at the time, I internalized this idea. I operated under this I’ll-lose-a-piece-of-my-soul logic, totally believing that guys were like horcruxes, and if I let too many of them touch me, then I’d start looking like Lord Voldemort.
It’s disappointing, but Christian or not, this is an anxiety that mainstream society is still perpetuating in its young women, perhaps in less superstitious terms; but nevertheless, it’s undeniably there. And every time we call another woman a slut, every time we judge who a woman is based on her sexuality alone, we should be ashamed of ourselves.
Slut, whore, bitch, loose, psycho, fat, ugly, boring, fake, stupid—all of these superficial one-word judgments are cop outs; an easy way to rationalize our own de-sensitivity to the whole person on the other end of the word. And I’m guilty of doing this. I’m guilty of saying some of these things about other women: my female friends, my female peers. And it was always jealous, if not vindictive; it was always catty. There’s no way around it; it was mean.
And I’m sorry if I ever did this to you. I’d take it all back; I’d eat my own words if I could. I’d allow them to settle like bricks in my stomach until I ache the way all of you must have ached because of the things I’ve said.
And when I think of the women who have wronged me in this way, I try not to hold a grudge. I try to remember who I used to be and how I’ve changed; I remind myself that other people are capable of change too.