Be honest: Have you been labeled a slut or a ho, or worried that others think you’re “promiscuous,” or slipped into a shame spiral over your “slutty” behavior (whatever that means)? Have you ever called somebody a slut (whether to their face or, more likely, behind their back) because you thought that it was acceptable or (dare I say) moral?
If you have a vagina and grew up in America, the answer is, sadly, probably yes. And you know what? It’s now a good time to recognize how misogynistic and stigmatizing the whole concept of sluttiness is, and how much you may have internalized it.
“Promiscuity” Really Means Misogyny
Similar to virginity, promiscuity is nothing more than a construct — a misogynistic one designed to uphold a system of double standards when it comes to gender and sexuality. (And yes, it’s clearly a system that doesn’t acknowledge people who are nonbinary or gender fluid or gender creative or expansive. But for me, when I say “girls” or “women,” I mean any person who expresses or experiences life as femme or feminine or identifies as as a girl or woman regardless of what may be between their legs – because all of us have been given these old messages.)
The concept of promiscuity and words like slut and ho and whore (sadly, there are dozens of these labels), are BS and used throughout history to make girls and women feel guilt and shame about their innate sexual desires and feelings while validating and elevating men’s sexual experiences. I despise the word “slut.” I tell my students that I break out into hives when I hear it. Every time I write it I am cringing. And yes, I know that some people want to reclaim it, but I’d rather just get rid of it.
I know that there are going to be some readers who say: But Logan, men can be promiscuous, too. I’m rolling my eyes, sorry. Yes, sure, but how often do you hear words like slut or whore tossed around to describe boys and men? And if you do, the likelihood is that it is meant to be funny and does not have the same gravitas as when it is applied to women. Don’t @ me. I said what I said and I stand by it.
In the Merriam-Webster dictionary, promiscuous means: “having or involving many sexual partners : not restricted to one sexual partner or few sexual partners” and “not restricted to one class, sort, or person: indiscriminate.”
But let’s think about this for a moment: What does “many” or “few” mean? Quantity of sexual partners and norms are deeply personal, cultural, and generational, and yet still not to be used universally because sexuality is (again) deeply personal. I ask you to consider this idea of the indiscriminately sexual woman – the one you’ve been told is acceptable to shame – who does it serve? It certainly doesn’t make those of us who live and identify as women feel good about ourselves and our sexuality. It certainly doesn’t make us more likely to fully engage in sex and pleasure. It definitely impacts how and if we use our voice or share our needs with a partner, which is essential for fulfilling experiences. And it definitely impacts whether or not we feel safe and entitled to access necessary sexual and reproductive health services.
So again, I ask you: who does this problematic line of thinking serve? Because if your answer is “men,” I’ll challenge that, too. If men are sexually involved with women, I can promise you that their sex lives will suffer because of the guilt and shame we’ve had to endure over all of these centuries.
In order to do a deep dive into the history of the purity/promiscuity model, I would have to write another doctoral dissertation. But there are some critically important questions that we need to be asking ourselves: Why are some cultures more committed to curbing female sexuality than others? What is it about women (remember, it’s a broad definition) feeling empowered by their sexuality that is so threatening? Is it that people with uteruses control reproduction and the future of civilization? Is it that some societies’ concept of masculinity has been so polluted by toxicity that the only way for some men to feel like a man is to have power over feminine sexuality?
Monogamy is Not the Default
Contrary to what you may have been taught, monogamy is not the default setting for all human beings. Polyamory and non-monogamy are not new concepts; they have existed throughout history and have taken many forms. The reality is that many people choose monogamy because our social and legal systems have been set up to support monogamous relationships, but that doesn’t mean it is the gold standard for all people. To suggest that you have a right to determine how anybody’s else’s consensual relationships are structured is egotistical and absurd.
If I have learned anything over the years, I can tell you that when it comes to sex, no one tells you everything about what they are doing and how they are doing it. They just don’t. But the shaming and policing of women’s sexuality isn’t solely about what they may (or may not) have done; slut-shaming is perpetuated based on the shape of someone’s body, what clothes they wear, how they express or speak up for themselves. And the way in which we sexualize women’s bodies (and BIPOC bodies are often hyper-sexualized and shamed in extraordinarily damaging ways) as if they are asking for commentary from others suggests that no matter what you do, no matter what you look like…you are asking for it. I call bullshit.
Get the “Slut Myth” Out of Your Head
What do you call a woman who proudly has sexual experiences and doesn’t follow the arbitrary sexual guidelines of her respective culture or peer group? A human.
If someone has ever called you a slut or a whore, please know that your worth is not measured by another person’s expectations of your body or your actions. It’s hard, I know — as a person who has been talking openly about sex and sexuality since my teens, I have been labeled this way many times. I have lots of fantasies about going back in time and replying to the word, “slut” with: “I’m sorry that you have been taught to feel so badly about yourself that, in turn, you feel the need to disparage someone else’s sexuality. I can only hope that one day you feel as empowered by your body as I do.” It may be a fantasy for me, but I hope that it becomes reality for you.
If you have “slut-shamed” someone in the past, I ask you to reconsider your actions. Why is it that trying to make someone feel small or worthless makes you feel good about yourself? What if instead of judging someone’s choices (or assumed or rumored choices) we simply gave other people the freedom to determine what was best for them? Why are we so narcissistic that we think our personal beliefs should apply to everyone?
But I also encourage you to forgive yourself for any slut-shaming you’ve committed in the past — whether toward others or yourself. Society pushes the slut myth on us from a young age, and so it’s hard not to fall for or internalize it. It’s never too late to hold yourself accountable and it’s never too late to change.
Let me end with this, in case my perspective wasn’t already clear:
- You get to decide what you want to do with your body.
- You get to decide how you want to express your body, your gender, and your sexuality.
- You have the right to bodily autonomy and agency.
- People who judge you or shame you are making it abundantly clear that they do not deserve to be a part of your decision making and your intimate life.
And if you’re still reading this and disagreeing with me, let me put it into a broader framework for you. Decisions about sex that are rooted in guilt and shame have never had positive, healthy outcomes. Never.