The New Criterion vs. Sluts, Pt. II

A few less trigger-y notes:

I do think it’s a bit presumptuous for James Bowman to tell me what nice girls are and aren’t. But then I arrived at this line, and I had to laugh and keep reading:
“What set the self-proclaimed but (one supposes) ironic sluts off in their perambulations was the hideous gaffe of a Toronto policeman […]”

I mean, perambulating sluts. It’s funny.


“The struggle to turn “slut” from dysphemism to euphemism thus seems doomed to the same realms of unreality inhabited by a right to act like a slut without being perceived as a slut. After all, women can hardly hope to “reclaim” the word for good rather than evil so long as they themselves continue to find it so deeply offensive […]

On the one hand, the protestors wanted to celebrate the behavior, and, on the other, to damn the language traditionally used to describe it. […]”

I think this is a bit of a misunderstanding. The slutwalkers weren’t trying to “damn” the word, they were trying to turn it into a neutral: “Yes, I’m a slut. I’m also blonde. Chicagoan. Female. Being a slut is neither positive nor negative, and thus should not be an invitation to molestation.”

It seems that the marchers and their sympathizers thought that the best way to relieve the term of its historically negative connotation was to run it all the way to the other end of the field — from “sluts are awful!” to “sluts are awesome!” They assumed, I suppose, that the two would eventually cancel out and the term would fall into the middle — “sluts are…eh.”

Good thought, but I’m not sure that’s how meaning works.


“Either way, the feminist line appears to be that any woman’s sexual behavior, so long as it is self-chosen, is OK as a corollary to the right to privacy, but also that it should be immune from negative comment from those holding a different point of view, even when she herself makes it public. Freedom of speech, like freedom of religion (as noted in this space last month), must take a back seat to the putative freedom of women from any judgment that might be passed by others, particularly on their sexual behavior.

Doesn’t such an expectation belong to just as much of a fantasy world as the slutwalkers’ belief that acting as sluts will either discourage others from thinking of them as sluts or encourage them to start believing that sluttishness is a good thing—or perhaps both?”

Even if someone is acting as sluttishly as the lowest scullery maid, they should have the “freedom” not to be raped. Resolved.

But where is the line prior to that? Am I allowed to hold negative views of someone else’s behavior or presentation, or is that too much of a slippery slope? Is it that I can have my own standards but just shouldn’t do or say anything with them? If so, what’s the point?

Presumably, the idea behind the “right to privacy” is that what I do is none of your business since it has no effect on you; thus, you should leave me alone and let me do what I want without poking your nose in and looking down it at me.

None of us live in a vacuum, though, and we never have. (Although some would say that we’re closer or further apart then we ever have been, which is a topic for some later post…) So in some way this right to privacy is unfounded. Or is it? In what areas is it valid?

This isn’t a new question, but I’m always interested in new answers.


12 thoughts on “The New Criterion vs. Sluts, Pt. II

  1. I don’t think the point of the Slutwalks was that “sluts are awesome,” as I said in my post. But even bracketing that….

    “Even if someone is acting as sluttishly as the lowest scullery maid, they should have the “freedom” not to be raped. Resolved.”

    I think it’s interesting that you framed sluttiness as a class marker–and why I think the term needs to go. “Slut” has as much to do with power differentials, with class, with the control and objectification of women as it does with virtue or censure.

    Yes, I do think it’s helpful to question behavior and presentation: to suggest otherwise is to say that women’s behavior does not matter or cannot be subject to reason, or that the area of human sexuality itself is not subject to moral critique. The first is dehumanizing, the second is just stupid.

    So I don’t think refusing to slut-shame should mean refusing to have conversations about appropriate socio-sexual behavior (of course, some say that that any critique is slut-shaming, but I think they’re wrong, obviously.). It means refusing to have those conversations on terms that are objectifying and degrading.

    I think the Roman distinction between libertas and licensia is helpful here. Libertas was the right to speak and act freely without reprisals from those in power, while licensia was the complete disregard for the consequences of one’s speech and actions–a refusal to govern one’s self.

    Our sexual libertas–that our bodies and sexualities are not tools or property or subjects of men–should not be taken lightly and must be defended. However, that doesn’t mean we are entitled to licensia–free from the hard task of governing ourselves or above critique about how our choices affect ourselves and others.

    • In early usage, a “slut” was simply a kitchen maid (Pepys!). This is what I was referring to — sometimes my etymological jokes pop up where they aren’t needed, and it seems like this one became a distraction. My mistake.

      Yes, the word has class-based origins and can be used to control or objectify, but even if the term “goes,” another one will indubitably show up to fill the void. So… fight the noose, or fight the hangman? Focusing solely on the word “slut” is a distraction.

      “It means refusing to have those conversations on terms that are objectifying and degrading” — righto. So then, what I’m saying is that I think it’s a bit silly to expend all this time and effort “reclaiming” a word that you’ve already decided is entrenched, objectifying, and degrading. Instead of attempting to make a negative into a conditional positive (“it’s fine to be a slut if I’m calling myself a slut”), work on identifying and promoting the real positive.

      I do like your Roman distinction.

  2. “The slutwalkers weren’t trying to “damn” the word, they were trying to turn it into a neutral: “Yes, I’m a slut. I’m also blonde. Chicagoan. Female. Being a slut is neither positive nor negative, and thus should not be an invitation to molestation.”

    Also, one doesn’t have to believe that being a slut is a neutral quality to say that it should not invite molestation. One can have many bad qualities that should neither invite nor justify molestation.

    We do not award basic safety and freedom to men as a brass ring for being virtuous, but for being human.

    • Obviously.

      Alas, the ideal world is not yet here. As much as one would hope basic safety and freedom are awarded to every human, they often aren’t. Often they’re awarded on the basis of not having “negative” qualities.

      Until perfection arrives, people work to make do. As a first step, making a quality neutral instead of negative helps to make safety and freedom more accessible for those who have that quality – a reasonable goal in a flawed world. It’s unfortunate that this is what we have to work from, but so it is.

  3. No, I know the etymology of the word, and that was my point–that the word’s origin muddies the waters, because its connotations and mixed usage permeate our current lexicon in unhelpful ways. That’s why I wouldn’t mind if a new word took its place, would welcome it–a new word would probably have less of a fraught heritage and focus more accurately on behavior. The words we use to describe our world shape how we actually perceive our world.

    And for your ideal world objection–with all due respect, I think that’s bullshit. There are very, very few areas in which we accept that personal morality might “invite” violent assault–imagine if the occupiers started attacking Wall Street execs on their way to work on a daily, widespread basis for daring to flaunt their money. We accept that it happens to women and to all sorts of people othered by the mainstream because that’s what we’ve always been told and it’s easier to work within the staus quo– and in doing so we effectively ensure that things will never change.

    We will never make sexual immorality a neutral because sexual immorality is a bad thing, and deep down, everyone knows it. Much easier and much juster to fight tooth and nail against this horrendously degrading and dehumanizing view of women that accepts, understands or, in the slightest way intellecutally and socially accomodates the idea that women are raped as a form of punishment.

      • P1:

      I agree with you completely, so I’m not sure what the argument is here. I will say, however, that most people who use the word “slut” probably aren’t relating its current class-based distinctions to Restoration Britain, so I don’t know which “mixed usage” you’re referring to, exactly. Past meaning is past. Current meaning (which is what is being debated right now) is current. The words we use and what we make them out to mean make our world.


      We don’t “accept” that personal behavior or appearance (I think morality is separate here) might invite violence towards anyone, women included. Or maybe some people do, but I don’t. It’s unacceptable. What we do, however, is acknowledge that it happens. Then, we should interrogate and correct the twisted “reasoning” behind it using all the methods at our disposal. Simply shouting “No, this should not happen” does not necessarily make something stop happening.


      This is where I think we’re talking past each other. The point that I’m trying to make is that the SlutWalks, or at least the face of the SlutWalk that most people will see, seems primarily concerned with convincing everyone that sexual immorality, or sluttiness, or whatever you’d like to call it, is a neutral. And I think that this is a misguided approach.

      Maybe, deep down, everyone knows sexual immorality is bad (are you verging into natural law territory here? That’s unexpected). Not everyone’s interested in looking deeply, nor can we force them to be. However, having in many cases jettisoned the scaffolding on which to hang useful and justifying concepts like worth, autonomy, and respect, the neutrality argument seems to be the best “first step” to start with. Which is a shame. That said, it’s a first step. Not the last step or the only step.

      I’m not against fighting tooth and nail; in fact, I fully support it. But if that’s how you’re going to fight, it makes sense to critique and refine your technique — doing so doesn’t mean you’ve given up.

    • Yes, but that restoration usage gave birth to a new generation’s usage, which brought its own connotations, and so on until the present day, when it’s a heady mix of subconscious inherited connotations and modern brutality. Words do not simply lose their history and historical connotations just because people are no longer *conscious* of them when they use the word. I have been called a slut several times, and always while waiting tables. Words do not simply mean what *we* mean.

      And that’s my second point–you say you don’t accept that personal behavior invites assault but merely acknowlege it, but what you don’t include is that this is not a natural, universal fact of life. It applies very specifcally to rape et alia *because certain people believe that it is ok to rape women based on personal appearance.* When you speak of it so naturally, as The Way Things Are, you reinforce the nearly universal if rarely spoken cultural assumption that it *is* natural, it *is* the norm, and in the minds of a few twisted men that it *is* justifiable. If you’re interested in proofs and iterations, the only statistical evidence connecting immodest dress to rape is that men who think that there is a connection between dress and rape are more likely to themselves rape. Words and arguments have consequences.

      I agree with you that the face of the Slutwalks was “neutrality,” although not, I believe, the animating idea behind it, which is why I think the movement failed. I’m personally not interested in the neutrality argument, because you can’t build a just society on lies, and, as Bowman and others point out, it’s just not that convincing. It’s a first step that leads nowhere.

      I think the lost-in-translation message was “The way we think about rape is wrong, and perpetuates violence.” And I think a more artfully executed piece of activism could have got that across. I’d be interested in staging it.

      We can’t force people to look deeply, but we can make it much harder for them not to. We have to be willing, though, to actually make arguments that change how people think about women and rape,. I’m not sure who’s just shouting “this should not happen–” if you scroll down you’ll find a 1500 word essay interrogating the reasoning behind the slut-rape connection. The fight against rape is largely an intellectual one, one that examines and corrects how the way we think and speak creates a culture where rape flourishes. To engage rape culture intellectually seems to me the most eminent “realism” imaginable.

  4. I think the main difference is you see any change to this worldview as something that can only be achieved in a “perfect society.” I don’t. I see it as something can be achieved by a society with some–not much, but some–widespread concern for justice and equity. That’s much more likely than a perfect society, but it won’t happen unless we demand it and stop speaking of it as a utopian dream.

    • You underestimate what I see. I see changes to this and other worldviews happening all the time and I think that more change can be achieved — if I didn’t, I wouldn’t bother writing about it.

      What I do think, though, is that the truth will not fall like a bomb and suddenly everyone will be converted. I think that people and societies work in certain, often predictable ways. I think that constraints exist because people are flawed. I think that in many cases, explanations, discussion, and proof points are better than demands. I think that in some places, iteration works better than radicalism. I like radicalism, but I’m also a realist.

      You’re right, though, that maybe we shouldn’t speak of it as a utopian dream. It’s defeatist and I’ll admit that. But neither should we froth at the mouth because we can’t achieve our aims overnight. Instead, we should work towards them in reasonable and effective ways.

    • You’re absolutely right–but I think this means being careful and honest about what our aims are. No matter how careful and quiet the iterations and gentle persuasion that will make converts, our goals and systems of thought should be radical–that’s my beef. Slow reasoning can work, but only if we’re reasoning toward the right things. I see some of the things you say as indicative of too-limited goals and ways of thinking that will be self-defeating, because status-quo reinforcing.

      How much easier this would all be if we could charge into battle and slay dragons like we wanted to when we were children.


      The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.

      Not sure that applies so well to you, but certainly to me.

      Also, I am going to use this forum to ask: when shall I see you next? I think these conversations would be even better with alcohol, a la that fateful night with of the female libido at the Fox and Hound, courtesy of Mr. Jameson and Mr. Rando…

    • ^Immediately came to mind, for some reason.

      Otherwise… you know where I live, my dear Thing. Let me know when you’re coming into the city and we can do something.

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