The Coven Editor’s Letter April 2016: You Ignorant Slut

Hello everyone,

This month’s theme at The Coven is SLUTS. Sluts, sluts, sluts.

I have been feeling a lot of trepidation and no uncertain amount of general stomach yuckiness over this theme. It’s because of my mother, you see. She reads these.

My mother, who, in all earnestness, once asked me if I was planning to stay a virgin until I got married – a good two years too late. My mother, who is very protective and private, who will definitely ring me after reading this sentence and patiently explain that she doesn’t remember this happening at all. So, you can believe me or her, but neither version of the truth will result in the writing down of my slutcapades. Sorry. I want to tell them. Some of them are really, really good. A slut always has great stories.

Sluts interact.

Karley Sciortino, she of Slutever, has written a new slut manifesto, which you can read here. Her chosen definition of “slut’? “A person of any gender who enjoys frequent consensual sex, especially with multiple partners.” It makes sense. The word needs a rebrand, apparently. Sluts are taking the power back.

It’s always been power, or the lack of it. The original, medieval meaning of the word was used to denote a person who did not exercise social discretion – commonly, this was seen as a lack of power and self-governance; now it could be interpreted as harnessing the power of strongly-held convictions.

She was dirty. She smelled (as, not surprisingly, many people did eight hundred years ago). She slept around. She had no self-control. Put simply, the old fashioned slut had no shits to give, but probably loved the stink of it anyway. What does one do with these disobedient women, who refuse to stand by the status quo?

Easy. We turn them against each other.

When I was in school and when my mother was in school and when my grandmother was in school, calling another woman a slut was the worst possible insult; a fun merry-go-round of incriminations and lunchtime silences and paranoiac toilet activity. In the second-last year of secondary school, someone started a horrible rumour about a friend having group sex at a house party (scandalous, I know – we should all be so lucky to have an orgy at eighteen) and she ended up leaving. She did this for many reasons, but the rumours didn’t help.

Later on, she ended up with a guy I had dated and I thought she was a SLUT, she stole my BOYFRIEND that BITCH. I HATE her. More than a decade on, I don’t feel peachy keen about thinking those things, but I am at least glad that I took a leaf out of my mother’s book and kept my mouth shut for once. What power she had was not mine to try to claw from her.

The word ‘slut’ is a distraction sent to occupy women when they pose a threat to the established order of things. Over the past few centuries, the word has denoted unmarried mothers, poor women, sex workers, women with BO, women who lived alone, those who said “No”, those who said “Yes”, witches, widows, children with big eyes and lips, girls unaware of their own encroaching puberty, women who used birth control, women who didn’t use birth control, virgins who spoke out of turn, physically strong women, emotionally muffled women, women who wanted jobs, women who wanted a vote, women who are going to the bar and not cooking your fucking dinner because there’s hot dogs thawing in the sink. The word ‘slut’ doesn’t need a rebrand. We’re all sluts, whether we like it or not. It’s a deceptive label.

For the longest time, there has been the tiniest bit of power passed between women, back and forth, up and down, a pejorative spin-cycled so many times that the textiles industry would kill to know how it’s kept its shape for so long. A woman lost a little of her clout every time she was called a slut and slowly we learned to penalise each other. We made a spectacle of it. Like watching the Christians and the lions, our savagery was a brutal smokescreen dreamed up to keep us from uniting against some very real tyranny.

I can’t state enough how important Kim Kardashian is when it comes to what happened next – the power shift. The efficiency of her brand of conventionally sexy empowerment  is definitely debatable, but she has made one thing palpably clear. Here is a women who we’ve seen having sex, and she has power – more power than the vast majority of women who live or who have ever lived. And all that power and money was precipitated by a sex tape and an extremely canny momager. Through her, sex had become a legitimate source of power, and not the vacuum sucking it from all the women in the room. She might not be stepping out on a Slutwalk any time soon, but her relative silence on feminism makes her an avatar to project our admiration on, or even an icon to draw strength from.

Is this power that we now harness another distraction, another illusion? Women get raped in every country despite social change. We still wield the world like a switchblade when it suits us. We are still ‘sluts’ to others where the word denotes an irreversible devaluation and degradation that seeps through on an atomic level. We need to spiritually unionise.

Is it enough for us to think that what we in developed countries have is the best that can be done? The freedom and power that this shimmering, almost graspable sexual fluidity affords Western women is of no use to other in other countries, ones where the word ‘slut’ is a gunpowder keg dotted with shards of broken glass. Women suffer after brutal clitoridectomies in Somalia, acid attacks in India, honour killings in Pakistan – countries where one’s definition as a women is tied up in a sexuality that has been forced upon her. Where worth depends on subordination. On obedience.

On power.

Sarah Waldron is the editor of The Coven.

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3 thoughts on “The Coven Editor’s Letter April 2016: You Ignorant Slut

  1. This was unexpectedly short. I feel like there should be a second part.
    I enjoyed reading this short essay. I was wondering: how come you chose the word “slut” to write about sexually empowered women? I understand that it’s an insult that is often used against us women. But I feel like “bitch” is a much more common insult nowadays, and it includes everything you said and more. Feminist women have been claiming insulting words for themselves for a long time now. Some with more or less success. We can see the same development in the LGBTQ community. Insults are claimed and changed into somethings positive. Not giving power to the person who insults you is an important step in the right direction. But what about those countries you described at the end of your essay? Is this a means that is helpful to them? What else is there for them to be done?

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    1. Hello, thanks for your comment. I’ll address your questions below.
      1) SLUT is this month’s theme, which was suggested by a Coven writer a few months back. Every essay this month is a riff on the word and this editor’s letter is more a comment on its relationship with power rather than an evolving critique of sexually empowered women. Essays published throughout the month will be about virginity, men and rape culture, and sexuality in the arts.
      2) Agreed, bitch is an incredibly common insult, but it’s not this month’s theme (and I would disagree with its potency in terms of sex and power, but that’s a different essay all in itself).
      3) Is there a means that is helpful to these women? That’s the exact question I pose at the end. I don’t have an answer and I doubt very much that most of us do. I think that most women experiencing these things in different country and in need of practical, enforceable solutions would probably find our brand of sexual evolution extremely unhelpful. I posed these questions in the hope that it would make the reader think about this schism.

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      1. Thank you for your quick answer!
        I see, I hadn’t noticed the fact that it was your theme for this month. I’ve only just stumbled upon your blog. It’s really interesting, btw.
        Makes sense, then to choose that word as an example.
        I hope you didn’t misunderstand my earlier comment. I only meant it as a compliment. The essay was beautifully written and I would have loved to read more. It also accomplished what was your goal. It made me think about it. I also see no easy answer to these questions. It certainly will need time and effort on everyone’s behalf to change the circumstances in our countries and those that are still developing.

        As for the potency of “bitch”… It’s a more international term. In Germany, it is being used more often than “slut” or the German “Schlampe”. Culturally, I think, it is interest to observe how the term developed.
        Of course, slut, slut-shaming etc are common terms but they tend to stay in English speaking countries. Other terms have a more international audience. Whether that is positive or not, I won’t discuss here 😉

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