Should We Ban “Slut” and “Ho” From the Lexicon?

I must commend Sandra Fluke, like so many others have already done, for rightly condemning “shock jock” Rush Limbaugh’s efforts in silencing women who dare to speak publicly about sexual politics by calling them “sluts.” The furor over Limbaugh’s slut-shaming tactics, however, seems to underlie a different anxiety that is more than just outrage over such blatant misogyny.

Rush Limbaugh is a bigot, a misogynist and a homophobe. His recent “slut” comments are right up there with his usual hate speech, and I distinctly remember him uttering the word “ho” to describe the black woman accuser behind the infamous Duke lacrosse case before that same case got dismissed

What had impressed me back then was when I heard a white woman called into his radio show and, without knowing much about the case or how it would unravel a year later, lambasted Limbaugh for using such an epithet to describe a woman. It was clear that Limbaugh was genuinely stunned that a white “conservative” woman didn’t rely on racial divides, or class and political “respectability” rules, to distinguish herself from a black sex worker. She understood that the “ho” label applied to all women, even if it was used to only apply to black women, and she did not let Limbaugh get away with it.

I also distinctly remember Don Imus’s “nappyheaded ho” comment and the furor over that, thus proving that while many are outraged over “slut” we’ve also been inundated with “ho” language–from radio shock jocks recently undermining Whitney Houston’s legacy with the dismissive “crack ho” label to popular presidential campaign posters back in 2008 championing Obama over Hillary Clinton with the slogan “Bros Before Hos.”

In many ways, the public furor over Limbaugh’s slut-shaming of Fluke demonstrates that, once again, women will not let him get away with it. But it bothers me that so many of our responses–from #boycottrushlimbaugh Twitter trends to President Obama calling Fluke to show his support–are based on the premise that to be called a “slut” is inherently to be shamed.  It bothers me that, despite all the efforts of the sexual revolution and women’s liberation–which have enabled women to avoid the stigma of having sex outside of marriage, having children outside of marriage or having sex beyond the confines of heterosexuality–that some hate-monger can just say, “You’re a slut” and a public meltdown ensues.

This suggests that women’s sexual egos are still fragile, but in a woman-hating society this should come as no surprise. In a sexually evolved world in which a woman proudly proclaims her enjoyment of sex, of kink, of polyamory, or even basic monogamy, the sex-positive woman should be able to respond to the “you’re a slut” woman-hater a number of ways:

  1. The flippant response: “How quaint of you. That’s so 50 years ago!”
  2. The defiant response: “Power to sluts and sex goddesses everywhere! Woo hoo!”
  3. The vulgar response: “Eat me!”

However, we do not live in a sexually evolved society, so to deliver any of these responses is to hint that you’re not quite the respectable lady so many of us work so hard at being. To do so is to invite suggestions that we just might be the “slut” those guys over there say we are, and that fear of sexual labels keeps us in line, or puts us on the defensive, with the retort “I’m not a slut!”

That Limbaugh–an admitted drug addict, bigot and proud chauvinist–responded to the furor not by apologizing (which would be like a Ku Klux Klan member apologizing for being racist) but by digging in his heels and suggesting that Fluke and other women who want contraceptives covered by health insurance should subject themselves to online porn, only proves that men like him are shameless in what they’re doing. But of course they can be: No matter what sexual misconduct men engage in–whether they are busted in prostitution rings or in child molestation cases–they never get slut-shamed.

Middle-aged Catholic priests and football coaches have institutions that cover up their bad behavior, but under-aged girls such as Amber Cole can be videotaped in sex acts and become YouTube sensations and Twitter trends, slut-shamed by the general public–as if any of the shamers have a moral leg to stand on while trafficking in child pornography.

This is the climate in which we live, where male privilege runs rampant and women are still on the defensive. And where “slut” will maintain its power over us as long as rape and other forms of sexual violence go unpunished, as long as our reproductive rights are undermined and as long as our reproductive health options are limited (the very issue that forced Fluke to speak out in the first place). Moreover, “ho” will maintain its power as long as we insist on racial and class hierarchies among women.

Isn’t Limbaugh’s slut-shaming based on the same sentiment that provoked a Toronto police officer last year to tell women not to “dress like sluts” to avoid being raped, thus igniting the worldwide SlutWalk protests in response? And isn’t the ensuing debate among feminists over this activist strategy indicative of our fear of the word “slut”?

As I suggested in a previous post, the SlutWalk has provided an ample opportunity for women to confront words like “slut” and “ho” head on and divest them of their power. If we really think these words can’t be reclaimed, and rappers like Nicki Minaj are wasting their time, then perhaps it’s time we get down to business and ban “slut” and “ho” from our lexicon, the way the N-word is now taboo.

Of course that won’t change the hate in the hearts of some, but we can mobilize that hate toward a counter-narrative for a new political movement.

Photo from Flickr user sahlgoode under Creative Commons 3.0.

Comments

  1. personfirst says:

    I think you bring up many valid points, but I don’t think it was necessary to mention Limbaugh’s struggles with addiction. People with mental illness have enough stigma to deal with without feminists jumping on the bandwagon and equating “addict” with “bad person.”

  2. @feministspring says:

    Women’s sexuality has always been used to shame them and to control them, to admonish them into being desirable, monogamous property with no sexual will. Step over the line into sexual and you will not be saved as pure for the man who will own you.

    Men’s sexuality has always been used as an acheivement.

    So when terms like, “slut” are hurled at women they are considered vile. When Rush was caught with his Viagra, it was a back-slapping moment, not a source of shame. Nobody thought of him as a “slut.” They thought of him as normal for having a sex life.

    But the story goes beyond knee-jerk name-calling when Rush wades into the pornographic video suggestion for Ms. Blunt. That seemed more shocking and creepy. I wouldn’t want to be in the same room with anybody that disturbed he would not only say it, but that he had written down to say on the air, on camera.

  3. I don’ think appropriation really works. You never seem to actually remove power from a word. You just make it unacceptable for *certain* people to use those words. In a lot of cases the “reclaimed” word becomes even *more* hurtful when it is uttered. We could really “remove power from” by not using them. I know lots of people who have no idea what it means to be a harlot or a hussy because no one but grandma ever says it. One day our grandchildren could be equally unfamiliar with slut and ho.

    • *re-appropriation*

    • ^This. No one will forget the word, it will just make it a worse word when it’s used.

      • Queer. Queer. Ima say it again, queer. This word, to which I belong, has been widely re-approrpriated. It is used in colleges to discuss theory, it’s used by higher learning scholars for publications, it’s used in resistance and it’s used by us.

        Whore and puta. Words that have long been re-appropriated by sex workers the world over. You want to go tell sex workers how they get to define their lives? I don’t, because that’s oppressive.

        Cunt. A word re-appropriated or reclaimed back to place where it wasn’t insulting, to where it was full of some strength.

        Ya, and slut originally meant dirty, plain ol’ dirty like yo house is dirty. And gay meant happy. Words change. Stop sayin’ they don’t. Recognise how people use language as resistance. People create language and lay claim to language. You don’t have to join in but respect.

      • Anon Dick Johnson says:

        I actually completely disagree with this. Personally, I do not find the word slut offensive. Obviously it is intended to be offensive, but the concept of a slut is entirely contrary. To be a “slut” is liberating and a demonstration of a woman’s dissent for patriarchy. Which are qualities I think most feminists are already on board with.

        And the way I see it, if someone is looking at a word or concept that is intended to be offensive in a positive way, it becomes an entirely different thing altogether. When women stop being offended and stop letting that word consume them, it no longer remains as stigmatizing and heavy as it once was. Because let’s face it – the word is designed to “keep women in line”, and if women insist on being offended by it, the word is doing its designated job.

        I don’t think we should *ban* a word just because certain individuals insist on being offended by it. Some feminists, such as myself, are cool with it.

        And I certainly don’t think re-appropriating a word to make it less stigmatizing for oneself is making it worse when used. That doesn’t make any sense.

    • I agree with you, Jenn. Reappropriation seems to only work if one stays within a cocoon of like-minded people.

      I don’t think it is possible to delete words of this nature from the lexicon, though. As long as people have hateful sentiments towards others, they will find ways to express them. The most innocent of words can be changed into widely-recognized sexist or racist slurs within the space of a few decades.

  4. Same thing with female sex offenders, like child molesters, rapists, sex traffickers, pornographers, and sexual harassers. They get called a slut or a ho. In other words, it applies to sexually aggressive women too as well as philandering women.

  5. Sure, why not? If they are banned, then other words will have to be used when the left talks about Michelle Malkikn.

  6. Censorship… do we really want it to begin with us?

    Being offended is part of living in the real world, I think we should just be women about it; and by that, I mean that the word WOMAN [to me] has always been a term to describe one who is above this. Above petty slander, and whatnot.

    Oh, and I think calling this a “woman-hating society” is a far fetch. We may not be equal, but I think apporching our world with statements like that make us seem like man-haters; and I’m sorry, but I do not want to be seen as a sexist fighting sexists. It’s moronic.

  7. “Rush Limbaugh is a bigot, a misogynist and a homophobe. ”
    And those are his good points.

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