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.

About

Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of the forthcoming When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination.