Slut. It’s a word that has fallen from so many tongues so many times that it barely registers anymore, whether used in casual conversation or spat to insult. It usually refers to women who enjoy sex unabashedly, have sex with more than one other person or have no reservations about going after someone they want. In “I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet,” Leora Tanenbaum (author of “Slut!: Growing Up Female With a Bad Reputation”) pieces together a theory about why this four-letter word has such a complicated, ugly existence — and why it needs to be permanently discontinued.
In the book, Tanenbaum explains how the word “slut” is used as a weapon against women ranging from preteens to college-aged women, and how it can never be reclaimed due to sexual double standard, only exacerbated by the exploitation of social media culture. The word has gained multiple meanings as young people have created an entire culture on the Internet, only understood fully by themselves. The hypersexualization of girls and women on social media is spilling over into real life, and vice versa, creating a vicious cycle. As girls and women are hypersexualized in movies and TV shows and advertising campaigns — and these unrealistic portrayals are seen as desirable — real girls and women often consciously or subconsciously try to emulate them. Tanenbaum says today that the word “slut” is not just used simply as an insult, but as a casual, ironic greeting or joke among friends, perhaps even worn as a badge of honor.
Tanenbaum strives to differentiate between women who own their sexual agency in a way that inspires envy and admiration and women who use it to inspire ridicule and disdain by using the terms “good sluts” and “bad sluts.” “Good sluts” are the women people love and “bad sluts” are the women people love to bash. “Good sluts” are sexy, “bad sluts” are sloppy. “Good sluts” post attractive pictures to social media that tease, “you can look, but you can’t touch,” and “bad sluts” post photographs that beg, “look, please, look.” Sluttiness, Tanenbaum observes, is as much about appearance and attitude as it is about sexual behavior or history.
Citing Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, Tanenbaum urges us to recognize how girls and women are encouraged to be sexual creatures, but whenever they take control of their sexuality, they run the risk of being labeled a “slut” — and not in the good way. When a woman acts in a way or with an attitude that feels too transparent, she’s “desperate.” Being sexy has to look effortless; if it looks like you put too much effort into it, it immediately becomes slutty. Her dichotomy of “good” and “bad” sluts, which she uses throughout the entire work, sounds clunky and unnatural, as no one actually thinks about it in those terms — but it’s an important distinction to explore and she scrutinizes it well.
While Tanenbaum’s approach in “I Am Not a Slut” is well-argued, it sometimes feels too academic and unrelatable. By making assumptions about all young women and dealing in absolutes, she’s ironically giving them less credit for understanding the world they themselves are living in, part of which she is only experiencing second-hand. There is nothing revolutionary about this work. The most important parts are the interviews she recounts with women of all backgrounds who have grown up in this hypersexualized, cyber-centric, still sexually unequal society. Sexy or slutty is a dangerous game to play, they say. Even if you win, you lose.
Tanenbaum’s “I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet” comes at a time when the sexual degradation of women is so ingrained in our society that we have top 40 songs with lyrics like “I know you want it, but you’re a good girl,” and it’s not uncommon to see rape threats on Twitter or Tinder. It comes at a time when male leaders of our government are still making blatantly erroneous statements about women’s reproductive health issues. It comes at a time when college campuses all over the country are protesting the widespread issue of sexual assault and mishandlings of rape cases. It comes at a time when young women are finding pictures and videos of their assaults blowing up on social media and are bullied to the point of suicide. We can’t reclaim the word slut; its history is too ugly, and our present isn’t nearly receptive enough to be able to accept it as a point of pride. This is Tanenbaum’s final point, and she drives it home in a way that leaves the reader absolutely positive she’s right.