Could the term ‘slut-shaming’ be more harmful than helpful?

While it’s more widely-used than ever, the phrase is far from perfect.

By Bianca Pencz
[culture editor]

It’s rare that feminist buzzwords make it as far into the mainstream as the term “slut-shaming” has. However, what happens now that some feminists have said they don’t think the term should exist in the first place?

Currently, Googling the term gets you almost 800,000 hits. A more specific search like, say, “Miley Cyrus” and “slut-shaming” will still get you 115,000 hits, and everyone from progressive news outlets to Christian webzines have used the term in their headlines.

But for all the people using it, can anyone explain exactly what it means?

In a Huffington Post article titled “Slut-Shaming and Rape Culture,” the term is described as “shaming or ridiculing girls” for being supposedly promiscuous, for being loud rather than quiet, dynamic rather than submissive, or independent rather than dependent on men, and for wearing, well, virtually anything other than a Victorian dress and bloomers.

Feminists come in all shapes and sizes and they don’t always agree with each other. (Bianca Pencz/The Runner)

If reading through the above explanation gave you a sense of déjà vu, you might already know why the term is being criticized.

In her article for Feminist Current, “It’s not ‘slut-shaming,’ it’s woman hating,” Meghan Murphy pleads with her readers to ditch the “confusing” term because the word “misogyny” is in the dictionary already.

“This whole ‘slut-pride’ thing and terms like ‘slut-shaming’ reinforce the very dichotomies feminism works to destroy,” Murphy writes. “Like sex, don’t like sex, whatever. You aren’t a ‘slut’ either way. You’re a woman.”

Kari Michaels, co-founder of Women Organizing Opportunities for Women (WOOW), agrees that the term’s attempt at “slut” reclamation could be more trouble than it’s worth. She also doesn’t see a difference between what media have coined “slut-shaming” and plain old misogyny.

“Part of that stems from the implicit attachment to gender that slut-shaming has,” she says. “You’re automatically targeting a woman. You’re talking about female sexuality and appropriate behaviour for women.”

Michaels admits she uses the phrase occasionally, because it’s been so popularly embraced, but says that something like “sex-shaming” could easily replace it.

“The problem with the word ‘slut’ is that there’s no actual definition; everyone has their own idea. It can mean sexual activity and lack of sexual activity,” she says. “At the end of the day, what are you perpetuating? You’re perpetuating a word that means hating a woman, and why would we want to do that?”

Michaels also brings up the fact that certain groups are more comfortable with the idea of reclaiming the slur than others. Women of colour, specifically black women and Latina women, have a very different history with the word than white women do.

A lack of sensitivity towards that is partly why “Slutwalk,” an anti-slut-shaming protest march that has taken place in many different parts of the world, has been accused of indifference in the face of concerns over the slur in its name, because many of those concerns come from women of colour.

Yet more people have expressed distaste for the term “slut-shaming” because it is often used in reference to underage girls or victims of sexual assault.

In a post on the social blogging website Tumblr, a user called Kstipetic linked to an article in which the reporter referred to the community-wide bullying and harassment of a 14-year-old rape victim as “slut-shaming.”

“Here is a wonderful example of how pointlessly hurtful this phrase can be,” the user writes. “The phrase implies that the victim is being ‘shamed’ for being a ‘slut.’ The reporter is implicitly calling the victim a slut.”

“So please, just stop it with this phrase. If you want to reclaim an insult for yourself, fine, but it’s not possible to reclaim an insult on another person’s behalf.”

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