“Slut”: A History and a Reckoning

by Anabel Johnson

Introduction

“Oh, what a slippery word is slut.

Over the course of six centuries, it has referred to men, women, dogs, and light fixtures. It has meant messy, amoral, and, in one instance at least, cute. It has been a noun, a verb, and an adjective… Has slut worn out its welcome?

—Malcom Jones

(2015, March 21)

There is a widespread belief that the word slut does not have a “kind” connotation. However, the life this word has lived has been a roller coaster racing between adverse and positive meanings. Etymologists state that because it is a slang term, “slut” is dependent upon the context in which it’s used. This can be very confusing, especially if one does not have a grasp on the word’s origins or historical uses. Most people still interpret it as a negative term referring to a woman’s sex life, but its meaning is constantly evolving. Today, among young adults, describing a close friend’s outfit as “slutty” may be a compliment. “Kind” uses of this word are rare, and seemingly ridiculous, but there is an entire history proving their existence. Here is the difficulty: even though the most prominent definitions for “slut” have negative connotations that have helped fuel the fire behind “slut-shaming,” there is a much broader spectrum of meaning folded into this word. So, then, is there a proper and accepted way to use this word?

The Definition We All Know: A Misogynist Judgment of Woman

“Slut: A woman of dirty, slovenly or untidy appearance or habits; a foul sattern.”

—First known definition of “Slut”, Oxford English Dictionary

(Online Etymology Dictionary, 2001-2016)

The very first known definition of this word, written in 1402, defines “slut” as a woman. This definition has been the foundation from which many negative interpretations stem. The idea of a “dirty” female slut has been hard to shake.

Fast forward to the middle of the 20th century. People have now associated the word slut with a woman who is not only “dirty” but who is sexually active with more than one man at the same time (Urban Dictionary, 2003). This modern and infamous meaning refers to one’s sex life— specifically, a woman’s sex life. Earlier definitions of the word did not mention sex or romantic choices, but now these personal aspects have become the crux upon which the word is used to criticize women’s actions.

“A peevish drunken flurt, a waspish choleric slut”

—Sir Thomas Burton (1651)

(Jones, 2015, March 21)

Above, Sir Thomas Burton criticizes a woman for her less than elegant way of living—but it is unclear whether he condemns her for sexual behavior or bad housekeeping. Along with Burton’s use of the word, etymologists have discovered that other 17th century uses of the word were to describe “a woman of loose character” or “a bold hussy” (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2001—2016). This use of the word strikes the greatest resemblance to what most people consider the contemporary definition of “slut.” Evidently, the 17th century was an era of offensive statements about women—one that has not quite ended.

In Samuel Johnson’s first dictionary, published in 1755, “slut” was defined as “a dirty woman.” He even included the fact that the word was “of slight contempt to a woman”—the first clear acknowledgment that being called a slut was an insult, meant to hurt and condemn a woman for her actions (Jones, 2015). This solidified the negativity surrounding the word—through the 18th century and to the present. A similarly written definition surfaced in 1966: “A woman who enjoys sex in a degree considered shamefully excessive” (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2001—2016). The only difference between this 20th century definition and Samuel Johnson’s is that it now specified how “slut” revolves around sexual activity—which is what the majority of the population relate the word to today. References to a woman’s dirty appearance evolved into moral judgments about a woman’s romantic and sexual encounters. In fact, it is thought that the negative sexual meaning behind the word could stem from previous cultures associating sex and pleasure with sin (Easton & Hardy, 2009, para. 56).

Fast forwarding to the 21st century, “slut” has become an allusion not only to a woman’s sex life but to any slightly suggestive action performed by a woman: flirting with too many men, kissing too many men, dating too many men (Armstrong, Hamilton, Armstrong & Seeley, 2014). It is very difficult for anyone today to understand the word in different, even positive, terms that have shed these adverse contexts. To meet this challenge, one must examine the full etymology of this multi-layered term.

The Definition We Must Reconsider: Man and A Man’s Best Friend

Most people do not know that Geoffrey Chaucer first introduced the idea of a slut into our lexicon by describing an untidy Lord as “sluttish” in the prologue for his book The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale in 1368 (Jones, 2015). In fact, throughout the late 14th century, “slut” was only used in reference to a dirty man. Chaucer referred to a man as a “slut” based solely on his untidy appearance, with no implication of his sexual activities. As the negative, promiscuous definition aimed at women gained prominence, the term once again included Donald D’Haene, a prominent writer for contemporary social problemsm points out that “slut” originally described men and is still used to describe men today. But there is something playful, even humorous, about calling a man a “slut”—a moment of banter that is gains hostility when directed at a woman.

Another unique use of the word slut is a “euphemism for bitch, to describe a female dog” (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2001—2016). Prominent writers of the mid 19th century, namely William Thackerey and Washington Irving, have been reported as referencing a female dog as a “slut” in their famous works (Jones, 2015). What the reader can take away is that the word truly is slang: there is more than one valid definition of the word based on the context in which it is used. And to make it more confusing, there are even more different and somewhat odd uses of the word to explore.

The Definition We Don’t Consider: A Term of Endearment

“My wife called up the people to washing by four o’clock in the morning; and our little girl Susan is a most admirable slut, and pleases us mightily, doing more service than both the others, and deserves wages better”

—Samuel Pepys, diary (1664)

(Online Etymology Dictionary, 2001—2016)

Above, Pepys, an English writer and diarist, uses the word “slut” rather playfully: a father calling his beloved daughter a “slut.” There is no hint of criticism or mention of slovenliness or sexual activity; instead, there is a note of admiration. Even so, it is unclear whether her father used the term “slut” because Susan was working as a prostitute or as a “kitchen maid” (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2001—2016). In any case, if someone’s father today called them a “slut” it would be a disturbing and uncomfortable situation; and this discomfort extends backwards as a contemporary reader attempts to digest Pepy’s diary entry. However, there are playful uses of the word today that are more readily accepted—one which I have witnessed many times myself.

The casual use of the word “slut” among young adults today upsets older generations because they believe these young people are using it thoughtlessly, as if the word has no history or consequences. But, to many college freshman girls, the overarching meaning of “slut” in a context of friendship is a playful term to describe the way a friend is dressed or acts with a boy or boyfriend (Personal Communication, 2016). One Boston College student, who preferred to remain anonymous, summed it up simply:

“If it’s said between friends often, then it kind of loses meaning and doesn’t matter.”

—Anonymous

(Personal Communication, Nov. 2016)  

It comes down to the fact that the use of the word “slut,” as long as it is used between friends, loses its negative connotation. Both the student quoted above and a friend, said they have called close friends “sluts” before, usually in reference to the way they were dressed before going out to a party. In this instance, the very first definition of “slut” comes back into play—a person with a “dirty” or informal appearance. Oddly enough, some see this type of appearance as something to strive for—looking “hot”—instead of something to condemn. Another BC student said that looking like a “slut” in modern times has suddenly become sexy, for reasons she could not fully explain or understand (Personal Communication, 2016).

Furthermore, some women have begun to embrace being a “slut”; in sexual terms, it can signify a comfort with sexuality and sex as a healthy and natural part of life. Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy, co-authors of The Ethical Slut, agree that being a “slut” means to be “curious and adventurous” rather than sinful, as it was once considered (2009). In fact, it is seen as a way to spread love between many people rather than being confined in monogamy. These women are working to change not only the meaning of “slut” (because to them, this identity is “liberating”), but the entire viewpoint on one having sex with multiple partners. However, their beliefs and efforts have failed to capture all women’s support or enough of the population’s attention. Negative connotations still rule over all other meanings and it is hard to say whether that will ever change.

The Cruel and Critical Twist We Must Fight Against: Slut-Shaming

“She has sex… Therefore she must be a slut.”

—Urban Dictionary (2003)

A recent definition of the word “slut” has surfaced on Urban Dictionary as “a woman with the morals of a man.” Clearly, this is an ironic definition that plays on gender stereotypes of both men and women. Women are judged for sleeping with too many men while men are congratulated for sleeping with many women. This definition marks a new evolution of “slut”: from the criticism of a person’s dirty appearance to the criticism of a woman’s sex life, it has become a criticism of gender norms without shedding at least the implication of a moral judgment. A more pessimistic interpretation is that this definition is not so ironic—that, instead, it is another misogynistic definition of a woman that defines women in terms of men.

In The Guardian, Jessica Valenti notes that the word “slut” has brought women “a lot more pain than social justice” despite recent attempts to reclaim the word. Valenti’s meditation on how reclamation fits into today’s Internet culture was, at least partially, in response to a prominent rape culture, in which rapists and even government officials imply (or explicitly state) that a woman who dresses like a “slut” is asking for it (2015). In fact, this phenomenon of criticizing a women for embracing their bodies and sexuality is known as “slut-shaming” and has become a prominent part of a young girl’s social life (Armstrong et al. 2014). The most horrifying thing about the contemporary slut-shaming culture is that no woman is safe from its pervasive grasp. In an interview with a young woman, years after she had graduated high school, she spoke about how she had been a virgin the first time she was called a “slut.” For all those years between, she held onto her anger that even “abstinence didn’t protect her from slut stigma” (107). The fact that women who are not even sexually active can be victims of slut-shaming is a huge driver of the word’s enduring negative definitions.

For young women today, one of the worst platforms for slut-shaming is the Internet. And for a heterosexual girl one of the most painful instances can be when a boy she knows condemns her as a “slut.” One Boston College freshman spoke of how she was painfully slut-shamed over social media after a party where she had kissed two boys, who were friends. One of those boys later referred to her as a “slut” who would not be invited to homecoming by him or any of his friends (Personal Communication, 2016). In many instances like this, slut-shaming becomes a devastating reality in which a word becomes a harmful, oppressive action taken against a woman. No girl should have to endure a reality in which her identity is decided by a man, who is often allowed to act “slutty” because of double standards that rule society.

A Reclamation: “Slut” as Inclusive or Exclusive

Must women remain helpless in this culture? Some feminists believed they could fight slut-shaming (and perhaps rape culture) by reclaiming the word as positive in a culture that has so harmfully overused it. Kristen Sollee’s article “5 Ways We’ve Reclaimed the Word ‘Slut’—For Better Or Worse” notes two instances in which the word “slut” was used derogatorily: in 2012, when Rush Limbaugh called any woman who uses birth control a “slut” and a police officer in Toronto recommending that women “avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized” (2015). You take birth control pills? Slut. You went on a date with two men this week? Slut. You are a virgin, but wear too much makeup? Slut. It was abused so often, in the most inappropriate of circumstances, that women decided it was about time to change something. A march for the “SlutWalk” movement was organized in 2011 in the city of Toronto marked the first major attempt to reverse the meaning of the word. This movement stemmed from victims of rape being blamed for dressing, looking, and acting like “sluts” (Valentini, 2015). Furthermore, the march was meant to “raise awareness about rape culture,” educating the public about what slut-shaming has done to create such an unjust society (Sollee, 2015). But, there was too long a history of belittling women to overcome the word’s abusive power, too many contradictory goals within the movement, and too many people left out—it has largely been considered a failure.

Unfortunately, according to an anonymous interview with a young Latina woman regarding the word and its meaning to her, “sluttiness is viewed as primarily white” (Armstrong et al. 117). The feminists’ attempts to reclaim the word with a more positive association to a strong and independent woman failed after being criticized as “an act of white privilege” that excluded minorities and the LGBT community (Valentini, 2015). This criticism rings true: “slut” is mostly used in terms of a straight woman interacting with many straight men, even in this essay, and the movement was largely comprised of white women, as seen in images from the march. Perhaps if the movement had been more inclusive, it may have been more successful in its attempt at reclamation. However, although the movement was not as successful as many hoped, the hope that one day this word will be associated with a strong, beautiful, confident female with the liberty to embrace her sexuality has not been given up.

Conclusion

The word “slut,” because it is considered slang, “…is a tricky business for etymologists [to accurately interpret], because of the variance between what is written down and what is spoken” (Jones, 2015). In other words, new interpretations are constantly being created, in new, dynamic contexts and definitions. It is crucial, then, to only use the word “slut,” if it must be used, when the subtext is understood between the speaker and the person being described. If there is not a clear recognition of intent, the word reverts back to its use as an insult predating the seventeenth century. It is time to free female identity from the vestiges of patriarchy and misogyny, don’t you think?

Works Cited

Armstrong, Elizabeth A., Hamilton, Laura T., Armstrong, Elizabeth M., & Seeley, J. Lotus. “Good Girls: Gender, Social Class, and Slut Discourse on Campus.” Social Psychology Quarterly, vol. 77, no. 2, 2014, pp. 100- 122. Web. Accessed 27 Nov. 2016.

D’Haene, Donald. “An Informal History of the Word ‘Slut.’” The Huffington Post, 16 Aug. 2012. Web. Accessed 27 November 2016.

Easton, Dossie, and Hardy, Janet W. The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures. Celestial Arts, 2009. Print.

Jones, Malcolm. “The Surprising Roots of the Word ‘Slut.’” The Daily Beast, 21 March 2015. Web. Accessed 27 November 2016.

“Slut (n.).” Online Etymology Dictionary, 2001—2016. Web. Retrieved 27 November 2016.

“Slut – Top Definition.” Urban Dictionary, 11 May 2013. Web. Accessed 27 November 2016,.

Sollee, Kristin. “5 Ways We’ve Reclaimed the Word ‘Slut’— For Better Or Worse.” Bustle, 23 January 2015. Accessed 27 November 2016.

Valenti, Jessica. “Will the Awful Power of the Word ‘slut’ defeat feminists’ efforts to reclaim it?” The Guardian, 20 January 2015. Web. Accessed 27 November 2016.